Reminder to myself: Homework is useless


During my last business trip I bought my son a phone. I try to say yes to what they want to buy. I try to trust that they’ll use it for something interesting. Sometimes it ends up being a waste of money, but usually not.

So the big surprise about the phone is not that he used it for pictures—I think Generation Z just assumes that every gadget they have takes photos. The surprise to me was that he started texting the photos to people.

And then he responded to the responses, and soon he was spending fifteen minutes a day figuring out how to spell.

I can’t decide if this is a lot of spelling or not a lot of spelling. I look at my friends’ kids, and they’re doing homework all day. But how many hours can a kid spend learning to spell, really?  I am consoled with a study that shows that homework is useless until the last two years of high school.

I believe that study intutively because I learned so little from homework myself, even though I was doing a lot of it. What I learned, really, is only the stuff I wanted to learn.

I say that when I’m feeling confident.

When I’m not confident, I wonder out loud to myself while I’m driving, or showering, or shopping: “What do those school kids do all day?” How can I possibly believe that my kids are learning enough when we do no structured learning and other kids are doing ten hours of structured learning if you count the homework that even first graders get.

My version of homeschooling requires a huge leap of faith. I have to believe that kids really do waste an incredible amount of time in school, and then in their homes as well, on homework.

It turns out that all of us—kids and adults—are smarter and more interested in our lives if we spend thirty minutes a day learning something new. This makes me think that kids only need thirty minutes of school a day. That’s another way to feel that it’s okay that my kids are not doing school or homework.

At this point in my life, the thing I do for thirty minutes each day is learn how to justify that my kids need to do something new for only thirty minutes a day. It’s scary. But it’s invigorating, really, to do something intellectually scary.

Intellectually scary is what makes learning exciting. For people of any age.


12 replies
  1. Colleen
    Colleen says:

    If you’d like to read an entire book about how homework is a waste of time, try The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn.

    I’m an unschooling mom of 2 and really enjoying your blog!

  2. Jennifer Fink
    Jennifer Fink says:

    Hi Penelope,
    I heard you speak at a writing conference a few years ago, but didn’t realize you’d started to homeschool! I’m a freelance writer and mom of four boys. Trusting kids to learn can be a challenge when you live in a society that doesn’t trust kids to do anything in their best interests — but kids WILL learn. Your son and his cell phone is a great example. Keep trusting your instincts!

  3. patricia
    patricia says:

    One thing I’ve learned after many years as a homeschooling parent is to pay attention to what my kids are doing, rather than what they’re not doing. It’s a good mantra! Say it again and again when you’re having doubts!

    Because you are absolutely right: the fact that your son is spending fifteen minutes a day teaching himself to spell because it’s useful to him is huge. Kids in school could spend half an hour a day on spelling and such, but it doesn’t mean that they’re engaged and that real learning is happening. Fifteen minutes a day of *engaged* spelling is a lot of spelling–and once upon a time I was a third grade teacher, if that counts for anything. In fact, it’s so much spelling that once he stops doing it for fifteen minutes a day–and he will–he’ll have learned enough that he won’t need to study it anymore. He’ll just keep learning it in bits and moments, when it comes up in his days.

    I think you already know this, though!

  4. karelys
    karelys says:

    I really enjoy your blog because it’s mapping out a season of life I’m not in yet. But because of your blog, mainly the homeschool one, I began questioning a lot of the things I made myself be okay with like religion and how we are taught about spiritual things and such.

    It made me question the reason for things.

    It’s so odd to say but I think it got a lot of things in motion. I am done with my bachelors and I think I am actively seeking things to learn more now than then. Before I had crazy amount of pages to read and things to write. I didn’t want to do them. But now that I don’t have to I want to do it! and I look for it everyday.

    I am much better rounded because I have the freedom to learn that I pick up everything that seems interesting. I am reading a free book called the Perfect 10 Diet. I thought I’d learn about dissecting the bogus claims of diets (because I was reading the book with cynicism) but I am actually getting an awesome biology lesson. I am learning about hormones. Even if I don’t ever try their diet I think I am going to be much better inform about hormones, how food affects the balance which in turn affects our physical and even mental health!

    This post is incredibly encouraging because it seems that most of the questioning yourself and freaking out has taken a backseat and the learning by themselves (the kids) has taken much more momentum! I love it.

    You career blog help me make the decision that I am not giving up on being a counselor one day but right now I want to work on setting the stage so I can be financially able to work flexible hours (I don’t want to say less because no one really works less when they work for themselves).

    I am amazed that I get paid to be in the office for so many hours and the only thing it does to me is want to put things off. I want to read in the internet. I want to investigate. My work, if I push myself can get done in 3 hours. But I am paid to sit there and it kills me!

    The upside is that I get paid to learn? I feel like I am stealing all the time so I’m full of guilt! But I would probably not read as much online and cross reference via links if I didn’t have to stay put in a boring place for so long. I’d be out finishing projects and doing more things.

    If I am acting like this I can imagine that kids, easily, could benefit much more from being without school structure than with it.

  5. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    Just think back to what you remember from elementary school. The things I really remember are the field trips. I especially remember a 4th grade trip to a Mission in California, then building a model of that Mission with tiny home-made mud bricks afterwards with about 2 other kids, and my grandfather exhibiting that model in his carriage museum. Subsequently we had a field trip to my grandfather’s carriage museum. THESE are the things we remember and they are the things you can do in abundance while homeschooling. A lot of the historical details from that trip stick with me till today. I also remember cheating on my spelling tests by writing the hard words on my desk in pencil before the test, and I remember agonizing over the times-tables. The stress of performing on those timed-tests still remains in my memory. I remember the fights I used to get into with other kids, and I remember all the social ills that went on, even in elementary that perhaps set those child-victims up for a life of self-doubt. I remember recess well and it was three times per day (not once-per-day which is what kids get these days). I didn’t do any homework until 6th grade, and when I started doing that homework, I only remember trying to get it done as quickly as possible, never stopping to understand anything from it. The part I hated most was having to look up words in a dictionary and copy definitions, most of the tme not understanding the definitions! All of this makes it sound like I was a troubled kid, but in actuality, I did very well in school and was well liked, so even a normal child who apparently is doing well can secretly have a lot of issues with school and homework.

  6. emily
    emily says:

    When I was out of a job I got myself out of a funk by assigning a category to every day, for learning purposes. My interests are mostly in the arts, so monday was music day, tuesday was art day, wednesday was writing day – for examples. Every morning I woke up excited for the day to start so I could learn about something new.

    This changed my life completely. I remember walking up the stairs to my apartment thinking: i’m so HAPPY! How was it that I was missing this happiness all along?

    Now that I’m working again a lot of this ability to self direct my learning is redirected to checking things off my to-do list: the most uninspiring type of learning there is. I know there are ways to apply the same kind of methodology to my job every day, but the types of things I learn here are a lot different than the ones that I’d learn if I wasn’t here everyday.

    So this is my way of saying I really support the early discovery your doing homeschooling so that, by the time the kids get to adulthood, the work they do will be aligned with the work they found out they were most excited to wake up an do on their own.

    Sucks to be an adult still figuring that out. Not that I mind exactly, since it led me to this blog and to a valuable relationship with you, Penelope. But to become confident about what one wants to do when one wakes up each day is the greatest skill I think you can encourage in kids.

    p.s.Read Jeanette Winterson’s new memoir / essay / story book : Why by happy when you could be normal – for more anecdotal evidence!

  7. Bolsta
    Bolsta says:

    I relate so much to your story karelys! I have had almost the exact same sentiments about some of my working experiences. I think that is definitely an interesting idea to think of in relation to a long school day.

  8. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    I posted earlier, but I do want to make one comment about homework. Being from a scientific/mathematical backgound, I know that there is no way to get better at math other than by doing math problems. Sure, they can be applied math problems, but those often take a long time and do not require repetition. In math, a lot of repetition is needed to burn the concepts in your mind (especially the difficult concepts). You have to struggle with a problem, finally get it, then move on to another, and do them until you can do them quickly. Then you will find they are fun to do, and there is where the satisfaction lies — in conquering something that in the beginning was difficult. In this respect, I feel “homework” or structured learning is required if the child wants to get better at math. It should be combined with other creative math situations. However, if your child is mathematical, he will most likely enjoy this drilling and will want to pick it up and do it on his/her own. I see that already in my third grader who loves doing math worksheets, and he loves when i make up problems for him. So I wouldn’t avoid structured learning if the child gravitates towards it in some way.

    • MoniqueWS
      MoniqueWS says:

      Not so much. I do not have exceptional kids (other than they are mine). My 14 year old is rocking Calculus. My 11 year old is rocking algebra. My 8 year old is learning his multiplication along with ratios. We shoot for three days of math per week about 48 weeks per year. The *most* number of math questions they each do (including what we work through together to learn the concepts) are 10-15.

      When you spend lots of time trying to work through math questions and do not have a good idea about the concepts what you are likely to get is FRUSTRATED and HATRED. You are likely to practice imperfectly and drive THAT home in your brain.

      I spent a lot of time unlearning bad understanding of earlier mathematics just so I could become proficient to earn an engineering degree.

  9. JKB
    JKB says:

    “Confidence in the general and growing good sense of children is a presupposition in the sensible parent and teacher. Having such confidence, their mission is to let these young people alone much of the time; to direct, not to control the selections that they make, assuming the role of advisers and critics but not dictators.”

    That is a quote from ‘How to Study and Teaching How to Study’ (1909) by F. M. McMurry, Professor of Elementary Education, Teachers College, Columbia University. A book I wish I’d known about 40 years ago. And it’s free via Google Books.

    Why such scholarship was lost or ignored, is beyond me. Children are still not taught to study, beyond memorization, even though it is right in their job title, student (A person engaged in study). Mr. McMurry’s factors of studying are essentially critical thinking, which these days is a supposed tangible benefit of a liberal arts college degree. However, he makes a very good case that children in elementary school should be taught to study, which makes sense since they are in the beginning of their career instead of the final years. Furthermore, he provides evidence that children have this ability and use it in their everyday lives. Well, at least until it is “educated” out of them in regards to school subjects inducing a ‘school helplessness”.

    “In spite of the fact that schools exist for the sake of education, there is many a school whose pupils show a peculiar “school helplessness”; that is, they are capable of less initiative in connection with their school tasks than they commonly exhibit in the accomplishment of other tasks.”

    Sir Ken Robinson cites a study showing the death of divergent thinking in children as they proceed through school in his RSA Animate: Changing Education Paradigms video on Youtube. So this is not a problem that has been conquered.

    I have to wonder if the increasing homework as children pass through the grades isn’t an attempt to overcome the increasing resistance that develops in children from the induced school helplessness.

    I also recommend Teaching Boys and Girls How to Study (1919) by Peter Jeremiah Zimmers, Superintendent of city schools Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Using McMurry and others, the school system changed from lecture/recitation to the ‘problem method’ of teaching which relied more on student initiative, fellow student questioning and challenges with the teacher more as coach.

    “One of the most important functions of the class period is the development of initiative and self-reliance in pupils. These qualities are fundamental, not only in proper study, but they lie at the very basis of a democracy such as ours, and it is important that the school make provision for their development. In these days of hysteria it is essential that the future citizen be trained to stand on his own feet and to think for himself.

    How is initiative developed? Certainly not by having the teacher take all the initiative and responsibility in the conduct of the class period. To develop initiative, the pupils must exercise initiative, and the class period must provide this opportunity. To secure this initiative, there must be a change in the conduct of the class period.”

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