02/14/2012 01:04 pm ET Updated Apr 15, 2012

Homework: Winning the Learning Battle, Losing the Learning War

One recent Friday afternoon, a third grader whom I regularly babysit -- let's call her Amy -- gleefully retrieved her recorder from her room and started playing for me. However, no sooner than she had begun did she tilt her head to one side thoughtfully, toss the recorder to the floor, and turn on the TV. Her reason? Practicing the recorder counts as "homework," and no homework is assigned on the weekends. As such, Amy decided against practicing the recorder, even though she actually kind of wanted to, and it would have helped her improve at reading music. What is going on here?

Homework has recently come under fire from a number of sources, and for a variety of reasons. See for example this New York Times article from October 2011: "At Elite Schools, Easing Up A Bit on Homework." Psychologists, education researchers, and parents have argued in favor of reduced homework loads, to alleviate the mental strain that an excessive amount of homework causes without it clearly providing a commensurate degree of educational benefit.

However, it is totally possible to assign amounts of homework that are reasonable in length and difficulty, of good quality, compatible with healthy sleep habits and plenty of family time and which still quickly and effectively turn students off even to minimally school-like educational activities. Who else was an avid reader until the inception of mandatory "summer reading"? Who had an aptitude for math and numbers until the cryptic or rote worksheets started coming home in droves? And who couldn't be kept from writing little stories on any paper within reach until writing became an arduous task, governed by prescribed topics and highly specific rubrics?

A number of unconventional pedagogical thinkers -- including John Caldwell Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Alfie Kohn -- have long realized that the real danger of homework is that, at best, it will only enable teachers and parents to win the learning battle at the cost of losing the learning war. Let's assume that homework does in fact help students better to master the material to which they've been exposed in school (which is highly controversial and not well-supported by empirical studies). Even so, people will spend much more of their lives as adults outside of schools than as students within them. It is more important to foster and preserve curiosity and a love of learning in the long run than to maximize short-term progress while damaging these traits possibly permanently. While tempting, prioritizing the pursuit of short-term educational progress -- such as by assigning lots of homework -- rather than long-term goals is a tradeoff we should hesitate to make. Unlike worksheets and book reports and papers, education-oriented character traits constitute a gift of learning that keeps on giving.

On another occasion, Amy had been instructed to read for 10 minutes, but she ended up reading for about 20 minutes instead. Afterwards, she approached me and sheepishly said, "I only had to read for 10 minutes, but sometimes you get so into it that you keep going!" The possibility of reading beyond the required time was nearly incomprehensible to her -- and we have the institution of homework as we know it to thank.