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Back to school 2015: Is the end of homework near?

Some parents and educators have launched a crusade to abolish homework in an effort to relieve stress, reclaim childhood and even the playing field for students. But others want to flip some long-held beliefs about homework, like that it needs to be done at home.

Flipped learning offers an alternative to traditional homework, method's pioneer says

Most educational experts recommend students receive 10 minutes of homework per grade level, says Prof. Harris Cooper. A Grade 6 student, for example, should receive about 60 minutes of homework each night. (Sirikorn Thamniyom/Shutterstock)

When Etta Kralovec's son started middle school, homework became the biggest battleground in her household.

"It was the only thing we ever fought about — ever," she says.

That was around the start of the new millennium. In the 16 years since, it's still a familiar scene in many homes — and has been for decades.

Some parents and educators have launched a crusade to abolish the practice in an effort to relieve stress, reclaim childhood and even the playing field for students. But others aren't convinced that will help anyone and, instead, want to flip some long-held beliefs about homework, like that it needs to be done at home.

An insurmountable obstacle

As homework earned the reputation of Public Enemy No. 1 in the Kralovec home, the University of Arizona associate professor was simultaneously conducting interviews with former high school dropouts who had returned to earn their degrees. For all of them, Kralovec says, homework had once presented an insurmountable obstacle.

Kralovec felt dumbfounded. The educational researcher had never heard that homework contributed to kids dropping out.

It privileges the already privileged kids... It disadvantages the already disadvantaged kids.- Etta   Kralovec , University of Arizona associate professor

Her son's experiences and the tales of these students piqued her interest and she spent the next years trying to determine what makes homework so important.

When Kralovec couldn't find any strong evidence linking homework to positive effects, she create a new mantra (and Twitter handle): end homework. She co-authored The End of Homework and now works with End the Race, a charity that wants to transform education and public perception of success.

To Kralovec, homework's negatives outweigh any potential positives.

The 2010 film Race to Nowhere tells the stories of students who say they are stressed out by the amount of homework they receive and the pressure on them to succeed. (Race to Nowhere)
The practice worsens economic inequalities, she says.

Kids from some families have access to well-educated parents, tutors and high-speed internet — a.k.a. the help they may need to finish their assignments.

Other kids aren't as fortunate. They may be working to help support their family, taking care of sick relatives or babysitting siblings, says Kralovec. 

"It privileges the already privileged kids," she says. "It disadvantages the already disadvantaged kids."

Some studies suggest homework increases household stress.

Homework amounts, a parent's ability to assist a child as well as cultural and language obstacles all contribute to family stress, found a recent study published in The American Journal of Family Therapy.

Vicki Abeles filmed the 2010 documentary Race to Nowhere after witnessing her children's health deteriorate, in part, from the stress of homework. It chronicles the lives of her children and others, including a 13-year-old girl who committed suicide seemingly because of a poor grade, who feel intense pressure to succeed in school.

There's also a problem with "junk homework," which Kralovec says amounts to no more than "busy work" for kids during this state-mandated use of their family free time.

Some educators have bought into this movement's beliefs.

Last year, Collège de Saint-Ambroise in Jonquière, Que., piloted a (near) no-homework year for its 339 Grade 1 through 6 students. Other schools have flirted with the idea.

One of the reporter's elementary school teachers opted for a homework-free month after some parents complained their kids were too bogged down in after-school work.

But those changes don't come easily, as there are some firm believers in the value of homework.

"For every study I can quote that says homework has no advantage," Kralovec says, "Harris Cooper ... will quote you another study that says, 'Oh, it helps.'"

It 'can help all students'

Cooper, a professor at Duke University's psychology and neuroscience department, is what Kralovec calls a "pro-homework guy."

He believes the practice shouldn't be abolished just because it doesn't benefit all kids equally.

Both the negative and positive effects of homework can happen and do happen.- Harris Cooper, The Battle Over Homework author

"Homework can help all students," says Cooper, who wrote The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents.

He rattles off a long list of why homework's proponents embrace the practice. They claim it improves achievement, develops time-management skills and helps kids realize learning can happen outside of the classroom.

He acknowledges, though, some of Kralovec's concerns.

"Both the negative and positive effects of homework can happen and do happen," he says.

Both researchers admit the research on homework is lacking, partially because it depends on self-reported data.

"The challenge ... is to use it properly so that we maximize its benefits and minimize its detriments," Cooper says.

Most educators suggest about 10 minutes of homework multiplied by a student's grade level, he says. A Grade 4 student, for example, would complete roughly 40 minutes of at-home exercises.

The trick is for teachers to consider a student's at-home resources, he says, and send home assignments that require little to no additional help or materials.

Homework in the classroom

A teacher in the trenches of the homework battle believes he may have found a suitable alternative.

In 2006, Aaron Sams and his colleague taught chemistry at a Colorado high school and started posting videos of their lectures online for students who missed class. When kids from other schools started sending them thank-you messages for their helpful explanations of complicated concepts, the teachers experienced a light-bulb moment.

"They didn't need us physically present to learn the basic information," Sams says.

The next summer the duo pre-recorded all their lectures for students to watch each night.

The teachers had to be creative to find ways for all the students to access the videos. They put the videos on USB sticks for students who had computers but no internet, burned them onto DVDs for students without computers, and refurbished staff members' old computers to give to students.

When students came back with a primary concept learned, it freed up classroom time for lab work, experiments and other projects, Sams says.

The concept evolved into a teaching method they dubbed flipped learning, where teachers are encouraged to film lectures one to 1.5 minutes long per grade level (for example, Grade 2 students would watch two- to three-minute videos) per subject.

"If you offload the content delivery, you can really reinvent the classroom space," Sams says. That helps teachers engage students in more challenging cognitive tasks during class.

"That's really what we want to get our students toward."

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