For students, parents, and educators, homework is a part of everyday life. But who invented homework? How did it come to be a norm in education? Here is a brief history of homework in the United States.
Origins of Homework: Myth vs. History
Exactly who invented homework? We may never know for sure. Many people and events have influenced its history. Let's begin by looking at two of its influencers.
The Dubious Roberto Nevelis of Venice
Roberto Nevelis of Venice, Italy, is often credited with having invented homework in 1095—or 1905, depending on your sources. Upon further inspection, however, he seems to be more of an internet myth than an historical personage.
The 19th-century politician and educational reformer Horace Mann played a large role in the history of homework. Mann, like his contemporaries Henry Barnard and Calvin Ellis Stowe, had a strong interest in the compulsory public education system in the newly unified nation-state of Germany.
Pupils attending the Volksschulen (''People's Schools'') were given mandatory assignments to be completed at home on their own time. This requirement emphasized the power of the state over the individual at a time when nationalists like Johann Gottlieb Fichte were trying to rally support for a unified German state. While homework had been invented before Fichte's involvement with the Volksschulen, his political aims can be seen as a catalyst for the institution of homework as an educational essential.
Horace Mann spearheaded the development of government-regulated, tax-funded public education in the United States. He saw the Volkschule system in action during a trip to Germany in 1843 and brought some of its concepts—including homework—back to America.
Homework in the American Public School System
Homework, while a near-universal part of the American educational experience, has not always been universally accepted. To this day, parents and educators debate its pros and cons…just as they have for more than a century.
1900s: Homework Bans & Anti-Homework Sentiment
In 1901—just a few decades after the concept of homework made its way across the Atlantic—it was dispensed with in the Pacific state of California by a homework ban. The ban affected all students younger than 15 and stayed in effect until 1917.
Around the same time, prominent publications like the Ladies' Home Journal and The New York Times used published statements from parents and medical professionals to portray homework as detrimental to children's health.
1930: Homework as Child Labor
In 1930, an organization known as the American Child Health Association declared that homework was a type of child labor. Since laws against child labor had recently been passed, this proclamation reflected a less-than-favorable view of homework as an acceptable educational practice.
Early-to-Mid 20th Century: Homework and the Progressive Era
During the progressive education reforms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, teachers began looking for ways to make homework assignments more personal and relevant to individual students. Could this be how the immortal essay topic, ''What I Did on My Summer Vacation,'' was born?
The Cold War: Homework Heats Up
U.S. education authorities decided that rigorous homework was the best way to ensure that American students didn't fall behind their Russian counterparts, especially in the increasingly competitive fields of science and mathematics.
1980s: Homework in A Nation at Risk
The U.S. Department of Education's 1986 pamphlet, What Works, included homework among effective educational strategies. This came three years after the National Commission on Excellence in Education published its landmark report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform.
Early 21st Century: Homework Bans Return
Many educators and other concerned citizens have once again started to question the value of homework. Several books have been published on the subject.
- The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It by Sarah Bennett and Nancy Kalish (2006)
- The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents (Third Edition) by Duke University psychologist Dr. Harris Cooper (2007)
- The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning by education professor Dr. Etta Kralovec and journalist John Buell (2000)
Homework is still controversial today. Some schools are instituting homework bans that mirror those from the turn of the previous century. Teachers are expressing differing perspectives about these bans, while parents are trying to cope with the disruption to the home routine that results from such bans.
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