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Earlier this month, Baltimore County Public Schools announced the death of homework. The news was a shock. It was sweet music to pupils’ ears, but for parents it was more like the screech of a scratching blackboard. The public is divided on these issues, but is no homework really such a bad thing?

You may be surprised to learn that for hundreds of years Americans disapproved of the concept of assignments to be completed out of class. Especially in the years prior to nationwide compulsory education, homework was seen as obstructing family duties. Why should homework matter when an extra set of hands is needed at the shop or on the family farm? When you consider that college was a rare goal for many Americans, the idea of homework becomes even more absurd. Homework was such an unpopular idea that in 1901 California banned homework before high school.

So when did those feelings change? Like most contemporary habits that we take for granted, homework (and modern schooling) as we know it today has its roots in the Cold War. Prior to the end of World War II, it wasn’t unusual for some American prep schools to teach Latin, Greek, or Geography as integral components of a well-rounded education. For example, check out Harvard’s Entrance Exam from 1869. It was designed to be relatively easy and is indicative of what students were expected to know when entering college. But when the Cold War tensions started heating up in the 1950’s, the government wanted schools to produce students that could compete with Soviets for global dominance. It marked the beginning of what we recognize as modern classrooms— homework included. The primary and secondary school models we’re familiar with are barely 70 years old. The older generations are voicing such pushback not just because that’s all they know, but because that system was literally designed for them.

Did it work?

That’s debatable. Maybe more people learned about the Pythagorean theorem, but how many people actually remember it? The way homework works now, there is little applicability to the things learned in the classroom. Without that practical function, it could become harder for it to stick. Some may argue that for the more talented students, homework is a waste of time because they already know the material well. For the ones who are struggling, it’s a waste of time because they’re forced to grapple with it alone at the kitchen table— a discouraging prospect that doesn’t necessarily make them “get it” any better.

Some arguments in favor of homework have merit. Concordia University, for example, stresses that homework imparts several virtues including time management and responsibility. But those virtues don’t deal with furthering the understanding of the subject material.

If homework is abolished, what would take its place?

Collaborative learning. In a piece for the
Atlantic, teacher Ashley Lamb-Sinclair argues that “education is important, but it is learning that matters more”. In our current system, homework is something done for its own sake. It’s turned in and—whether completed honestly or not; whether fully understood or not— is counted towards an overall final grade. Lamb, through her travels and conversations with educators from outside of America, takes a stance that it’s simply better for students to learn freely in the classroom. Imagine this: instead of a teacher going through the motions for math or science then assigning a worksheet, what if the material covered was immediately put into use? Groups would work on a project together, and with every successive lesson another piece is added to the project puzzle. We already do it with experiments in science classes. What if we could do the same for math, taking what is learned and applying it to real world issues? It’s also a great idea for improving technological literacy, too. Imagine a world where grade students learn a coding language and apply that knowledge to a program that is built over the course of a year.

It’s an imperfect step, one that requires many people to be on the same page. But the most productive minds are always changing their processes. Maybe it’s time schools tried something new.

What do you think?