I have long believed that children learn through play and that play is the work of childhood. Piaget, Ginot, Vygotsky, Montessori, and Mr. Rogers would agree with me (to name just a few experts in child development). Yet, children come to school and are introduced to work as something other than play. It is conveyed that work should be hard, tedious, and void of joy; while play is frivolous, immature, and something to be left aside when you enter school. Education and psychology contend that a child learns to make sense of the world around them - and thus prepare for cognitive milestones - through play.
Through play children can develop social and cognitive skills, gain self-confidence in their own abilities, and mature emotionally. All of this prepares them for school in the traditional sense. If we are to educate the whole child, we must look at all of their developmental needs. A good early childhood education program designs meaningful experiences to meet the needs of children mentally, physically, socially and emotionally. Enter Mind Brain Education research and The Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning.
In my first year as Assistant Head of School for Academics at Kent School, I was asked to review our homework policy and to make recommendations based on what we were learning through neuroscience education. I did some research and discovered various formulas for the appropriate amount of nightly homework for each grade level: ten minutes times the grade in school; 30 minutes per night in elementary, 1 hour per night in middle school, 2 hours per night in high school; up to one hour per night for each academic subject. Though the formulas varied the research was clear: the quality of the homework was more important than the quantity. Yet, that seemed to be in conflict with public perception. Didn't the hardest (best) teachers give the most homework? Didn't the best schools assign homework every night? Weren't the most rigorous of curricula defined by the amount of additional learning that happened outside of the regular school day? Neuroscience would disagree.
It turns out that quality is more important than quantity. Quality homework improves learning by requiring students to use information and skills they have learned in a new context, or by preparing them for the next day's lesson. In contrast, busy work -- repetition of a skill you've already mastered or practice of a skill disconnected with your learning -- neither educates or motivates.
So, the question for Kent School was "How can we design a homework policy which communicates what we believe about the development of the whole child and translates all that we know about Mind Brain Education research?
In their book, Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education (2016), Whitman and Kelleher state: "Given the importance of factors like play and reading for pleasure, and the lack of overwhelming research evidence to support a rigorous regime of elementary-school homework, it seems prudent to err on the side of "little" and "not every day" ... We must, however, make a stand for what makes a "rigorous" elementary school, and suggest that it be one that values and holistically balances the social, emotional, and educational development of children in the crucially important elementary school years, prime years for certain brain developments, not one that sets hours of homework."
For these reasons, we adopted the practice of no formal homework in Kindergarten - 2nd Grade. We felt confident that our students have great cognitive demands all throughout the academic day. At home we ask that students practice math facts, spelling words, and read for pleasure 15-20 minutes each evening. Third and Fourth Graders continue to have homework assignments, as this will prepare them for Middle School. Our Middle School homework policy of "one half to two hours of written homework" (as outlined in our school handbook) seemed reasonable, under the following conditions:
1.Students must understand the purpose of the homework assignment; as an extension, reinforcement, or enrichment of material covered in class. 2.The load of homework is balanced by other social, physical, and mental activities.
My research revealed that playing, being with other people, being physically active, exploring and engaging in new experiences, talking to themselves, communicating with others, meeting physical and mental challenges, playing board games, and practicing and repeating skills of interest are key ways that children (yes, our middle schoolers are still children!) learn. The feedback from parents has been positive. Was it my imagination, or did I hear a sigh of relief from parents who are now free to enjoy their evenings with their child? Free to take a bike ride together, play a board game, pursue a hobby, read a chapter book together. Recently I explained our homework policy to incoming Kindergarten parents. One father noted, "That makes sense. When I'm working out, I need to let the targeted muscles rest between sessions." There you have it. We are giving our young students' brains the opportunity to "rest" between cognitive demands. Research says that this is exactly what is needed for richer learning.