Homework: 'A sin against childhood' or a useful way to learn?

With the beginning of the school year comes the beginning of the evening homework routine. Most parents and students grit their teeth and bear it, but some are taking a firm stand against homework, arguing that it amounts to mindless busywork that intrudes on precious family time.

Age-old battle over whether homework hurts or helps picks up as the new school year begins

Helping kids with their homework has become a nightly ritual for many parents, but it wasn't always thus. In the 19th century, homework was seen by some as 'a sin against childhood.' (David Goldman/Associated Press)

With the beginning of the school year comes the beginning of the evening homework routine. Most parents and students grit their teeth and bear it, but some are taking a stand.

"Homework goes against our family values," says Dawn Quelch, a criminal defence lawyer in Kingston, Ont., who has instituted a homework-free-zone in her home.

At the beginning of each school year, she sends a note to her daughter's teacher stating that work sent home will not be completed.

"It's not an opening bid in a negotiation," says Quelch. "It's simply me stating, 'These are the terms.'"

She came up with this policy three years ago when her daughter was in Grade 1 and came home with one too many packages of what she calls photocopied busywork.

"I used to just laugh when homework was sent home during JK and SK (junior and senior kindergarten). But now, I just say, 'No'. It was a real relief when it stopped."

For the Quelch family, it's about work-life balance and protecting precious family time. Both parents are working, and when they get home at the end of a busy day, they're exhausted, and they don't want their daughter's school to dictate how they spend their time together.

I'm not a fan of blind obedience in any context.- Dawn Quelch, mother

There are two exceptions to the no-homework rule. If her daughter is goofing off in class and doesn't get her work done during class time, then she will have to do it at home. Or, if she is struggling with a concept and needs extra guidance, then Quelch asks the teacher to provide what she calls "meaningful homework."

Ultimately, Quelch says it's about showing her daughter where to draw the line.

"I'm not a fan of blind obedience in any context," she said. "I wouldn't want to have a life as an adult where I give everything to my job, and then at the end of the day, my boss hands me another stack to be done in the evenings, and I'm supposed to smile and say, 'Thank you, sir!'"

'A sin against childhood'

Homework is now a staple of the education system, but about a century ago, it was considered by influential psychologists and public intellectuals to be "a sin against childhood" and a form of "legalized criminality," according to documents dug up by historian Steven Schlossman.

"The debate over homework goes back about 150 years," said Schlossman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who co-authored a number of articles about the history of homework.

"And the basic ideological positions back then resonate today."

Prior to the turn of the 20th century, children were thought of as miniature adults whose minds were blank slates to be filled with knowledge from an authority figure. This traditional education model valued memorization and rote learning.

  • Is homework helping or harming kids? Have your say on Cross Country Checkup Sunday at 4 p.m ET on CBC Radio and in our live online chat.

Parents who could afford to send their children to school could expect about two hours of homework a night.

By the early 1900s, however, innovations in child psychology fuelled a progressive education movement that began to view homework as a kind of beast invading the home, said Schlossman. 

'Homework was thought of as a form of child abuse,' says historian Steven Schlossman of the approach to education in the 19th century. (Jesse Wilson/Carnegie Mellon University)

"Homework was thought of as a form of child abuse," he said.

The anti-homework rhetoric spread like wildfire, with the help of prominent middle-class women's magazines like the Ladies Home Journal.

This backlash against the traditional model of learning led to a decline in homework during the first half of the 20th century, and even outright bans in various jurisdictions across North America, including California and the District of Columbia.

But that sentiment shifted with the advent of the Cold War, and homework was once again seen as a way to help students succeed academically and build up the strength of a nation.

Benefits of homework

It's now standard practice across the vast majority of schools to assign homework. And there are tangible benefits to that beyond academic ones, argues Jianzhong Xu, a professor of counseling and educational psychology at Mississippi State University.

"Homework is a very important vehicle for teaching personal responsibility," said Xu.

He has published numerous research papers suggesting homework teaches students to be better at time management, handling distractions and regulating their emotions.

"Students learn how to push through frustrations and self-doubt," Xu said.

Parents and guardians help model these skills when they encourage homework in the home, he said. 

"Without homework, a child is going to miss out."

Finding a balance

There have been nearly 1,000 academic research papers examining the costs and benefits of homework published in North America over the past 30 years, the key is to find a happy medium.

Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and author of The Battle Over Homework is one of the researchers who has been studying homework and the role it should play in learning.

Some experts don't see a problem with homework per se as long as it's assigned with the child in mind and not simply mindless busywork. (The Associated Press)

"The answer is somewhere in the middle," he said. "Homework is like taking a prescription pharmaceutical. If you take too little, it won't help. If you take too much, it will kill you. The dosage has to be correct."

He argues that the 10-minute rule tends to work at the elementary school level. According to that rule, the right amount of time spent on homework corresponds to the grade the child is in times 10 minutes. So, someone in Grade 4 should be doing 40 minutes of homework a night.

He says teachers need to be mindful of the quality of the assignments they are sending home.

"It's important for teachers to construct assignments that aren't viewed as work," Cooper said. "They should be assignments that kids would want to do even if they weren't told to."

The Finnish model

Education consultant Pasi Salhberg agrees that homework is only useful if it's given with the child in mind.

His home country of Finland began revamping its education system about 35 years ago, gearing it toward a more child-centred model, Salhberg said. Along with that change came a change in teachers' approach to homework.

Schools need to be inventing smarterhomework that really requires students to think critically and collaboratively.- Pasi Salhberg, Finnish education consultant

"Children should not be sent home with photocopies of routine drilling that have nothing to do with deeper learning," said Salhberg, who wrote a book about Finland's education reform called Finnish Lessons 2.0: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland.

He said that these days, most students in Finland get homework that is carefully thought through before it's assigned.

"We should not talk about homework as an either/or scenario," he said. "Schools need to be inventing smarter homework that really requires students to think critically and collaboratively."


  • A previous version of this story mistakenly identified Steven Schlossman as a University of Pittsburgh historian. In fact, he is a history professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
    Sep 11, 2016 2:17 PM ET


Nicola Luksic

Radio documentary producer

Nicola Luksic is a radio documentary producer with CBC's Ideas. She's also the mother of twins in senior kindergarten.