Nobody likes homework.

Students don’t — they have better things to do. Parents don’t — it cuts into family time and makes their kids cranky. Even teachers don’t — making and grading it is as dull and time-consuming as doing it.

And yet it’s a fixture of the education system that won’t die, even after decades of controversy over its value.

Parents and psychologists decry the decline in free play, while teachers race against the calendar to cover their curricula, and researchers crunch the numbers to figure out how many minutes of homework lead to optimal test scores at each grade level.

But all this debate is going in circles because homework is just a symptom of the disease. We can tweak the quantity and format all day long, but it won’t matter because the problem isn’t in the how — it’s in the why.

Homework shows the purpose of education

Why do teachers assign homework?

The most common response to this question is that there isn’t enough time in class to get everything done. The curriculum covers a ton of ground, and to get through it, activities like reading, written reflection, and skill practice simply have to be done at home sometimes. Not to mention that when students don’t make the most of class time, the work they should have completed has to go home with them.

Homework is also the teacher’s proof that the students are working. When administrators and parents come knocking, those papers and grades show that the teacher is doing their job, whether the student is succeeding or not.

So homework is a tactic for covering your ass and taming the curriculum monster. But doesn’t it also support learning? That depends on what learning means.

Regardless of the subject or level, most assignments can be described as prescriptive performances: “prescriptive” because they tell the student what to do and/or how to do it, and “performances” because they are displays of knowledge that happen within set boundaries and apart from the real world.

Such assignments do support learning, if you define learning as a demonstration of knowledge and skill executed as instructed at the appointed time — and that’s exactly how the education system has come to define it.

Certification has replaced real learning

Homework is what it is because in modern society, the purpose of education is for students to prove to others that they are “educated.”

For an employer or university, figuring out whether an applicant has the right knowledge, skills, and character is time consuming. It’s much easier to use diplomas and test scores as a proxy, even if they’re wildly imperfect.  But we’ve done this for so long that both students and teachers now treat grades, not real learning, as the goal of education.

We end up in a world obsessed with resume building, in which low-skilled jobs require college degrees, which are more common than ever, and yet employers complain that candidates lack critical thinking skills and creativity.

We all know there is something very wrong with this. How do we begin to fix this mess?

Education should be for life, not for grades

Let’s pretend for a minute that we live in a utopia where certification of learning is totally unnecessary.

Now we can flip the homework question around. If the only purpose of education is to awaken curiosity and develop a person’s ability to live conscientiously and contribute to society, then what happens to homework?

Well, if we’re teaching students how to live, then education itself should look a lot like “real life.” Imagine that you’re hanging out with a friend, and the conversation sparks your curiosity about something — a person, a movie, a local restaurant, the latest workout trend. How do you react?

Not by writing a five paragraph essay or filling out a worksheet about it, that’s for sure. You ask questions and take the conversation deeper. Maybe later you look for more information or decide to experience this thing first hand, without any structure or obligations to guide you. Next time you see your friend, you’ll probably tell them what you learned.

Class — and homework — should work the same way.

In class, the teacher’s role is to ignite their students’ interest and develop their capacity for reflection. Once that happens, the only “homework” necessary is to go out and live. Curious students will observe the world keenly, seek out new information and experiences, and eagerly bring these back to class to share.

There is no place for structure or obligation in this. Deep learning happens because the students are voluntarily engaging their minds in something they want to pursue. The moment you make it an assignment, this magic dies. If they choose not to do anything, it’s because they aren’t interested, and the solution isn’t to require their participation but to inspire it.

This kind of teaching cultivates the qualities and habits of a truly educated person: curiosity, observation, reflection, autonomy, and meaningful conversation.

Contrast that with the skills developed by “normal” homework: sitting still, following instructions, and reproducing information.

If people become what they practice, which kind of person will contribute more to society?

You can do this in the real world

You’re probably thinking: That sounds lovely, but certification does matter in today’s world. Teachers have to give grades, and students have to show them to get access to higher education and jobs. If you don’t prepare students to be tested, won’t they lose those opportunities?

No — in fact, they will be in a better position to do well. Taking a test on material you know deeply from real-world experience and application is much easier than for something you read about and memorized. You may need to prepare for the format of the test, but no real studying is necessary because the learning already happened.

In addition, the emotional burden of testing is much lower when students understand the purpose of the test and make a conscious choice to take it. There is no reason to resist it and even less to base their self-worth on the outcome. They can calmly demonstrate what they’ve learned and use that to gain access to future opportunities.

I teach in a school that requires grades just like any other, but I use methods other than homework and tests to evaluate my students. Stay tuned to learn how in a future post! Be sure to subscribe below so that you won’t miss a thing.

Join the discussion!

I would love to know:

  • What kind of homework do you usually assign, and what purpose does it serve for you?
  • What would stop you from cutting out homework altogether?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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