Listen: Parenting and families researcher Dr Justin Coulson explains to Emma Mullings why he doesn’t make his kids do homework.
Every year at the start of Term One, a Sydney dad called Justin sends his kids off to school with their new lunch boxes, new bags, new uniforms—and new Homework Letters.
The Homework Letters are written to the kids’ teachers, explaining why Justin won’t be encouraging his kids to do homework.
Justin is no lazy parent. In fact, he’s the parenting researcher, Dr Justin Coulson, who writes and researches about all the things that make children happier and families more harmonious.
It’s no surprise that Dr Coulson’s kids love the Homework Letter. As for other parents, some think it’s irresponsible. And the teachers who read it? Mostly, they breathe a big sigh of relief, he says.
Why No Homework, Doctor?
In an interview on Hope 103.2, Emma Mullings asked Dr Coulson the obvious question: “Why?”
“Basically, the story is this,” he said. “Research for the last 20 years or so has been painting a particularly abysmal picture about the way homework relates to academic outcomes and school engagement and motivation.
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“If children are in primary school, under the age of about 12 or 13, homework has – at best – a neutral influence on learning. But usually it has a negative impact.
“That is, the more homework you do, the poorer the children’s brains are, the less they’re excited about school, the less engaged they are, and the less they want to do it.”
No-Homework Policy Backed By Research, Says Coulson
To back his claims, Dr Coulson quotes scientific research, including a 1989 study by respected homework researcher Harris Cooper, PhD, saying – “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of [primary school] elementary students”.
And it seems Dr Coulson’s not the only one with this view.
The Sydney Morning Herald writes that the NSW Education Department has attached research to its homework policy document, showing that homework in primary school doesn’t necessarily improve results.
In fact the department allows schools to set their own homework policies, and suggests that none be given to kindergarten kids.
Some Experts Recommend Homework – Within Reason
Despite Dr Coulson’s view, it must be said that Dr Harris Cooper, who is one of the world’s leading researchers on the topic, does support homework – as long as it’s at appropriate levels.
“The amount and type should vary according to their developmental level and home circumstances,” he says, according to a Duke University article.
“Homework for young students should be short, lead to success without much struggle, occasionally involve parents and, when possible, use out-of-school activities that kids enjoy, such as their sports teams or high-interest reading.”
Dr Cooper says that research backs the “10-minute rule” – a common practice in which teachers increase their students’ homework by 10 minutes each year.
Under this rule-of-thumb, children in first grade may be given 10 minutes of homework, while sixth-graders might get an hour.
Why Dr Coulson Doesn’t Like Homework
Besides the scientific evidence, there are several other reasons Dr Coulson – and many teachers, he says – don’t like homework. He believes homework:
- Creates stress and dramas for parents and for children.
- Takes children away from playing.
- Takes children away from extra curricular activities.
- Eats into the kids’ sleep time, making them tired.
- Prevents them from contributing around the house.
- Gets in the way of them “just being children”.
- Takes kids away of time that could be better spent reading.
Dr Coulson would rather see his children playing together, enjoying the backyard, helping around the house, playing games, and “just being kids”.
“Playing is the most important things that kids can be doing, certainly in their younger years,” he believes.
“But My A-Grade Child Loves Homework!”
Needless to say, not every parent agrees with Dr Coulson’s anti-homework stance, particularly those with bright kids who have no problem completing maths worksheets at home.
But Dr Coulson believes those are the kids who would succeed regardless – homework or not.
“The research shows that the kids who are doing well are going to do well anyway,” he said. “If you know how to do it, it’s easy. You breeze through it.
“But for the kids who are struggling, homework destroys their motivation. If you don’t understand it, it becomes the worst two hours of your life, every afternoon. It’s like you’ve just done a full day’s shift and then you go home and you’ve got to do overtime. You’ve got to do another shift. And it doesn’t work out well for kids.”
Reading & Interest Projects Are OK, In Dr Coulson’s Book
While Dr Coulson can’t stand “busy” homework – such as rote-learning worksheets – there are two kinds of homework he does like: reading, and interest projects – on topics the kids love.
He says reading is one of the best home activities a child can do, and that it should be encouraged everyday. But don’t set rewards or targets, he says. Otherwise it becomes work instead of play.
“You should never tell your kids that you have to read x-number of pages, or x-number of minutes,” he said. “Because then it becomes a chore, they just do what they’ve got to, the quickest, easiest way they can. Instead, get them stuff that they want to read and say, “Ok it’s reading time, off you go”. And just get them to read.”
He added that parents should read with their kids, too.
“This is shown to have a really significantly positive influence on the school engagement and the academic outcomes of our children,” he said.
He’s also a fan of letting kids do projects that they are interested in.
“Actively encourage research, projects, and writing speeches,” he wrote in a Daily Telegraph article. “This helps the children in information gathering, critical thinking, logical formatting of content, and presentation skills. Plus it gets them actively “discovering” in their learning, and sinks much deeper than much other“busy” work.”
So What Do The Teachers Think?
Surprisingly, most teachers have no problem with Dr Coulson’s Homework Letter.
“Teachers, except for in one or two cases, have been so relieved,” he said. “Most teachers hate homework as much as the kids, because it’s just more work for them. And a lot of teachers know that homework isn’t really making an impact, in fact, that it’s causing problems.”