Homework for the Holidays: Hard No or Maybe So?

Dr. Brent Macdonald, R. Psych. (AB, NS, NT, PE) Lead Psychologist, Macdonald Psychology Group, Complexlearners.com

Imagine that you are doing your job, minding your own business, just doing your thing and a higher up, perhaps a manager or supervisor, wanders by, watches you for a few minutes and then says “Well, you seem to mostly know what you are doing, but I think you need more practice, especially if you are to meet the team’s quarterly goals. So, once you finish for the day, I’d like you to take all of this stuff home with you and do it tonight. It’s due by Thursday.”

Imagine your response. Some readers might think “Well, if I don’t get it done at work, and there is a target that needs to be met, well, okay, I guess I’ll do it.” Others are thinking “Hard no! I leave work at work.” Others still might be thinking “This one time, okay, but this better not become a habit.”

The next day your manager comes by, gives the work you did at home a cursory glance and then says “Well, okay, but you need to do more of that again tonight.” No real feedback, no rationale outside of “You did it last night.”

Now, imagine this happens day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. You finally get a break in December, but wait! Here’s some more to make sure that you don’t fall behind over the holidays!

How long would you stick with this job? Not long? Too bad, you HAVE to stay at this job – and only this job. The managers may change, but you’re going to be doing this for a long time. Like, 13 years or more!

Given that the title of this piece is about homework, I guessing you have already drawn the analogy and realize that we are really talking about homework.

Specifically, given the time of year, we are talking about the relative merits of homework over the holidays (HH). There is a quick and easy and evidence-based response to the question of merits of homework over the holidays and that answer is: pretty much none.

The homework debate is a far larger issue than can be addressed in a short article like this, but for our sake, let’s summarize by saying that there is little research that supports the implementation of homework as a means of enhancing learning and developing a positive attitude toward school (in fact, in the latter case, research suggests the opposite – homework most often creates a negative attitude toward school and learning). So, what about homework over the holidays?

In summary, there are a number of reason NOT to have students do homework over the holidays:

1) Homework over the Holidays (HH) leads to frustration and exhaustion

2) HH reduces time for other recreational activities, including free play and exercise

3) HH increases screentime (which we are trying hard to mediate with most students)

4) HH can lead to a loss of enthusiasm for learning

5) The positive effects of HH over holidays (independence, dedication, responsibility, reinforces learning, etc.) are largely correlational – not casual – at best, and imaginary at worst.

6) HH actually acts in opposition to contemporary research

7) HH can increase conflict and result in avoidance of family time

8) HH has limited, if any, positive impact on elementary student’s learning and almost no positive impact at all for secondary students

9) Homework in general may slightly enhance performance on standardized measures of academic skills; I would argue that any such gains only have a positive effect on those who would otherwise do pretty well on such measures in any case, and the implementation of homework has shown to actually have a negative impact on these with more complex learning profiles, including anxiety.

10) Of course, #9 implies that the goal of homework is to do better on standardized tests which, as I hope most agree, is a side effect of learning for some students, not the main effect for most.

Alternatives:

1) Home-based, genuine learning – children tend to learn best when genuinely interested and engaged. Homework can, at best, work at cross-purposes to enthusiasm (if you’ve a student in your family who LOVES homework and actively seeks out more, congratulations, you’ve a unicorn in your home!). Ask your kids what they would LIKE to learn about (and if it’s Minecraft or how to become better at any given TikTok dance, roll with it – learning is learning!)

2) Build a more flexible brain, not necessarily a stronger back. Rather than teaching your child back-strengthening activities and exercises to help them cope with the weight of their homework-laden backpack, teach them to explore areas of interest in and around curricular expectations. The goal is not quantity, but quality.

3) Understand that time-based estimates for homework, especially over the holidays, is like most estimates – very few people will meet the estimate; many will achieve it faster(but sometimes with many errors), some will do it slower (with few errors but a lot of energy being expended), while yet others will take the “Goldilocks” approach and do some, well.

4) Most students will leave any assigned HH to the last minute, meaning that they may experience anxiety about the homework over the “restful” part of the holidays, then end up in a higher anxiety state right before they return to school, thus negating any benefit of the break in the first place!

5) Consider the goal – if we know from #8 above that HH has little to no clear benefit, why are we doing it and at what cost?

6) Agree to disagree – HH has been a topic of debate since the first Homo Sapien came home with a bunch of sticks that still needed to be sharpened after a busy day of stick-sharpening. “Glurg,” Glurg’s parents would say, “Sharpen your sticks before watching the fire.” (Of course, Glurg would reply by saying “The sticks don’t need to be finished until next week, so can I watch the fire now!?”) Educators polarize on HH, as do administrators and parents. Rely on the evidence – not Facebook’s Comment Section, but actual studies. And always consider the source (Full Disclosure: As a psychologist/ educator who works extensively with students who have complex learning profiles, I have seen very little evidence either from the literature or from clinical experience that suggests that HH has any significant positive merit. As such, my bias, to be clear, is that I am not a fan…this bias shapes my perspective and thoughts on the topic).

7) Play a “What if?” “What if” you didn’t assign/ do homework over the holidays? What is the very worst thing that would happen? What if you actually relaxed instead?

8) Afraid your kids will “fall behind”? Don’t worry – kids learn better when rested and refreshed, so a break will actually help them learn when school re-starts!

9) Recognize that vacation is an Anglo-French version of the Latin vacatio, which means “exempt from service, respite from work.” Let THAT sit in for a bit!

Overall, everyone has a viewpoint and opinion on HH. Simply try to be mindful of the need for balance in all things and – especially this year – the need to be vacatio!