Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

15 March 2011

On Homework

Clark @ 6:01 AM

In the ‘getting it off my chest’ department:

I gave a talk to a national society last week on the future of learning.  An off-hand comment on ‘homework’ got more interest than I expected.  My point was that there are limits to reactivation.  However, given the battles I know so many are having with schools on homework, and we too, some thoughts.

The underlying mechanism, roughly, for learning is associations between related neurons (and, at a bigger scale into patterns). However, our brains saturate in their ability to associate new information.  Some activation a day is about all a brain can take.  Re-activating is key, over time.  That is, the next day, and the next.  And, of course, the feedback should come quickly after the effort (not the next day).  And, let’s be real: some kids need more practice than others.  Why aren’t we adapting it?  And are we really rewarding achievement?  In elementary school, my first-born noticed that by being smart, he got more work than the other kids with the ‘stretch’ assignments, and wondered why being smart was punished!

So, in theory, a light bit of homework on a topic that was first visited in prior days might make sense. So you see it on Monday in class, say, and then visit it again in homework.  Note that reactivating it in class the next day in a slightly more complex problem is better.  And, as, John Taylor Gatto has hypothesized, everything we need to learn in K6 really ought to take only 100 hours to learn, if the kids are motivated.  With the feedback coming the next day, it will also be harder for the learner to be able to make the connection. This post I found while verifying the 100 hour claim is fascinating on the amount of time really necessary.

However, that’s not what we see.   I’ve seen my kids complaining about trying to solve more of the same problems they saw in school that day.  That’s not going to help. And it’s too much.  If every teacher wants to get an hour out of them, they’d be overloaded with homework.  This is middleschool, but the same problem manifests in K6, and I’m only dreading what comes next.

And then we get the ‘coloring’ assignments.  I’m sure the argument is something along the lines of ‘by seeing the information represented as they color, they’ll remember it’.  Sorry, no.  If they’re not applying the information, or extrapolating from it, or personalizing it, processing it, it’s not going to lead to anything but prettier classrooms for open house. I’m sorry, but don’t spoil my child’s youth to pretty up your room.  And it’s very clear that, at least in our school, largely the mothers are doing it.

And then there is the weekend homework.  I’m sorry, but I do believe kids are entitled to a life, or at least most of one. Why have work hanging over them on the weekend?  Now, if you give them long term projects and it replaces some homework, and they decide to put it off ’til the weekend, well, I suppose that’s ok, because I think interesting overarching projects are valuable (and bring in important meta-skills).  So then there’s the homework assigned on Friday that’s due on Tuesday, so supposedly you can get it done on Monday so it’s not really homework, but who do you think you’re fooling?

So, my first-born got hammered with homework the first year of middle school.  Worse, it was idiosyncratic; so it was luck of the draw whether your kid got a teacher who assigned lots of homework.  My school admitted that while the math teachers were pretty much in synch, the science department had great variability, and didn’t explicitly admit that they can’t do anything about it (*cough* tenure *cough*).  This had been going on, but now my better half had me behind her as she rallied the other mom’s into a persistent force against what was happening.  There’s now a homework policy, which still gets violated (oh, this is a honors class at highschool level, so we have to assign weekend homework).  Nope, sorry, don’t buy it.

My second has not been hammered by the first year of homework (luck of the draw, the science teacher who doesn’t believe in homework), and hasn’t had her love of schooling squelched.  The first, however, has had to have serious support by us to not turn off completely.  I really believe that the middle school (a good one) has a belief that the only way to deal with all these coddled elementary school students is to hammer them the first year. Frankly, I’m not convinced that most kids are ready for middle school in 6th grade.  But I’m getting away from my point and getting personal…

Some reactivation, within limits of the overall load can’t keep kids tied to desks hours after school’s out, can be understandable, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s not really that necessary. If we tap into motivation, we can accelerate learning and get more utility out of school.  Doing the same problems at night, overloading from too many classes, and weekend homework don’t really provide enough advantage to justify such assignments.

I’m not sure whether they’re teaching the principles of homework to teaching students, and whether there’s any education of existing teachers from whatever path, but we’ve got to get it right. If Finland can get by minimal homework, I reckon we can too.


  1. Wow.

    I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that D is in middle school. *boggle*.

    But then I got a giggle out of the mental image of you at parent-teacher night. Its one thing when the parents come to you with a complaint about too much homework, and another again when said parent can quote an entire body of scientific research showing why (some portion of) said homework is ineffective and counter-productive…

    Good luck!

    Comment by Rob Moser — 15 March 2011 @ 8:58 AM

  2. Hi Clark,

    I definitely agree with you that homework is getting out of control. As a prospective math teacher, however, I do see the value in some homework. There are certain things that students need to simply memorize and practice is the best way to do that. An hour a night however is a bit ridiculous. I think that 20 minutes a night is a reasonable expectation for students. I am a huge fan of projects though and I will substitute them for traditional homework whenever possible. I believe projects are able to develop a much deeper understanding of material and are usually more fun than traditional homework. Hopefully this will tap into that motivation factor that you mentioned.

    I love that you brought up the Finnish system. The more I read about their education system, the bigger fan I become. Here is a great article I found that summarizes their success.


    Comment by Greg Fach — 15 March 2011 @ 3:16 PM

  3. Well, I am on the other side of middle school (both my kids are in High School and my son takes some of his classes at the local community college). One of the major problems has to do with the scheduling. Once my kids schools went to block scheduling (my daughter goes to a different school than my son), there was less homework (less classes per day with longer class time) and they were given a couple of days to do their homework rather than 6 different classes giving homework for the next day.

    However, my daughter’s school is 100% project based learning. She and her classmates work together in teams on the project and at the beginning of the project (usually once a month they’ll start a new project), they are given all of the work needed (including 60% of most projects being individual “benchmarks”). They then develop a work schedule for the project with due dates and “benchmarks”. In fact, her homework ends up being more targeted and a lot more time consuming than her friends at the more traditional high school. There is much more problem solving involved and active learning. My son’s college class uses these same techniques. In both cases they have to have a certain level of self direction. Least you say that these are skills they can only develop when they are older, the two had a 4th grade teacher who used this style of teaching very successfully. Both my kids told me just last month that they can remember almost everything they learned in that class. While they had a lot of homework, it was not “busy work” as you describe it.

    In New York state, teachers are REQUIRED to assign homework of a half hour for each grade level. In other words, 6th graders should have 3 hours of homework a night, 12 graders should have 6 hours. This means that most of the mandated homework ends up being totally worthless because it is assigned because it is mandated, not necessarily out of any educational objectives.

    One last comment. As a child, I remembered my addition tables based on color. Don’t ask me how it worked, but it does for certain learners. I have seen it work with foreign language instruction. Of course, it doesn’t work when you have the parents doing the work!

    Comment by virginia Yonkers — 15 March 2011 @ 5:08 PM

  4. Thanks for the feedback. Virginia, I love the project-based learning you cite. Wish I saw more of it. Service learning is another great opportunity. But I’m not sure we’re preparing teachers to do this sufficiently well; it is a different style of teaching.

    And I totally agree that assigning homework by amount of time is ludicrous. To paraphrase Gloria Gery, why not just do it by the pound?

    As for color, maybe for some, but let’s not have all students coloring a great huge poster with four math facts on it!

    Comment by Clark — 16 March 2011 @ 8:02 AM

  5. Her school is an incubator for PBL and new technology. You’ll be happy to hear they have had a number of people come through to learn more about using PBL in their teaching from the Northeast, but also SD, NC, ME, and IN. So maybe there’s hope especially when you have many science education universities using PBL as a basis for teacher training.

    Comment by virginia Yonkers — 16 March 2011 @ 8:51 AM

  6. Clark,

    Great article and I completely agree. Anymore, it seems like homework is just as hard on the parents (not conceptually, but in terms of time and effort). I see the problem as teachers can’t get through all the material they want to (or are expected to) during a day and so they send it home for the parents to teach.

    I totally support parents being involved in their children’s education, but get us involved in the right way. I’d much rather get an email or a note saying “Susie is having trouble understanding the concept of negative numbers. Could you please work on this paper with her? I’d like to make sure she can keep up with the rest of the class.” That kind of homework makes sense to me.

    And speaking of ‘coloring’ assignments, could someone with a strong background in learning theory, please, please, please explain to me the educational value of a word-search. I want to throw-up every time one of my kids brings home a word-search. What am I missing? These things seem to appear in their book bags every few weeks!

    Comment by John Feser — 17 March 2011 @ 8:50 AM

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