TAS Voices: In Defense of Less Homework

In this recurring series, we invite readers to find out more about the incredible people that make TAS the vibrant learning community we know and love. 

By Josh Budde, Middle School Principal

At the most recent parent coffee events that I hosted with the three counselors, one topic that arose three of the four times was that of "homework." 

Typically, when anything about homework is raised, it is around its excess or its lack of purpose.  In all three of these instances, however, the concern was that there is not enough.  My response each time was a variation of, “Good.”

There is little evidence that homework is all that beneficial to the learning process.  It has its benefits in that it provides more opportunities for independent practice and learning, but it always runs the risk of being little more than extra work that simply keeps kids busy.  Certainly, not all kids need extra practice beyond what is done in class, but some homework can be helpful.

There is an element of, “this is how we’ve always done it” when it comes to answering the question of why we give homework, and not just at TAS.  Homework as a common practice in schools goes back about 70 years or so, meaning that teachers here were educated in schools where, for the most part, homework was an expected part of the routine.  So, yes, this is what schools have always done.

But that, of course, doesn’t make it right, and if research shows that there is little to no benefit (and any parent who has watched their kid spend frustrating hours staying up late to do homework would attest, it can be harmful), why do we not just stop giving it? 

In the Middle School (and in the other divisions as well), we have been asking this question of ourselves over the last three years.  The Middle School's "X period" schedule model was designed, in part, to ensure students could not have homework in more than four classes per night and to ensure students have time each day to get some homework done.  Homework is not allowed in non-core classes.  We put a limit on how long homework should take.  We encourage kids to stop doing homework if it takes more than 90 minutes.  Most teachers don’t give homework every night.  We try to be sure that each homework assignment has a purpose.  And we certainly do not assign it to ensure that students have something to fill their time after school. 

The most complete answer is that this is not an easy question to answer for our school and for any school. I am not going to do so here because that is not what this post is about.  This post is about the undervalued benefits of boredom and of letting kids be kids. 

The parents who asked why we didn’t have more homework were not asking because they were worried their kids would fall behind if we didn’t have more; they were worried their kids had too much unscheduled time to fill. But as a school leader, my thoughts turn to a more pressing worry, something which was on my mind when I wrote this to the students for last year’s yearbook:  

“We encourage you to turn off your devices this summer, if only for a few minutes everyday, and just sit. Do nothing. Stare out a window. Sit on a park bench and watch people walk by. Listen to your breathing and let your mind wander. In doing so, you might find that the world is more than what you think it is, that not everything good happens in 10-second video clips, and that slow can be better than fast. And maybe you will begin to see a world, both inside and outside of you, that you didn’t know existed. Learning is indeed so much more than what goes on at school, and sometimes all you need to do is nothing in order to learn something.

We don’t need to fill every waking moment of our children’s lives with scripted tasks, and our job as teachers is not to make sure that our students don’t have unfilled time after school.  Too many parents feel that unfilled time will only lead to staring at screens, and it might, but screens can be taken away and kids will be just fine.  But we take away a learning opportunity from them by not allowing them to feel bored.  We take away their opportunities to learn to make decisions about how to manage their time if every moment is scheduled for them.  We already fill kids’ days from 7:45 AM to 3:35 PM with non-stop activities and expectations; we intentionally do not want to fill their evenings with more school. 

We want kids to be kids. 

We want them to hang out with their families and friends.

We want them to be able to have to figure out how to spend their unscheduled time, and if that means they might be a bit bored, then that is something we can support because overly worked, stressed out and tired kids are a much bigger problem. 

At TAS, I am somewhat pleased that we get parents asking about the light homework load rather than about an excessive one.  We do not measure success by how hard kids work, by how much time they put into their studies, or by how much they can overcome to learn. 

We measure it more in joy, in friendships, and in growth. 

Quantity does not equate to quality, certainly not when it comes to homework.  Boredom is an opportunity, not something to be outright avoided, and kids need to be kids while they still have the chance.