Imagine you hire a personal trainer to help you reach your fitness goals. You meet with him; he shows you the machines and talks through the exercises and movements he expects you to make. Perhaps he lets you try each machine quickly before showing the next. At the end of the tour, he says, “Ok you’ve got this—you’re on your own.” How would you feel? What are the chances you’d remember all the steps? Avoid injury and mistakes along the way? Stay motivated and focused on your goal? While there is certainly a place for quiet, solitary, focused exercise, you would still want your trainer there to keep you on the right track, correct your mistakes along the way and provide motivating feedback.

“I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.” Lily Tomlin

What the Research Says About Learning and Homework
In recent years, our understanding of the brain and how we learn has been growing at an unprecedented rate. Science can tell us so much about brain development and memory acquisition, and how it should affect your child’s classroom. This relates to homework in the following ways:

• The process of turning learning into a memory is a physical one involving proteins and neurons in your brain. This physical process takes time and requires something known as “settling time”—periods of rest when the brain can pause to link new information to earlier associations, uses, and procedures. Too much, too fast, it won’t last (Jensen, 2005).

• Mistakes, not correct answers, make us smarter. In order to create efficient neural networks in the brain, a learner needs to try out several possible options and eliminate the ones that don’t work. Feed-back driven learning makes more accurate and complex connections (Jensen, 2005). A child completing math sheets alone at home is not receiving any timely feedback or error correction.

• Children learn best when multiple senses are used to engage multiple brain pathways (Willis, 2006). When learning is presented through eyes, ears, movement and emotions, with time for talk and reflection along the way, children are engaged and concepts are remembered. In addition, everybody learns differently and a quality lesson reaches all students. It would be very difficult to design homework that meets this expectation.

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” Ignacio Estrada

A Day in the Life of a Middle School Student
Your child arrives in the classroom bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 8:40 a.m. Or perhaps sleepy-eyed and bushy-haired—but they arrive. Each and every day, ready to do their best but needing motivation and inspiration to achieve it. Over the next six or so hours they will be reading and talking, listening and speaking, laughing and reflecting. They will try to focus on mathematical formulas while simultaneously dealing with the peer interactions of adolescence. They will stretch their imaginations and reach into their memories. They will create and connect, compare and contrast, debate and discuss. They will also engage in a rigorous PE class, an exciting Exploratory rotation and perhaps even get to watch a performance designed to inspire. This is a full day. When your child comes home from school there are many things they should be doing, but I believe more schoolwork is not one of them.

Alternatives to Homework
Here are some valuable ways your child can spend time out of school:

• Read-for-Pleasure studies are accumulating that show that reading for pleasure improves reading comprehension and writing skills, general knowledge, a better understanding of culture, community participation, and a greater insight into human nature and decision making.

• Be physically active. Brain-activation studies show that children and adolescents who are fit allocate more brain resources to a task and do so for longer periods of time. Your child could walk, bike, swim, dance, play a sport, skateboard, hike, geocache, jog, work in the garden, walk the dog…

• Talk to your child about what they learned in school today. Encourage them to try to explain a concept in their own words so that you can understand it. Help them reflect upon what worked and what didn’t. What do they need to be successful? Connect. Listen.

• Cook or grocery shop. Transferring learning is a difficult thing. By linking school concepts to the real-world, children are able to consolidate new information. Reading and following recipes reinforce language arts and math concepts. Figuring out sale prices, volume and weight conversions and estimating money all tie directly into the middle school math curriculum. The more exposure to real-world situations the richer and stronger the learning connections.

• Go Outside. Breathe the fresh air and listen to nature. Move and sit, be loud and quiet. Climb a tree, play tag, throw the ball for the dog or at a sibling, walk in the woods, sit by the beach, throw rocks, pick blackberries, jump over puddles, look in hollow trees. The world is amazing; get out in it.

• Sleep. As a rule, adolescents need more sleep—seven to nine hours a night. During sleep the brain is massively reorganizing newly stored experiences (Jensen 2005). Loss of sleep hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, logical reasoning and even motor dexterity (Medina, 2008).

Deanne Sharp is a middle school teacher with School District 61, and the parent of two adolescent girls.