Homework – the word alone can make students (and some parents) turn pale with dread. For generations, though, educators have relied on homework to sharpen skills and supplement learning activities in the classroom. But does homework really help students do better? And if so, how much homework is enough? When does it move from beneficial to burdensome?

The “correct” amount of homework to give has been debated in the education world for decades, but the conversation has become more intense in the past 10 years or so.  Educators and journalists have written blog posts, articles and even whole books questioning the notion that a heavy homework load has a positive effect on student achievement.

For example, noted education writer and researcher Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, has stated that while many parents and educators assume homework improves student performance, such a link doesn't exist, particularly for younger learners: “There is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school,” Kohn says.

Others, like Duke University professor Harris Cooper, author of The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers and Parents, take a different view. Research shows that homework can be beneficial if it’s assigned in amounts appropriate to the students’ grade levels, Cooper says.

Cooper has recommended that schools follow national homework guidelines that call for 10 minutes of homework per grade level. So, a first-grader would have 10 minutes of homework per night, a second-grader would have 20 minutes, and so on.

Andrew Slater, the head of the Lower School at GEMS World Academy-Chicago, says the school agrees with that guideline.

“We believe at-home learning can play a powerful and positive role in a student's academic development," he said. "That said, our homework assignments are fairly succinct. It’s important that children have time to do other things outside of school, as well – play sports, take music lessons. At GEMS we work hard to make students feel inspired. Excessive amounts of homework can work against that."

When assigned appropriately, homework allows students to hone core academic skills, like reading and math, while sparking new questions for the next day's discussions, Slater said. Homework also helps students improve time-management and other "life skills" needed in today's connected world.

Slater joins other independent-school educators , though, in adding that the kind of homework assigned is just as important as the amount. 

"The key is to make it purposeful and relevant," he said. "Our teachers craft homework assignments that build on classroom inquiries in an engaging way, that push students toward discovery." In this sense, Slater said, homework helps reinforce one of the larger ideas behind the inquiry-based approach in place at GEMS World Academy — the notion that learning can happen anywhere and everywhere.

The debate over how much homework to assign in school, or whether to assign any at all, is not likely to end soon. But as the discussion continues, schools like GEMS are finding ways to redefine this traditional component of the education process to meet the needs of students today and in the future.

 Does your child have trouble getting homework done in an efficient manner? The U.S. Department of Education blog suggests five ways parents can help with the homework task



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