Poll students, and most won’t put homework on their top 10 favorite activities. But that may be the old kind of homework, which focused on drills, repetition and simply keeping a mind occupied.

After decades of debate, today’s education experts say homework can be more beneficial, and perhaps more enjoyable, when designed to promote inquisitiveness.

“The big idea now is inquiry, fostering curiosity. There needs to be critical thinking,” said Amy Jefferis, an associate superintendent of Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Portland. “Homework should be meaningful and should connect with what students are learning in the classroom. It should not be busywork.”

Jefferis, former principal of St. Thomas More School in Southwest Portland and previous to that a middle school math teacher, added that good homework forms a link between home and school. That benefits everyone, she explained. Curiosity becomes a way of life, not just a school day task.

“The best thing parents can do is set up a good study space at home,” said Jefferis. Have supplies organized and handy and make sure there is a comfortable desk and good lighting. That will cultivate children to get curious.

A 2006 Duke University analysis found that students who did more homework did better on tests — something of a no-brainer. But the correlation was higher for older children and negligible for younger pupils. While heavy homework can foster interest in some, it just exhausts and discourages others, the study found.

“A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medications or dietary supplements,” the Duke study’s author told Time magazine in 2016. “If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better.”

For the youngest students, homework’s main role is developing good study habits, Jefferis said. Older students should have plenty of reading as a form of exploration, and their homework should become increasingly complex.

Experiments can be a good form of homework, as students found in an after-school club in North Portland run by Jesuit High School students. Measuring the speed of cars rolling down tracks, exploring plants and firing rockets were among the assignments at the St. Johns Tennis Center.

Regarding the amount of homework, the typical thought is 10 minutes per grade level. “Kids need to be active, so there needs to be time for activity,” Jefferis said, cautioning against overscheduling children. “Free time can spark imagination.”

“As is typical in American society, we seem to think more is better,” agreed Yolanda Gallardo, dean of the school of education at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. “There are a lot of realms in education where that is not true.”

As in all learning, educators now know that uniform amounts or kinds of homework don’t fit everyone. Educators and parents should be flexible.

High-schoolers may study in bed or at coffee shops. That may not be ideal, but it might work better for them than a quiet desk, Jefferis said.

Some students like paper planners, while others go digital.

Gallardo, who has been in education for 31 years, voices a new idea about homework and education in general — to be effective, it must be tailored to social and cultural situations.

For example, geometry homework ought not rely on help from parents or caregivers if there is no mathematical expertise at home. And some parents and guardians work at night.

“It’s not always the typical scenes we saw in old sitcoms: Dad gets home, everyone has dinner and then the kids buckle down to homework,” said Gallardo. “You have to ask yourself as an educator what kind of assumptions you are making. Know whom you are serving. Know the context.”

Different kids should get different homework as befits their situation, Gallardo said.

But all homework should be “rich and meaningful,” Gallardo said. “We need to ask how this homework will reinforce or enrich a student or give the family a really good experience.”

The rise in technology is giving a potential new look to homework. At places like Jesuit, some teachers are flipping the tasks. They put lectures and demonstrations online for students to watch at home and then save classroom time for assignments and questions, when teachers are on hand to help. Research on these flipped classrooms is still new but is promising.

Inadvertently, technology has made a new kind of homework necessary for the youngest students: fine motor skills. Children who play games on digital screens may not have used scissors or shaped clay, for example.

“Some kids,” said Jefferis, “show up at kindergarten not able to grasp pencils.”

edl@catholicsentinel.org