Homework – enough is enough

Some good news from the front line in the battle against academic overload. The Toronto School Board has voted to roll back the homework juggernaut. In Canada’s largest city, children will no longer be assigned work over Christmas, Spring Break and other important holidays. Kindergarten pupils will not face any more take-home assignments apart from reading or chatting to parents. Up to Grade 2, homework will largely consist of playing games and family activities such as baking. There are also strict limits in the later years. Kids in Grade 7 and 8 will get no more than one hour a day across all subjects, high-schoolers a maximum of two. The Toronto School Board’s aim is to shift the emphasis from quantity to quality. As well as cutting the hours, that means making sure homework assignments are clear, purposeful and engaging rather than just box-ticking busy-work.

There is much to applaud here. In schools around the world, homework has become a millstone slung around the neck of teachers, pupils and parents. Yet research shows that it is of limited value up to the age of 11. Even for older children homework is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Some experts think is should be abolished altogether. If it is to have any hope of being useful, homework must be assigned in reasonable amounts to avoid crowding out time for rest, play, and socializing. It also needs a clear purpose beyond keeping kids busy. More and more books are making this point. One of the most compelling isThe Case Against Homework, by Sara Bennett, who writes a splendid blog that has become a lightning rod in this debate. I also devote a chapter to homework in Under Pressure.

Much of that chapter explores how schools across the world are taking steps to free children from the tyranny of too much of the wrong kind of homework and finding that they learn better as a result. The bold change of heart in Toronto is just part of a larger trend that includes a recent decision by the Education Board of Shanghai, China to abolish homework for all first and second graders.

Of course, beyond the academic reasons for keeping homework on a tight rein lies the deeper question of what childhood is for. If we want it to be a time of play, freedom, and wonder, then piling on the homework is not the way to go about it. What are your happiest memories of childhood? I’ll bet they don’t involve slogging through pages of fractions and spelling lists. Mine are of long afternoons playing road hockey with friends in our driveway, and leaving the garage doors covered in a permanent Jackson Pollock of tennis-ball marks. Or war games in the backyard with elastic-band guns made from scraps of wood and bent coat hangers. Or playing Maze Craze, a battle game that we invented using Lego and marbles. Many of the boys with whom I shared those afternoons are still friends today. None of us can remember a single homework assignment.