Homework on Mars

In the 20 years that I have been working with children, adolescents and their families, I have seen no end of grief caused by homework.  In fact, I sometimes wonder what families would do with all the time they saved if they weren’t doing homework, fighting about doing homework, looking for lost homework, trying to understand homework, or reading notes from teachers about incomplete homework.

And having worked in several school systems across communities of varying socioeconomic status, I can tell you that bad and boring homework knows no barrier of class or poverty.  I’ve seen my fair share of photocopied worksheets and looked at “problems 1,2, 4-8 on pages 125-129″ enough to empathize with my patients over the years.  Sometimes I manage to answer the question, how is this going to help me in life?”  But more often I’m of the opinion that I’d glaze over looking at some of the homework assignments too if I were them.

If you are someone who believes in the idea that we’ve always had homework, and that kids and young adults have just got to shut up and do it, don’t waste anymore time reading this post.  Because I think in general that homework is more over-prescribed than any psychiatric medication, and that it reinforces some pretty distorted views about education and work.  Unfortunately, they are also pretty prevalent views of education and work, but they definitely aren’t the only ones.

I’m not alone in my critique of homework.  Educator John T. Spencer wrote a great blog post about it a year ago, which points out that among other things, homework has been shown to not improve academic achievement and may even decrease it.  This research came from Cooper’s metaanalysis of over 180 studies of homework conducted between 1987 and 2006, and you can find it here.  Nor is this a recent critique:  As Gill and Schlossman point out in their work many learned and progressive people spent the earlier part of the 20th century trying to abolish homework.  Most of us parenting today however, were taught in such a way that we think of homework as a fundamental and inevitable “given” when it comes to school.

From the point of view of social emotional development and creativity at least, kids have a lot more important things to do when they aren’t in school.  Homework takes time away from developing peer relationships, engaging in extracurricular activities, and, well, being a kid.  And most assignments come in the form of worksheets and packets, which encourage dry research rather than lived experience or creativity.

I have a colleague whose son was given a list of “historic places” to research, which did not include one location in our Metro Boston area.  No Old North Church, no African Meetinghouse, no Lexington Battle Green, nothing.  No one place that encouraged parent/child time to take a trip or have a fun experience.  This is one way that schools inadvertently teach kids to “phone it in.”  And that’s not the only problematic habit homework instills:  If a child comes home from a day of work and does more work, that is being a good student; if an adult comes home from a day of work and works more we call them a workaholic.

The other thing about homework is that it inherently demeans teachers.  Although we are seeing some exciting developments with MITx, Udacity, the Khan Academy and other attempts to make education more scalable, we are being reminded that direct instruction by teachers is in many ways irreplaceable.  Even if homework reinforces what is done during the day, which it may or may not, it doesn’t replace it.

Worksheets in particular become just another metric for grading, and a metric that doesn’t say much about how varied in support and context each of the homes it is occurring in can be.  It can be argued that truly egalitarian public education happens in the school setting, as that is the one place that is a level playing field in terms of race and class.

But I don’t doubt that homework is not going away, if for nothing else than because it is “the way we do things.”  But given the wonderful new technologies out there, I don’t see any reason why it has to be so rote and dismal as it often is.  Originally I was going to write about using Netvibes as a virtual “Trapper Keeper” for homework, but then I began exploring and gardening on Mars.

Waking Mars is a game from Tiger Style, which I recently sampled for the iPad (it also is available for iPhone.)  You play the game as Liang, an astronaut who finds himself exploring subterranean caverns on Mars.  There he discovers various species of creatures called Zoa, who may be plants, animals, or something else entirely.  In order to solve the mysteries of the cavern, Liang must experiment and learn how to interact with the different Zoa.  This includes planting seeds, changing the pH of ground, helping mobile Zoa reproduce or herding them into predatory Zoa to create compost.  As one progresses, the player must gather data on each Zoa in terms of their reproduction, vulnerabilities, ideal environment and interactions in order to help replenish the biomass of each cavern.

I could envision a range of educational uses for this game.  It could be used to illustrate the concept of phyla and Linnaean taxonomy in general.  It demonstrates both symbiotic and autonomous relationships in biology.  It requires one to observe behavior and learn to predict it.  It shows how and why understanding the environment and life cycles of a biosystem may have applied value.  It requires problem-solving and critical thinking to advance, and the ability to compare and contrast types as well.

Waking Mars is an example of what could be begun in a connected classroom, and then continued at home.  Achievements are recorded and available for later assessment.  There is also social media capabilities to help kids collaborate on learning by tweeting things they’ve learned, and help teachers assess where the class as a whole is in terms of content.  Best of all it is fun, and more intrinsically rewarding than a worksheet.  I suspect parents would find it enjoyable too, and engage with their kids in a much more fun and playful way than the traditional role of parent as homework monitor.

These games are out there, and gamification is already being used in many educational settings.  And if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.  What would you rather do, fill out a form or complete a quest?  Both require literacy and other skills, but the added benefit of playing video games and using social media is that it begins to let kids integrate learning about digital literacy as well.  One example of digital literacy that Howard Rheingold discusses is “crap detection,” where the individual doesn’t just Google something, but also questions whether the source is reputable, and fact checks it.  So to return to Waking Mars, an instructor could pose the question, “should we consider the game and its’ website factual evidence to support the hypothesis that Mars has caves?”  Why or why not?  And if not, what or where might we search online to get more valid information?

Sometimes we need to allow for the possibility that youth might know better than us about something.  If they are demonstrating that they want to spend time on iPads or computers, let’s ditch the pencils.  If they enjoy video games and technology, let’s throw away the weekly worksheets.  Do we want them to have the same disempowering and puritanical experience of education that many of us had?  Or do we want them to enjoy learning and become lifelong learners? It would be great if we could get rid of homework entirely, but if we insist on having it let’s make it fun and engaging.  Enough with the worksheets and problems 1,2, 4-8 on pages 125-129.  Let’s jet-pack through caverns and garden on Mars.


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  1. Fee Berry says

    I was eventually an unschooler, who started out as an ordinary mother with children in school. I experienced two terrible examples of homework… one was a puzzle which none of the children and only one parent could do. He was a professor of materials who solved the problem by calculating the surface area of the completed puzzle, something which was beyond most of the others. I spent hours on it after my son had burst into tears thinking he must be very stupid not to be able to solve the puzzle.

    The second example was a careless task given to children to note *every* time their family used water over the course of an Easter holiday. The teacher had clearly not considered how onerous that task was. We decided to do it as accurately as possible for one day and to extrapolate the results for two weeks from that. The children were asked to make a tally chart initially, thus they made a notch whether it was a cup of tea or a flush of the loo or a bath which was the use of water being noted.

    At the end of the two weeks they were supposed to convert the tally chart into a bar chart. What annoyed me most about the task (apart from how boring and time-consuming it was) was that they made all that work pointless in the end – you didn’t get any more information or different information from the bar chart than from the tally chart and both were equally useless for indicating how much water was used. At the end of it a child might know how to make a bar chart but they wouldn’t have any understanding about why you might want to convert one into the other.

    Eventually, I considered homework as a useless hangover from Victorian schools, which I think goes for a tremendous amount of structure and tradition in the state schools in both the UK and the US. Our schools are still Victorian institutions which have not responded to the changes in society, in technology and in the things which employers actually want from employees… no longer wrote learning and quiet obedience in factories but innovation, working on your own and as part of a team, adapting to technology as it advances.

    Yes, you can make it more interesting… you can prescribe Khan Academy activities or try to make things more interesting, but if John Taylor Gatto is right that preventing children from doing what they naturally do, if left to their own devices, if that in itself has a dumbing down effect, don’t we just exacerbate the effect by insisting that they do what the school wants them to do, even when at home.

    I’ve waited for schools to make the connection between children who have dyspraxia or dyslexia and have to have exercises prescribed for them and the fact that state schools ()in the UK at least) are making children sit down and “do” schoolwork at an earlier and earlier age. The huge increase in disabilities where movement and play are part of the cure should be telling us something.

    I removed my children from the school system when the eldest one was nine and I never regretted it. I think the system is broken, and homework is only one part of it.

    • Do you know of any independent research on Khan Academy that warrants your comment about it being an exciting development?

      I remember using film strips and PBS in the 70’s. How are the affordances of video now suddenly an exciting development as an educational affordance? Is there research to suggest it is really any different than the history of using video in education over the last few decades?

  2. Jan Looman says

    I read the homework meta analysis you cite. The conclusion they drew is not what you report – at least not as clearcut as what you report. They report “Therefore, we think it would not be imprudent, based on the evidence in hand, to conclude that doing homework causes improved academic achievement” (p.48). They qualify this by saying “the positive causal effect of homework on achievement has been tested and found only on measures of an immediate outcome, the unit test. Therefore, it is not possible to make claims about homework’s causal effects on longer-term measures of achievement, such as class grades and standardized tests, or other achievement-related outcomes. However, the studies using naturally occurring measures of time on homework found strong evidence of a link to longer-term achievement measures.” (p. 53)

    So the conclusion from my read is that homework leads to higher achievement, at least in the short-term. Whether or not this leads to lasting improvements in achievement has yet to be determined, but the evidence in that area is promising as well


    • Mike Langlois, LICSW says

      Hi Jan,

      Yes, the study is more complicated than my blog post’s derivative of it. However, evidence of a link does not equal causation, merely correlation, and would need to be controlled for variables such as parental involvement, work environment, etc. Otherwise “homework” is murky. Maybe instead we are finding evidence that parents who help their children do homework cause higher achievement on standardized tests, or that children who live in less chaotic and impoverished home environments have a correlative link to higher achievement.

      Then of course, there is the whole question of whether achievement is one specific thing that can be graded, or whether it could even be linked to happiness in a causal way..

  3. Steve Darr says

    Try to find a screening of the movie Race To Nowhere – its a documentary indictment of the traditional “model” of school and features an in-depth discussion on the merits (if any) of traditional homework.

  4. Hi Mike! Glad to read that you enjoyed Waking Mars and saw some of the potential educational value we put in there! As “lifelong learners,” we at Tiger Style see very little difference between education and entertainment, at least when both are done correctly. The scientific method is just as compelling as the thrill of exploration and discovery. Thanks for the shout out! – Randy Smith, creative director of Waking Mars

  5. Hi Mike – Love your posts so much! I love the ideas you’re presenting in this particular post but it sounds so beautifully ideaslistic. I agree wholeheartedly with your points. I am a social worker at a community mental health agency in IL and I work a lot with children diagnosed with emotional and behavior disorders. Many of them attend therapeutic day schools where I was delighted to see that they actually *don’t* assign homework because they know how stressful it is on these particular children (and their families!!) and have had very good results. The children are doing well and the families get to have peace at night and on the weekends. This is one (only??) area where such children are actually benefitting more than their mainstream counterparts. Do you think that this ideal/method could actually be successful in mainstream elementary and high schools? I would imagine so! But, how do you get schools or rather, school systems to transition to a new “way” of teaching? Is it possible?? For me and mine, I will likely d/l the Waking Mars to my iPad… at least my kid will benefit! I will encourage other parents and school administrators to do so as well and I am planning to send this article to every parent and school administrator that I know! Many thanks for your brilliance!

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