What would your perfect school or classroom look like? What are some of the age-old practices that you would revise or do away with? I am struck by the fact that despite overwhelming research that the elimination of certain practices would benefit students, we continue on with these "traditional" approaches. Maybe it's just easier to maintain the status quo rather than spend the time and energy discussing changes to the way we have always done things. The main question for me is what do we have to lose? Or even better, what could we gain?
The first topic I would like to look at is homework. With close to 20 years of data telling us that there are no academic benefits to giving elementary students homework, there is no groundbreaking information here. A few articles over the last weeks have brought this topic back up in many school communities.
One of the pieces, Homework is wrecking our kids: The research is clear, let's ban elementary homework by Heather Shumaker, first appeared in Salon earlier in March. The article references the efforts of Duke University Researcher Harris Cooper to go back through over 100 studies on the impact of homework that were conducted from the late 1980's until 2006.
While the results of the research showed no impact on academic performance at the elementary level, the studies did find one area that homework impacted students in a significant way. Unfortunately this is a reference to the negative impact that homework had on the attitude of students toward school. Shumaker offers clear direction to school communities as to where we should focus our attention to best support the growth of the whole child.
"Non-academic priorities (good sleep, family relationships and active playtime) are vital for balance and well-being. They also directly impact a child's memory, focus, behavior and learning potential. Elementary lessons are reinforced every day in school. After-school time is precious for the rest of the child."
A School That Stopped Giving Homework
If you are looking for a concrete example of a school that has taken on the challenge of eliminating useless homework, look no further than the Cambridgeport School in Cambridge, MA. The efforts of Cambridgeport Principal Katie Charner-Laird were outlined on the Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog in a post titled Principal: What happened when my school ended useless homework. After a review of Alfie Kohn's The Homework Myth, Charnier-Ladd and her staff decided that they would step away from the old way of doing things and stop assigning nightly homework. Amazingly enough, meaningful learning outside of school increased in ways that many would not have imagined.
"I heard repeatedly from students, teachers, and parents about the significant, meaningful work they are doing at home. A fourth grader begged to take home his writing notebook on the third day of school so he could keep working on the story he had started in class. A class of fifth graders requested additional practice problems to take home with them. A father-daughter pair showed me the model they created of the setting of the book they were reading together...Our school may be giving less homework but we have more students engaged in more meaningful learning activities at home than ever before."
Like Charnier-Ladd's school, many of the schools that do away with traditional homework shift the focus to nightly reading for pleasure. While I know nightly reading for elementary students is not a new concept, I was struck by CNN segment last month that touched upon the impact that nightly reading had upon the brains of students. This is your child's brain on reading discussed the following:
"The researchers saw that, when the young children were being told a story, a number of regions in the left part of the brain became active. These are the areas involved in understanding the meaning of words and concepts and also in memory."
I am hoping that CNN (or someone) will do a follow up segment and call it This is your child's brain on homework. But seriously, if we cannot come to an agreement as an entire school or community on reducing homework, why can't we just have some classrooms pilot this practice? Let's try it for a year and see if students who do not get traditional homework suffer academically when compared to their grade-level peers who do get nightly homework. At the same time, let's be sure to document the types of learning/activities the students without traditional homework are doing outside of school. Really, what have we got to lose? More importantly, what will More importantly, what will we gain?!