This high school is banning homework and tests to 'reduce stress'

It’s no secret that homework is stressful. But in recent decades, researchers have begun to wonder whether the anxiety it produces outweighs its benefits. A myriad of research suggests that indeed, the bad may overshadow the good. One study in particular, from Stanford University in 2014, found excessive homework not only heightens stress, but causes difficulty sleeping, and exacerbates other physical ailments such as headaches.

Given this research, it was only a matter of time before schools began experimenting with a radical solution: eliminating homework altogether. The first to make news for trying this was an elementary school in Montreal, where the principal said he wanted his young students to be “playing” after school instead of working.

But now a school in Sweden has taken it a step further: banning not only homework but tests. The high school, located in a small town called Boden, reportedly informed its students of the new policy, aimed to reduce stress, in February. “It was my idea,” Petronella Sirkka, principal of the Sturenskolan School, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The students have expressed that they are relieved, since they are under a lot of pressure during our school year.”

Sturenskolan’s homework and test ban has met mixed reviews in the town. But that hasn’t stopped Sirkka from pushing onward. “We are constantly receiving new reports that our children feel bad. And that’s because they have a very high stress level all the time,” Sirkka told SVT, the Swedish national public broadcaster. “This is our way of trying to reduce that stress.”

Sirkka said that the curriculum her students study is “very complicated” and “places extremely high demands” on them individually. Eliminating homework and tests (except for nationally required tests) is an attempt to make it “less challenging for their psychological well being” overall, according to a Sputnik News article.

Sirkka says that, since the students were away on Easter break, they haven’t been in class long enough for her to adequately judge how it’s going. But in general, she says the students are happy with the decision. For Sirkka, that’s good news. Her goal, if it goes well, is to introduce a permanent ban on homework and tests at Sturenskolan in 2019.

The anxiety that Sirkka’s solution is aimed at tackling isn’t unique to Sweden. Research shows that young Americans are more anxious than ever. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, 31.9 percent of adolescents in the U.S. now have a diagnosable anxiety disorder, compared with just 19 percent of adults. In the last decade, the American Academy of Pediatrics reports, the number of adolescents and teens admitted to a hospital for suicidal thoughts has doubled.

Although there are many contributing factors to increased anxiety among teens — threats to physical safety being one of them — the burden of homework is real. The aforementioned Stanford study, published in the Journal of Experimental Education, looked at more than 4,000 students in upper-middle-class California communities (a demographic, it should be noted, that receives more homework help than others) and found that excessive homework, along with adding stress, leads to decreased socialization with friends and family.

Studies like that one, combined with anecdotal evidence from parents, have led to a growing irritation with after-school assignments. In a book titled The Case Against Homework, authors Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish argue that there is no evidence showing actual benefits of homework among students — and a wealth of evidence proving its negative effects.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

“Homework overload is compromising our parenting choices, jeopardizing our children’s health, and robbing us of precious family time,” Bennett and Kalish write. “Many ‘homework experts’ claim that one of the benefits of homework is increased parental involvement. But is it really beneficial when we constantly argue about homework or stay up late to do our kids’ assignments with them — or for them?”

In a piece criticizing Bennett and Kalish’s book, the Washington Post’s Jay Matthews argued that their hypothesis missed a crucial fact. “When students are not doing homework, their principal pastimes are not play or reading for pleasure or any of the other meaningful activities homework protesters say are being cut back because of too much homework,” Matthews writes. “Instead, they are watching a lot of television.”

Those arguments, written in the mid-2000s, are still relevant today. But even though homework has long been in the spotlight, American schools haven’t reduced the amount they dole out. A more recent piece in the New York Times reported one byproduct of this, a growing trend of “homework therapists.” These experts, as their name implies, are brought in to tutor kids and offer “emotional support” at the same time.

Lisa Jacobson, one of the women quoted in the Times article, owns a high-end tutoring company in New York that now employs eight homework therapists. She captures their job in one sentence: “It’s all about calming people down.” That’s the same thing that Sirrka and her teachers hope to do, but in their case, by simply eliminating the homework itself.

Sirrka, who understands that critics may disapprove, says it’s important to note that the banning of homework and tests doesn’t represent a complete unraveling of the school structure. “This does not mean that we don’t assess or examine our students,” Sirkka tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We just don’t make them do homework such as studying for tests in their home.”

Instead, grading at Sturenskolan will be done on work that’s completed at school, during the normal hours. Whether it works remains to be seen. For homework detesters, hope springs eternal.

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