Homework in the 21st century

    When I was in elementary school, I would come home worn-out from a drawn-out day of rigorous work. Second grade was not easy. You may be thinking: How could reading Captain Underpants drain the energy out of an energetic and enthusiastic youngster? Well, school would last from 9:20 a.m to 3:15 p.m., and I would typically be lucky to go straight home with the fair amount of after-school activities that I took part in. As vibrant as young boys tend to be, I only had so much stamina.

    Unfortunately, there was never a fine line between reinforcement and flat-out excessive amounts of homework. That certainly has not changed.

    According to independent scholar Alfie Kohn, homework at the elementary level fails to be beneficial even if one regards standardized testing as a useful measure. In fact, his studies also show that even at the high school level there is a minimal correlation between grades and homework.

    Does this mean that teachers should stop giving homework? No. But it should encourage a new style of homework, beyond the current form that emphasizes rote rehearsal skills. The 21st century homework model should entail activities that encourage students to explore their interests. This model would still encourage students to develop time management skills.

    Self-initiative would be emphasized by this new practice, which more closely resembles a real-world workplace atmosphere. This would more effectively prepare students for higher education and for future employment. Balancing between personal pursuits, review of class material, and family time is comparable to the everyday life of a member of the American workforce.  

    These values are not foreign to education. In fact, they are practiced by one of my former teachers. One of the most challenging yet rewarding classes I have taken was built upon Douglas McGregor’s Y Management Theory. The theory employs the belief that people are innately self-motivated and have self-control. If a student lacked intrinsic motivation, that would soon change. Homework was assigned, but not rewarded on a numerical basis. My classmates were driven by the knowledge that by completing their assignments they were becoming stronger students.  Success derived from ambition and creativity that enabled us to reach and exceed the requirements of the class. We worked hard, but not because we had to: we wanted to.  Entire schools are even taking an innovative approach.

    The Beacon School a public school and St. Anne’s a private school, both in New York City, provide unique examples of teaching philosophies that cater to the 21st Century student. The Beacon School has a portfolio-based system that heavily emphasizes a student’s ability to write. Students receive a letter grade on a per-quarter basis, but prior to graduation they individually present a portfolio of work to a panel that is similar to the presentation of a dissertation. In an ideal world, this system would morph with that of St. Anne’s. Students would receive evaluations of their progress on a per-quarter basis and would only receive a numerical grade based on the final product. This allows students to develop time management skills. Deadlines will still be set in place, but rather than students being punished numerically for their failure to meet these deadlines, they will be encouraged to enhance the quality of their work independently. This system would value hard work while recognizing an individual’s need to relax and refresh.

    The Center of American Progress has labeled America as the most overworked developed nation in the world.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average man worked 8.2 hours per day and the average woman worked 7.8 hours per day in 2010. Moreover, the average high school student works between 7.2 to 8.2 hours per school day, which includes involvement in various activities. This stat is notably negatively skewed by the abundance of underprivileged school districts in our country. In the case of the students above the mean, they have ventured into unhealthy territory. With the average high school student working just as hard for just as many, if not more, hours than the average American in the labor force, we have a pressing problem on our hands.

    Eliminating homework, in its entirety, may be extreme, but reforming the current practice is not only reasonable: it is imperative.

    We absorb more information on a daily basis than any previous generation. For the developing mind, a second shift of schoolwork can ultimately be detrimental to our physical and intellectual growth.

    To be afforded the opportunity to come home, relax, and refresh would prove to be exponentially more valuable than three and a half hours of homework (at least) per night. In return, students will come to class eager to learn and wide awake—for a change.

    In college the workload increases, in graduate school it soars, and by the time we enter the work force, we will already be burnt out. How is any of this beneficial to America’s growth and development?

    Following a nationwide trend, this holiday season, I encourage all teachers to experiment with their homework practices. Let’s go a week without homework. Students, take advantage of this time. Find a job, an internship, work on a personal project or experiment, take a trip to a museum, and read a few books of interest. Above all, unwind and de-stress. The opportunity does not come often.


Zak Malamed

RTN Student Leadership Board Co-Leader