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Write Down Your Homework Is To Listen

In the blink of a few thousand likes and shares, Texas teacher Brandy Young's homework policy gained the viral notoriety normally reserved for tip-shaming.

Earlier this month, Young informed parents of her Godley Elementary second-graders of her policy for the year: no homework.

"After much research this summer, I am trying something new," read a note. "I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your children to bed early."

A parent of one of her students posted the note to Facebook with the comment: "Brooke is loving her new teacher already!"

Novelty aside, Young's note echoes recent decisions by schools on their homework policies.

In Maryland, Baltimore County schools removed homework and conduct from its criteria for overall grades.

"Homework assignments provide students with an additional opportunity to practice, deepen their understanding, and/or increase progress toward meeting standards and expectations. ... [T]he results from homework should be used to provide feedback, and the scores should be entered as a nongraded assignment ..." reads a report published by the school district.

And Homedale Elementary in southwest Idaho went a step further, instituting a schoolwide ban, reports KTVB.

"When the kids go home I want them to play, and create and use their imaginations and spend time with family," said Principal Terri Vasquez to the station.

Parents at the school expressed relief at the policy, KTVB goes on to report, with one parent telling the station her oldest son had up to an hour of homework every night while in first grade.

"We're in tons of extracurricular activities so it was a constant locking of horns as soon as he got home: 'Hurry up, do your homework, eat your dinner, you know?' " said Tarah Uranga.

National Education Association standards suggest limiting the after-class workload to 10-20 minutes a night for first-graders, and adding 10 minutes for each grade after that. As NPR's Cory Turner reported last year, those standards are mostly adhered to:

"The best answer comes from something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP. In 2012, students in three different age groups — 9, 13 and 17 — were asked, 'How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?' The vast majority of 9-year-olds (79 percent) and 13-year-olds (65 percent) and still a majority of 17-year-olds (53 percent) all reported doing an hour or less of homework the day before.

"Another study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that high school students who reported doing homework outside of school did, on average, about seven hours a week. ...

"In that 2012 NAEP survey, 13 percent of 17-year-olds reported doing more than two hours of homework the previous night. That's not a lot of students, but they're clearly doing a lot of work."

Cory adds: "The fact is, some students do have a ton of homework. In high school we see a kind of student divergence — between those who choose or find themselves tracked into less-rigorous coursework and those who enroll in honors classes or multiple Advanced Placement courses."

Like all teachers, I’ve spent many hours correcting homework. Yet there’s a debate over whether we should be setting it at all.

I teach both primary and secondary, and regularly find myself drawn into the argument on the reasoning behind it – parents, and sometimes colleagues, question its validity. Parent-teacher interviews can become consumed by how much trouble students have completing assignments. All of which has led me to question the neuroscience behind setting homework. Is it worth it?

'My son works until midnight': parents around the world on homework

Increasingly, there’s a divide between those who support the need for homework and those who suggest the time would be better spent with family and developing relationships. The anxiety related to homework is frequently reviewed.

A survey of high-performing high schools by the Stanford Graduate School of Education, for example, found that 56% of students considered homework a primary source of stress. These same students reported that the demands of homework caused sleep deprivation and other health problems, as well as less time for friends, family and extracurricular pursuits.

Working memory?

When students learn in the classroom, they are using their short-term or working memory. This information is continually updated during the class. On leaving the classroom, the information in the working memory is replaced by the topic in the next class.

Adults experience a similar reaction when they walk into a new room and forget why they are there. The new set of sensory information – lighting, odours, temperature – enters their working memory and any pre-existing information is displaced. It’s only when the person returns to the same environment that they remember the key information.

But education is about more than memorising facts. Students need to access the information in ways that are relevant to their world, and to transfer knowledge to new situations.

Many of us will have struggled to remember someone’s name when we meet them in an unexpected environment (a workmate at the gym, maybe), and we are more likely to remember them again once we’ve seen them multiple times in different places. Similarly, students must practise their skills in different environments.

Revising the key skills learned in the classroom during homework increases the likelihood of a student remembering and being able to use those skills in a variety of situations in the future, contributing to their overall education.

The link between homework and educational achievement is supported by research: a meta-analysis of studies between 1987 and 2003 found that: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”

The right type of work

The homework debate is often split along the lines of primary school compared with secondary school. Education researcher Professor John Hattie, who has ranked various influences on student learning and achievement, found that homework in primary schools has a negligible effect (most homework set has little to no impact on a student’s overall learning). However, it makes a bigger difference in secondary schools.

His explanation is that students in secondary schools are often given tasks that reinforce key skills learned in the classroom that day, whereas primary students may be asked to complete separate assignments. “The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is reinforce something you’ve already learned,” he told the BBC in 2014.

The science of homework: tips to engage students' brains

So homework can be effective when it’s the right type of homework. In my own practice, the primary students I teach will often be asked to find real-life examples of the concept taught instead of traditional homework tasks, while homework for secondary students consolidates the key concepts covered in the classroom. For secondary in particular, I find a general set of rules useful:

  • Set work that’s relevant. This includes elaborating on information addressed in the class or opportunities for students to explore the key concept in areas of their own interest.

  • Make sure students can complete the homework. Pitch it to a student’s age and skills – anxiety will only limit their cognitive abilities in that topic. A high chance of success will increase the reward stimulation in the brain.

  • Get parents involved, without the homework being a point of conflict with students. Make it a sharing of information, rather than a battle.

  • Check the homework with the students afterwards. This offers a chance to review the key concepts and allow the working memory to become part of the long-term memory.

While there is no data on the effectiveness of homework in different subjects, these general rules could be applied equally to languages, mathematics or humanities. And by setting the right type of homework, you’ll help to reinforce key concepts in a new environment, allowing the information you teach to be used in a variety of contexts in the future.

Helen Silvester is a writer for npj Science of Learning Community

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