When is homework helpful?

When you hear the word homework, what comes to mind for you? I immediately see myself sitting at the coffee table in my childhood home, the TV on in the background while I fill out a stack of photocopied worksheets, half of my mind on the TV, the other half wondering how many more worksheets I had to do. Yet if I think a little more carefully, I realize that some very positive memories could be qualified as "homework," like the time when I prepared for a debate with a number of friends, books open, flashcards being written, laughing as we readied ourselves for every imaginable argument, convincing ourselves that our own reasoning was invincible.  

Clearly, there is a wide range of our own personal experiences with homework, and thus our sense of how valuable it really is. We don't claim to have any definitive answer, but we do have access to deep research conducted by Challenge Success, one of our partner organizations, a nonprofit institute based at Stanford and studying educational best practices. Here are some of our takeaways from this and other research, as well as our own experience, on homework in middle school:

  • Students must feel that someone needs their work. Just like during the school day, we want all of the learning to feel relevant, personal, and socially connected. Students should feel they're doing it not just to please a teacher, but because their peers or others need an essential piece of information, skill or component of a project; others are depending on them. Larry Rosenstock, founder of High Tech High, tells a story in which students relate that their school doesn't give them any homework, thank goodness, though as an afterthought they note that they are always working after-school on their projects. That's the spirit we're going for. 
  • See homework in the context of other rich activities. Middle schoolers need time after school to connect with friends and family, to explore learning interests, to get sufficient sleep, and to have unstructured periods in which they have to learn how to manage their time and activities. Getting lost in a book, shooting hoops for hours, talking with friends or helping to cook dinner at home are extremely rich activities for healthy adolescent development. Denise Pope, a leading voice in progressive curriculum design, associate professor at Stanford, and member of our Advisory Board, writes about the importance of "PDF" - Play Time, Down Time, and Family Time - as having a powerful protective effect on students' mental health, happiness, and ultimately academic performance. Based on research with tens of thousands of students across the US, Dr. Pope recommends no more than 60-90 minutes of homework per night for middle schoolers, to protect time for "PDF." An evening consisting only of homework is like eating an unbalanced meal - better to include the a range of activities, structured and unstructured, in your child's life.
  • Avoid formulaic homework. Many of us have plowed through thousands of worksheets during our educational careers, formulaically, perhaps even mindlessly, solving the same problem again and again in the same ways. A worksheet is not inherently a bad thing, but the way they're used often dampens creativity, reduces students' intrinsic motivation to learn, and teaches kids to memorize a few formulas and apply them again and again without thinking, versus a more agile, real-world approach to solving complex problems. Sometimes, repetitive practice can hone a skill, but this should be used carefully, knowing that we are never just teaching content alone; each assignment also conveys a process for learning.
  • Design homework with neuroscience in mind. As with other areas of our school design, applying findings from neuroscience and developmental psychology can lead to profound changes. For example, research around "spaced learning" shows that even small changes in how we space out a given set of content, and when we ask students to retrieve and apply information, can have major effects on long-term learning gains. Similarly, if we see homework as a way to teach executive function, which is one of the most influenceable components of IQ during middle school, then we can design homework that helps students learn how to manage a long-term deadline, refocus themselves when distracted, improve their abilities to estimate workflow, and become savvy about their own learning styles.

In practical terms, this means that at Millennium we aim to keep the homework level moderate, no more than an hour on most days. Of course, on some days there are bursts of work, and if students have not planned their time well, they may experience the 'natural consequence' of a long evening of homework close to the deadline - a great learning experience to prompt reflection and a different process in future projects. With this, we also aim to minimize the 'busywork' in homework, keeping an eye out for rote, formulaic, repetitive problems. Homework is not a bad thing, but it can be misused easily, and the time comes at a cost to other valuable activities for kids. When done well, homework feels important to the students themselves; it develops planning and self-management; and it supports the kind of rich, personally meaningful, collaborative projects that students will remember for a long time to come.