‘I banned my kids from doing homework. This is the letter I send school each year.’

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A few years ago, I wrote the below homework letter to my children’s teachers. I’ve used it every year since for all of my children in primary school until they finally stopped giving it.

My position on the matter and the letter itself has changed over the years, which is why I’ve updated my homework letter (you can find the original post here). You can read more about this at the end of the letter.

* * *

At the start of the school year, parents are typically invited into their children’s classrooms for a conversation with the teacher. Homework is invariably one of the hot topics to be discussed at every grade level – and most parents not only assume that homework will be part of their child’s education, they demand it.

But let’s face it. Most kids hate it. They would almost all prefer to do something – anything – other than homework. You’ll be hard-pressed trying to find parents who enjoy it (though most endorse it), and there are very few teachers who are fond of the extra work associated with homework. In fact, many schools are rethinking homework entirely in Primary School, with some principals banning it altogether. (Our children’s school is one of those who has banned it.)

Coulson with his wife and six daughters. Source: provided.

Surprising to many parents (and teachers) is the growing body of evidence that indicates that homework for primary school-aged children is not helpful and may actually have a negative impact on their learning outcomes. As a result, until my children’s school banned homework, I actually banned my children from doing homework before high school.

Do I think homework is the devil? Of course not. But if it’s not making a helpful difference for most kids in primary school (on average), why put them through it when they can be doing so many other things? (And why put ourselves through it too?)

The Homework Letter I Send To School Each Year

Dear Teacher

We are delighted to have our child in your classroom. She seems to be extremely happy with her class and is thrilled to have you as her teacher. Our child is a diligent and conscientious student with an amazing attitude. We trust that you are enjoying having her in your class, and that she is making a great contribution.

We are writing to share with you a (hopefully minor) conflict our family has with school policy. The issue is homework.  As you will probably see, we have put a lot of effort into this letter, and we hope that you will take it seriously, and also recognise that we wish to make things better for all parties, and not more challenging.  We also recognise and appreciate that you are a teacher who has our child’s best interests at heart, and hope that this will be the first of many constructive conversations we have around her learning this year.

 

Barring two exceptions which we’ll mention in a moment, we do not encourage homework in our home. The reasons for this are as follows:

1. Scientific: For young children (under around age 14-15 years) there is no scientific research which supports the inclusion of homework in their after-school activities.

Indeed, even researchers who advocate that homework can be a good thing concede that in the primary school years, it’s impact is negligible. (See this balanced pro-homework article for the admission.) In many studies the relationship between homework and “learning” (often defined as grades or standardised test scores) is negative.

2. Homework may add to your workload.

We have sat through many parent/teacher meetings and heard teachers speak of scheduling challenges you face in terms of dealing with coordinating homework, marking homework, giving homework feedback, and so on.

3. Homework creates stress for our children.

It might be tough for teachers, but I believe it’s even tougher for children, even when only in small amounts. And research has demonstrated that it “overwhelms struggling kids and removes joy for high achievers.” Some researchers have found a direct relationship between time spent on homework and levels of anxiety, depression, anger, and other mood disorders and issues. I want my kids to be happy and balanced, not depressed and anxious.

4. Homework creates an extra burden on us as parents.

With six children, a business, and myriad other priorities, this is one thing we believe is dispensable.

5. Homework creates family conflict.

6. Homework diminishes the time our children have for other activities.

With 6 children, you can imagine that homework has the potential to occupy a significant component of our afternoons. We have our children involved in music lessons, sports, church activities, and more. Additionally, the children enjoy being children, by swimming in the pool, playing with friends, having free reading time, going shopping, contributing in our home with chores and cooking, and so on.

7. Homework is generally not inspiring.

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8. Lack of evidence.

There is no evidence to support the belief that homework helps students develop the characteristics it is often suggested will be useful, such as ability to organise time, develop good work habits, think independently, and so on. It doesn’t seem to prepare them for “later” either. They can usually adapt pretty well when they turn 14 or 15 without having 8 years of practice under their belt before it all starts. Our three oldest children bear testament to that.

Our position on homework can essentially be summarised by the following quote from a respected US professor of education:

“Most of what homework is doing is driving kids away from learning.”

We mentioned two exceptions to our homework rule and these are the following;

1. Reading.

We strongly encourage reading in our home. The children are encouraged to read every single day after school and before bed. However we strongly discourage placing minimum time limits on the reading or dictating the number of pages to be read. We’ve found that time limits leave children watching the clock more than the words on the page. Minimum page quotas lead them to the easiest books with the fewest words. This removal of autonomy turns reading into a chore, rather than a pleasure. When we simply remind the kids that reading time needs to happen, they immerse themselves in books and often only resurface after our pleas to come to the dinner table reach a crescendo! (Often we get them in trouble for reading too much!)

We have seen that the best way to make students hate reading is to make them prove to us or others that they have read. On a related note, we discourage the use of rewards for behaviour – such as stars, goodies, etc. However, we DO let the children know that when they have completed a book we will gladly buy them another one immediately. This, they find, is highly motivating.

Mamamia Out Loud discuss what should be taught at school and what should be taught at home. Post continues...

2. Projects.

Our other form of “acceptable” homework is related to projects from school that interest the children. We actively encourage research, projects, and especially writing speeches and stories. This helps the children in information gathering, critical thinking, logical formatting of content, and presentation skills. Plus it gets them actively “discovering” in their learning, and sinks much deeper than much other “busy” work.

The reality is, despite our feelings about homework, our children seem willing to complete it without our ever asking. However, we want you to be aware that we will not be actively encouraging homework unless it falls into the two categories described above. And this we do regularly anyway, whether you assign it or not. This is in no way meant to undermine you or make your job more difficult. In fact, we believe that it will make things easier for everyone and assist in the well-rounded positive developmental outcomes for our children.

Thanks so much for reading this. We hope that you can be understanding of our position, and are happy to discuss this with you if you have any concerns.

* * *

Now, a confession.

I wrote the original homework letter in about 2007. I have updated it here for you, but I need to acknowledge a couple of things:

First, my position on homework has softened marginally. Why? Well, I’ve seen some kids who were struggling at school. But with patient help from parents or tutors, their homework has helped them excel (or at least catch up.)

Second, some kids just love doing homework. I’m not about to suggest that they should stop.

Dr Justin Coulson. Source: provided.

Third, a careful look at the research shows that while homework makes no difference – and can be negative – for the average child, your child may not be average. This means that in some cases, homework may be helpful. I say this tentatively though, because any differences are likely to be small and they can often come at great cost.

So all in all, if your kids are doing ok in primary school, they don’t need it. If they want to do it, that’s up to you. If they don’t, it would seem they don’t need it. If your kids are struggling, talk with your teacher. Consider your individual circumstances. And listen to your child.

You can find Coulson's original homework letter here. More information and references that support this position (as well as some that counter it) from the Victorian Government’s recent parliamentary inquiry into homework and its harms for primary school learning and achievement can be found here

This post originally appeared on Dr Justin Coulson's website, Happy Families. Dr Coulson is the author of the bestselling book 9 Ways to a Resilient Child.

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