Homework and the Real World

My son comes home with a packet every day. He spends half an hour going through dry worksheets with long, drawn-out explanations and a few crossword puzzles to increase the fun factor. He impatiently completes the work while he looks out the window and stares at the swing set. If the goal is mindful practice, his mind isn't in it.

The dominant theory is that he should get ten minutes for every grade. So, in his third year of school, he's at a half an hour. By the time he is in extracurricular activities, experimenting with dating (scary thought) and working his first job, he will be at two hours a day.

Homework is often justified with the "real world" argument. When I point out that kids should have the freedom to learn independently, play around with friends and socialize in their free time, I hear the rationale that in the real world they will have to work hard whether they want to or not.

In the real world, extra hours will get overtime and people get to choose their jobs. Only in the most authoritarian of nations do we expect people to work additional hours in jobs that are forced upon them by law.

Homework is often justified with the excuse that "the homework is intense in college." True, but so is the free time. And in college, students have freedom of space, freedom of choice and additional responsibilities that come with adulthood.

So, if you want to make homework like the real world, it needs to be extra credit and it needs to be based upon student choice. If you care deeply about mirroring school and the real world, you need less coercion, more freedom, more choice and more self-directed responsibility.

John Spencer

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. John,

    I started to leave a comment but then it turned into a blog post.


    Education Dreamer

  2. How many things are justified by it being preparation for the "Real World".

    There have been times when I've wondered if teaching was an escape from the "Real World", but I've found that the perpetual student is really that escape. They want homework and professors in college to tell them what to do forever with all of their free time. They need endless group projects and assignments to do while drinking a latte at Starbucks, hoping that someone will notice how hard they are working.

    I can only assume that my students don't want those things. They want to be happy - THAT is the real world. Not success, but happiness.

    If you haven't checked it out, you should look up Shawn Achor's TED Talk about the Happiness Advantage.

    Great post, John!

    1. You nailed it. The perpetual student. The kid who still needs stickers on the chart on the wall, even when he or she is 37 years old.

  3. Homework assigned because a specific amount seems to be required reflects nothing of the real world. If that were so, we'd all get paid overtime for the extra work we're asked to do.

    I've said it plenty of times--if the homework I am assigning is meaningful to our work in class and needs to be done outside of class (i.e., reading, writing a paper, finishing a project, etc.), then it makes sense. Otherwise, I might as well ask them to put a cover sheet on a TPS report.

  4. I'm not a fan of homework--not at all. I wish my students never had to take school assignments home to finish them. Unfortunately, sometimes they do. I teach reading, and we are in the middle of a novel study that consists primarily of three activities--reading the book (mostly aloud), noting our thinking as we read (metacognition marks), and discussing the book (and our thinking). Once we finish the book, we will do an in-class project.

    We created a reading schedule that allows us time to accomplish these tasks, but it's a tight timeline. Sometimes we cannot finish our discussion and read the next section in the time we are allotted each day. In those cases, my students finish the reading and noting for homework. I'm not sure how else to proceed. It's meaningful, they have input into the plan and how our time is spent each day. (Later in the year, they'll pick the novels, too.) I just haven't yet figured out how to avoid the occasional homework assignment having to be done at home. I'd love to hear your suggestions, though.

    1. I think there's a difference between homework (you have to do this on your own time) and getting work done at home when you were goofing off in class. Sometimes that's what the context creates. What you describe is something that the students helped negotiate. It's a shared concept.

  5. My son, 7th grade, has a science book entitled Interactive Science. The only interaction I have seen so far is the one where he fills in the blanks with specific words printed in sentences in the chapter. We too spend about an hour to an hour and a half each night on homework and most of it will never be applied to anything other than the test at the end of the unit. We have spend hours learning what a demonstrative pronoun and demonstrative adjective is(and many more noun, pronoun and adjective classifications) and granted they are easy to grade, but come on. Does he really need to know this for his future career? My degree is English and I really think we need to teach our kids to write well. I don't mind the work, but at least make it so it applies to something he will need someday.

    1. The irrelevancy of most homework kills me. I'm not opposed to kids learning at home. It's the mindless work that drives me nuts.

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