GUEST POST: Homework -- Is It Really That Useless?

GUEST POST: Homework -- Is It Really That Useless?

By: Fabian Jones

Fabian's Twitter profile picture

Fabian's Twitter profile picture

Fabian, @fabzGok, is a parent of 4, future husband of @doctorwhy, okay-ish salsa dancer, bad at Japanese (but learning).

First and foremost I feel compelled to mention that I am not a scientist, though I do like to say that I play one on TV (even though I actually don’t). So, I am writing this piece about homework from the standpoint of an overeager parent. I am a big fan of science and scientists – so much so that I’m going to be marrying one! – but I don’t typically spend much time reading research papers in my day to day life. I do, however, read plenty of articles and blog posts. 

Recently, I came across this pretty provocative article by Heather Shumaker. If you have school-age children or teach some, perhaps you’ve seen it. 

Credit: KatarinaGondova via iStock - from Salon.com

Credit: KatarinaGondova via iStock - from Salon.com

In this Salon article, she proposes that we should ban elementary homework because it is “wrecking our kids”. This article was supposedly based on a paper by Harris Cooper from Duke University. Shumaker leads off with a direct quotation from Cooper:

“There is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.” 

From there, Shumaker delves into some more reasons why she thinks homework is bad (these no longer related to the Cooper paper): it turns kids off school/learning, it damages interpersonal relationships by inciting conflict between parent and child (“Did you do your homework??”), and it doesn’t even teach responsibility.

Well, that seems pretty damning.  However, because I first became aware of this article from Reddit, I checked how critical Redditors were responding to the article. The top comment on the article (sorted by best) starts: “I think the author is misrepresenting Cooper's 1989 results…” followed by a direct quotation from the author stating that elementary school students should, in fact, be given homework!  Hmmm, intriguing.  

I decided to take a look at the research paper myself to get a better idea of what the author actually wrote.  While searching for it, I came across this press release, which includes the following statement from Cooper himself:

“The bottom line really is all kids should be doing homework, but the amount and type should vary according to their developmental level and home circumstances. Homework for young students should be short, lead to success without much struggle, occasionally involve parents and, when possible, use out-of-school activities that kids enjoy, such as their sports teams or high-interest reading.”
Credit: Pixaby (Creative Commons CC)

Credit: Pixaby (Creative Commons CC)

Ah, so his recommendation is much more nuanced than what the original article would have you believe! He certainly isn’t calling for a ban on homework for any age group. Moreover, banning homework for elementary school students wasn’t the recommendation put forward by Cooper in 1989, and, if followed, could do those students a disservice.

One might also wonder why the author of the Salon piece chose to focus on an article that is as old as some of the parents who might be reading her piece. Surely some more research has been conducted on the subject of homework in the past 27 years? A quick Google Scholar search reveals that yes, the Cooper review was cited 434 times, and well over 100 of those citations came from the past 3 years.

All in all, it appears that the author of the Salon article is misrepresenting the science, perhaps to make a splash or because she knows that this is what parents want to hear. She’s certainly not the first person and won’t be the last, but it’s still unsavory.

Lastly, I don’t find her other reasons for banning homework compelling, especially the inciting conflict between parent/child. While I am certainly not a fan of conflict between myself and my own kids (seriously, who wants to argue about the fuzziness of pants?), conflict is a necessary part of parenting and any other relationship. Learning to navigate conflict is an important part of life, and when it comes to important matters – like conflict, and homework! – parents shouldn’t try to take the easy route.


For more resources on homework, look out for our next Weekly Digest!

Just For Fun: A 9 Year Old on Quizzing

Just For Fun: A 9 Year Old on Quizzing

Weekly Digest #4: How To Write Good Multiple-Choice Questions

Weekly Digest #4: How To Write Good Multiple-Choice Questions