Too much? Too little? A recent New York Times article by Jenny Anderson reports that some NYC “elite” private schools are examining student stress and homework loads. We did the same several years ago and developed a homework policy to diminish unhealthy stress. We have since learned that homework is a very subjective topic, and that there are no simple solutions. While homework is essential to accomplish excellence in scholarship, it also can be an genuine burden. Taking this debate up a level, the subject of homework provides a fruitful springboard for enlightened conversations about the concept of work in general.
As parents, we council our kids to, “focus on those areas over which you have control.” This approach to life can lower unproductive stress and help to create a healthy perspective. As for homework, personal productivity represents one of those areas where students do have some control. In my 11th grade student focus-groups, I have heard, “when I turn off email and my phone, I can get so much done!” But when I ask students if they actually do this, most think, “Are you serious?!”
Positive results in careers and life often don’t depend on hours put in, but on the quality and quantity of what you put out, usually on a tight deadline. Are students willing to “disconnect” to ramp-up productivity? The return is very self-serving: rest, recreation, and diminished stress. 24/7 connectivity can make everything take longer and certainly is distracting. Adults intuitively understand this; however, our children do not.
Productivity is a life skill worth learning early on, and homework is a great forum to accomplish some empirical research. I also now recall a helpful dictum that my parents repeated when I felt stressed out: “If you plan your work and work your plan, you won’t get so worked up.”
Now, assuming that productivity and effective planning are maximized, when does a student say “enough?” The first 20 minutes of homework for a given course yields a tremendous return to mastery and understanding. The next 20 minutes probably less, and so on. Economists call this “diminishing marginal return,” and this is a very personal concept when it comes to homework. Each student needs to learn how to make the decision as to when the value of other activities -- sleep, family time, recreation -- outweigh the value of more homework. The age old frustration is that mastery is quickly achieved by some and a prolonged struggle for others.
Due to my learning style, I spent a lot of time on homework in college. In fact, I probably spent more time on homework than any two of my suite-mates combined. What made matters worse is that they earned higher grades. This was genuinely frustrating, and I had to develop compensatory skills and strategies. I also became comfortable with long days and hard weeks. These lessons have helped me immensely in my career as an educator.
When we survey our young alums in college, 59% report the workload in college is more demanding, 31% report that it is about the same, and 10% indicate that it is less demanding. As a college prep school, these numbers seem reasonable.
Homework provides an opportunity to develop productivity and planning skills, a chance to go offline to think deeply and efficiently, and a way to develop personal learning strategies that will yield a lifetime of benefit. This is a conversation worth having with our kids.