On Tuesday, a Facebook post about a second grade teacher (yes, she was from Texas) who said research didn’t support her giving homework went viral. All over the country, parents and others began the cry: “Down with homework!” On Twitter Friday night the #ditchhw thread lit up with opposing teacher factions. Many claimed that homework was indeed, useless. Alice Keeler @alicekeeler wrote that she “Tried to find research that said Homework prepares kids for college… couldn’t find it. #ditchhw”
Others, like Kelly Gallegher @KellyToGo said “Homework is not the problem. Stupid homework is the problem.” I asked my husband, a Latin teacher, what he thought was up with this idea of giving up on homework.
“People want someone with a connection to God, or Harvard to tell them what to do,” he replied. “What they want is for someone to tell them that they don’t have to assign homework, or that they must assign huge homework assignments every night.” His response was quite cynical but I wasn’t sure he was completely wrong. Particularly interesting because he teaches using the spoken method, and homework assignments from his class are minimal.
This reminded him of the famous Victorian-era classical scholar, A.E. Houseman. Houseman was a textual critic. He spent much of his time, when not teaching at Cambridge or writing his cannonized lyric poems, editing ancient texts. Houseman was constantly out of patience with his fellow textual critics who would simply use the oldest reading of a given manuscript instead of trying out the merits of the different readings.
“You have to assess each variant reading on its own merits!” he would reportedly say with exasperation. As a result of his rigorous attitude, his editions of Juvenal, Lucan and Manilius are still used today. The same thinking can apply to the homework question. Whether homework is worthwhile depends on the subject and what the homework is.
In primary grades, a brief homework assignment allows students to practice skills independently and the parent to observe the progress and support the work. And it sets in place a willingness and an expectation for when “real” homework shows up in high school. Yes, I assign homework.
“Homework is useless?” or “Homework is a panacea?” Neither. As Houseman taught, you have to sit down and look at every individual instance on an individual basis.