Does homework work?
Julia Stockdale-Otárola, OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate
In 1988, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami took his camera into a primary school in Teheran and asked the kids a simple question: “Did you do your homework?” Of the many justifications for not doing it, the most reasonable was no doubt, “My baby sister keeps coming and biting my back”. Nobody claimed their parents stopped them from doing it though. Unlike Spain, where this month CEAPA, a confederation of 12 000 parents’ associations, called for a nationwide weekend homework strike.
Gracia Escalante, a mother of two and a social worker, explained some of the reasons behind the call: “My family will be on strike as a way of making more visible the view that the current system of homework in Spain is appallingly inefficient and socially divisive.”
Even some teachers support the strike. Alvaro Caso, who doesn’t assign any homework to his students, explains that he believes: “Children spend enough time at school and have enough work to do during the day. If a teacher is doing their job right, there is no need for any more – at least in primary education.”
Former acting Education Minister and now Government Spokesperson Iñigo Méndez de Vigo considers that the strike “is a bad idea“, although he added that this question “could be the subject of debate in the national education pact” that the government will “immediately set in motion in the Lower House of Parliament”. In the meantime, the regional governments of Madrid, the Canary Islands, and Murcia have approved recommendations to reduce homework time.
All sides in the debate quote data from the OECD PISA project that show that the Spanish 15-year olds spend more time on homework than most, at nearly 8 hours a week compared to an OECD average of nearly 6 (that’s less than half the time students in Shanghai spend). Does it do any good? The PISA figures show that on average across OECD countries, for each hour per week students spend doing homework, they score 4.5 points higher in reading and mathematics and 4.3 points higher in science.
However, Spanish students are in the bottom half of PISA rankings, suggesting that spending more time doing homework doesn’t always translate into higher student achievement compared to other countries, although you could also argue that without homework the gap would be bigger. The discrepancy between efforts and results might be explained by what some argue to be the difference between homework versus “busywork”. That is to say that there is such a thing as good and bad quality homework and that there’s a point when children get to a point of oversaturation. Drawbacks of a heavy workload include boredom, burnout, increased stress, lack of sleep and less time for family and extracurricular activities.
Harris Cooper conducted a comprehensive analysis of the correlation between student achievement and homework. This study found a positive correlation, however it notes that this is much stronger at the high school level than in primary school. Cooper suggests the 10-20 minute rule: every year no more than 10 minutes should be added to the time spent on homework. Following this approach, a child in the first grade would be assigned 10 minutes of homework, while a secondary student in year 9 would be assigned no more than 90 minutes of homework. The only problem with this approach is that not all children take the same amount of time on each assignment.
More generally, as you’d expect, the averages in all these studies hide a number of important differences, some of which are constant across countries and time. The conversations with Kiarostami gradually paint a fascinating picture not just of the pupils’ attitudes to education and child raising, but of family life and Iranian society at the time in general. It becomes clear that one of reasons for not doing homework was poverty – there was nowhere to study at home, or the parents were illiterate, so it was left to older brothers and sisters to give what help they could.
Today, poverty can still be a barrier to learning, whatever the country. An OECD study showed that this is the case even when all students, including the most disadvantaged, have easy access to the Internet. A digital divide, based on socio-economic status, still persists in how students use technology. Advantaged students are more likely than disadvantaged students to search for information or read news on line.
All things considered, it would seem that some homework is worthwhile, an “opportunity for learning” as PISA says, although it may also reinforce socio-economic disparities in student achievement. The OECD report gives some practical suggestions on how to help, such as providing a quiet place for disadvantaged students to complete their assignments if nowhere is available at home. If nothing else, that would maybe stop the baby biting her brother.
More work? More play? What’s really best for high school students? Laura Capponi gives a student’s view on OECD Insights