A Modest Proposal to End Homework as We Know It

Mark Dlugash

Of all the reasons for our underperforming schools, perhaps the most overlooked is that students do not spend enough time learning.

At first glance, that seems ridiculous – they spend nearly a third of their waking life, through age 18, in schools, with more time after that for homework.  But only a small percentage of that time is spent engaged in deep, focused, learning and practice – the kind that psychologist Anders Ericsson claims is needed to achieve excellence in a discipline.

This requires discipline and self-control, qualities that are difficult to develop.

Recent MacArthur award-winner Angela Duckworth, before her groundbreaking work on grit (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept13/vol71/num01/The-Significance-of-Grit@-A-Conversation-with-Angela-Lee-Duckworth.aspx), wrote about the importance of self-control in predicting homework performance and higher GPAs (she argued that girls had better self-control than boys their age and subsequently outperformed them on all these tasks).
But self-control is hard.  It’s greatly influenced by your environment and developing it takes years.  And with the internet, cell phones, YouTube, the opposite sex, the same sex, peer pressure, Spongebob Squarepants, Jersey Shore, Scandal, and other sundry entertainments and distractions – homework is last on the list, and perhaps a greater challenge than ever before. Good intentions, meet poor follow-through.

Finding the right place to study can be a challenge too.  Libraries can be pretty sterile, but homes are filled with brothers and sisters and cooking and conversation – not always conducive to focusing.  You start to study and get interrupted; you try again, get interrupted again, and then you stop trying.

Putting in the time usually works – but there are so many things competing for our time – part-time jobs, extracurriculars, volunteer commitments, friends, and family.  And by the time students finish everything else, get home, eat dinner, and are ready to get back to homework, they’re out of the zone and have trouble getting back in.  Instead, more often than not, it’s papers at the last minute, reading left undone, lower grades, vows to improve, rinse, repeat.

As psychologist Barry Schwartz writes (www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/09/paying_attention_is_a_skill_schools_need_to_teach_it.html), developing deep focus and analytical skills is a key to success in life – and to a working democracy – but for now, there’s not enough structured time for this kind of learning.
How do we get students of all ages to spend more time on task – on their work?

A Modest Proposal
My proposal is simple: attach to the end of every class a mandatory 1-hour working period for homework. It’s quiet time, study hall, no work allowed except what’s for that class.  No internet. No teacher necessary – just a babysitter at the front of the classroom.  Students, with nothing better to do, do their homework.
But that’s so boring! So painful! So paternalistic! So antisocial!  Yes – and so is homework in most contexts. But it’s work that will get done. Here’s why:
First, there’s social pressure and few distractions.  Everyone around you is sitting and working.  So you’re more likely to stay on task.

Second, it’s a pre-commitment strategy.  You are committed to work for an hour for every class you have.  It’s mandatory, boxed-in time.  You can’t change your mind at the last minute and watch TV or go to a party.  You have literally nothing better (or else) to do.

Third, you’ve changed the default setting.  Homework isn’t a decision now – it’s something you do after every class, like brushing your teeth before going to bed.

Even if you were working inefficiently (which is unlikely given ideal study circumstances), you’d still be better off than if you hadn’t cracked open a book – which is what tends to happen otherwise.  Sometimes just getting started is the hardest part.
Best of all – your homework is done earlier and then you’re free. Like many jobs.
Now, this is not meant to be a perfect solution.  You may not finish all your homework – but you are still likely to finish more of it.

A stronger critique is that there may not be enough time in the school day for this (otherwise brilliant) plan.  Students need more time in class, right?

Actually, no.  Most learning that takes place isn’t from time in class spent passively listening – it’s from speaking, reading, writing, and engaging in activities that require deep thought.  The best schools give students the time to do this.  Creating the conditions for this kind of deep thought is what good education is all about.

The benefits from this policy would be worth reducing class time and frequency, but even lengthening the school day would be a small price to pay for better educational results and freedom from homework.
Homework sucks.  There’s a better way.  Working in a quiet classroom, surrounded by your peers, feels better and is more manageable.

This modest proposal could end homework as we know it and produce better results.