Search form

Author Does His Homework on Hot Topic

Everyone knows that doing homework is a must for a good education, right? Not necessarily, according to author John Buell. Revamping how much and what type of homework is assigned can create more opportunities for learning. Included: Ideas for changing the way homework is used in schools.

Most of us assume that homework has been a constant in K-12 life, and its attributes are known and documented: homework is necessary to re-enforce classroom lessons, teach responsibility, and prepare students for the full-time working world.

Not so, according to author John Buell in his book, Closing The Book on Homework: Enhancing Public Education and Freeing Family Time. While not advocating the elimination of homework, Buell argues that the way homework is assigned and where it is done needs to be changed.

Nor has homework always been a fixture in U.S. schools. Starting in the late 19th century, homework opponents argued that homework damaged the physical, emotional, and mental health of children, by reducing the amount of time they had to play and get fresh air. The attitude again came to the forefront in the 1920's and 1930's, at a time when labor unions were lobbying for workplace reforms. Homework often was branded "unhealthy" for children.

Research showing homework improves student performance is inconclusive, Buell adds. Homework even may be counterproductive for young children already tired from a six-hour day and the commute to and from school.

Older students could be assigned additional work, Buell suggests, which they would do after school in a room with resources and adult supervision, to be fair to children who don't have study materials or parents at home to help them.

This is Buell's second book on homework; he also co-authored The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning with Etta Kralovec.

A former college professor, Buell currently is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News in Maine, and also writes for other newspapers and magazines on labor, education, and environmental issues. He recently talked with Education World about his latest book and how societal work expectations affect education.

Education World: How did you become interested in the homework issue?

John Buell: I taught for almost ten years at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. The school emphasizes interdisciplinary education. My field of teaching and research was political economy, but I worked extensively with a colleague who directed the teacher education program.

John Buell

My colleague, Etta Kralovec, was approached by the state of Maine to study the causes of high dropout rates in rural communities. She knew that I was interested in rural poverty issues and the relationship between labor markets and schools. She asked me if I wanted to participate. As part of our study, we did extensive interviews with many dropouts. We asked all of them if there was a point in their education when they knew they simply were not going to make it. Much to our surprise, every student had a story about homework. We had not anticipated this result, and this finding led both of us to do further research on the history of homework and on the justifications on its behalf in the literature.

EW: How did homework become so entrenched in our culture and synonymous with successful schools? I've read that some schools now assign students homework over the summer and grade students on it.

Buell: Homework has not always been front and center in public education. But during times of economic political or cultural crisis, homework often takes center stage. We have to ask to what extent homework is the best response to real educational failings, to what extent it is a scapegoat for other institutional failings, or even part of larger cultural wars reflected in current crises.

Right now, schools are under extraordinary pressure because many political and business leaders view our educational system as crucial in giving student skills that will allow them to be more effective participants in the job market. They view the job market as increasingly internationalized and ever more competitive. Unfortunately, many are unwilling or unable to examine the way business practices, international organizations, and trade treaties have shaped the very terms of this competition. Thus, the pressures on schools and teachers often have been passed on to students and parents. Students are tested more and teachers are under the gun. To meet these intensified requirements, more homework often is seen as one of the key solutions.

But in addition to this concern growing out of political economy, one needs to put the issue in a broader cultural perspective. One could say that homework is a part of larger cultural wars. In their workplaces, workers are constantly encouraged to "do their homework" and in school, children are told that homework is "part of their job."

These cultural practices are a response to cultural anxieties. Americans increasingly have a kind of love-hate relationship with work. Work is viewed as one of the central meanings of life, but at the same time, it now takes so much of many adults' lives that there is little room for anything else. And at least on some level, doubts have crept in as to the limits of work itself. I believe that although the debate about homework involves genuine pedagogical issues, one cannot fully understand this issue or the heat surrounding it without some attention to this cultural civil war over whether work is to retain its all-encompassing place in our culture.

EW: What did you mean in the book when you said while students who do more homework may get better grades, there is nothing to connect homework with improved student performance?

Buell: Even homework advocates concede that many studies of homework do not really resolve what we might call a chicken and egg question. It may well be the case that good and well-motivated students do homework, whereas less capable or informed students do not do any or as much homework. Doing extensive homework may be a symptom of academic accomplishment rather than a cause. To use the formal language of social science, we don't always know whether we are looking at mere correlation or causality. But I would like to add that this rather abstract sounding debate is only a small part of the story. In my book, I have discussed other considerations growing out of learning theory and developmental psychology to suggest that the efficacy of homework may be overrated.

Even most of homework's advocates now concede that homework in the elementary grades does not achieve the academic gains once promised. Many have fallen back on the contention that homework at a young age is primarily valuable in getting students accustomed to doing more work. This claim itself is not well documented and demonstrates to me some of the cultural overtones to this whole debate.

EW: Without homework, how else would teachers evaluate students?

Buell: Homework only is one way that teachers evaluate students. In the book, I do more than merely call for limits to homework. Older students can be given other forms of independent work in a context where they have the resources and support they need to succeed. One of the problems with homework is that many students don't have these resources and support. And with homework, as I discuss at greater length in the book, because the student performance can be influenced or aided by so many other outside variables, there is a real problem with evaluation as it stands.

More broadly, both with respect to issues of instruction and evaluation, schools need to make better use of their existing time.

Along the same lines, I often have been asked how parents can maintain contact with the school if they are not involved in their children's homework. From my perspective, homework often is a significant burden for both teacher and student. Some reductions in the time spent doing and grading homework would create far more opportunities for direct interaction between students, parents, and teachers.

EW: What type of response are you getting from teachers to your message?

Buell: Neither teachers nor students are a monolith on this subject. When we wrote our first book, several parents and teachers said to me "students must really love your book." But in fact, students were as divided about the book as our other constituencies. I think the comment about students may have reflected a degree of cynicism that I do not share. With respect to teachers, I am gratified that even some teachers who don't agree with the theme of the book nonetheless felt that it raised important issues that needed a more thorough airing.

EW: Where should reform about work expectations in our society start: in the workplace and then move into the schools, or in the schools and then into the workplace?

Buell: This is a good question. Too often in society, we dump responsibility for reform on the schools. But if most employees are working inordinately long and oppressive hours -- especially in unfulfilling and not very remunerative occupations, there will be immense pressure on schools to prepare workers for this grind, and by implication, to legitimize it. By the same token, if schools can successfully impart basic skills and the capacity for critical thought within a reasonable number of hours, thereby affording more opportunities for creative use of leisure time, their success in this endeavor enables a different kind of workplace and a different culture.

Thus, I am inclined to think that reform needs to be pursued in both arenas. More free time outside of schools and jobs and more opportunities for creative expression within them are both possible and necessary.

We should keep foremost in our mind that both of these issues are united by the overarching concept of time -- who controls it and toward what end. I would suggest that spending long hours at home doing your homework in the hope that you'll get a good job and enjoy a good quality of life is the educational equivalent, to borrow Robert Putnam's phrase, of bowling alone. It is unlikely to yield a more skilled or more satisfied athlete. More of the time spent by students and parents on homework would be better expended in efforts to reform both public schools and workplaces. And success in each realm aids efforts in the other.

This e-interview with John Buell is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World


Originally published 03/04/2004; updated 06/11/12