Who Invented Homework and Why? Let’s Investigate
Who Invented Homework and Why?
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Who Invented Homework and Why? Let’s Investigate

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Author:
Samantha W.
Mar 21, 2024
8 min

So, who started homework?

You may curse homework for all the hours you’ve had to spend hunched over textbooks or in front of a screen – and all the tension headaches you’ve gotten in the process. But did you know that if you went to a school just a century ago, you probably wouldn’t have received any assignments to complete on your own at home?
Yes, that’s right: homework is a relatively modern invention (and so is the obligation to go to school at all, by the way).
So, who started homework? Pliny the Younger is believed to have invented homework, while Horace Mann popularized it in U.S. education. Roberto Nevilis, while often named the inventor of homework, seems to be a figment of collective imagination once we dig deep into history textbooks.
But why does homework exist? And how did it become a given in the American educational system? Let’s dive right into it.

Why Was Homework Invented?

So, why was homework originally invented? Well, we may never know for certain – the reasons behind it are lost to time. Pliny the Younger, who’s credited with the earliest mention of an educator giving his students an assignment to take home, never explicitly mentioned his reasons for doing so, beyond instilling confidence in future orators.
While the reasons why homework was first invented may never be known, we can easily trace the purposes it still serves in modern education:
  • Revising material taught in class to improve knowledge retention
  • Extrapolating learned skills and knowledge to new contexts and situations, including ones relevant to personal interests and activities
  • Preparing for the following lessons in the curricula
  • Promoting active learning among learners
  • Enabling students to learn how to learn
  • Developing time management skills, discipline, and autonomy
Horace Mann, the man credited with bringing homework to the American education system, believed that homework would teach students discipline, obedience to authority, and time management skills. Those were, in his view, all important values of a good U.S. citizen.
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Who Created Homework and Why?

The consensus is that Pliny the Younger, a lawyer of Ancient Rome, is the one who created hw as a concept. The story goes that Pliny the Younger was educating his followers on the art of public speaking. To help learners become more confident orators, Pliny would ask them to practice at home.
This idea of working on specific skills outside of lessons would later evolve into homework as you know it today. However, Pliny the Younger can’t be credited for inventing written assignments that students have to spend hours on today.
One could argue that Horace Mann is the person who made homework what it is today in the U.S. Often dubbed the father of the American education system, Horace Mann brought the concept of homework from Prussia after visiting schools there.
In his opinion, the role of public education was not only to teach academic skills, such as reading or math. He considered moral education had to take place in school as well. That is, in his view, schools were meant to mold students into good citizens of the United States by instilling certain values in them.

Who Is the Person Who Invented Homework?

Now that we’ve covered what purposes homework serves, let’s examine more closely who can be credited with the invention of the concept. But let us warn you right away: there’s no clear-cut answer as to who can be awarded the “homework created” badge of honor.
The answer to the question “How was homework made?” is a nuanced one. Multiple historical figures had similar ideas on what we now call homework, and many more contributed to popularizing it.
Besides that, keep in mind that homework hasn’t always been a given in the education system. In the United States, for example, the early 1900s were marked by a strong anti-homework movement. It took a lot of effort on the part of multiple historical figures to un-demonize the concept and introduce it in the education system.
With that out of the way, let’s break the three key figures in the history of homework:
  • Roberto Nevilis
  • Pliny the Younger
  • Horace Mann

Roberto Nevilis: Real Historical Figure or a Myth?

You can find plenty of articles online claiming that Roberto Nevilis, an Italian educator from Venice, is the father of modern homework. However, if you search for any credible information on this historical figure, you won’t find even a Wikipedia page with facts about Roberto Nevilis.
What’s more, different sources can’t even agree on when Roberto Nevilis supposedly invented homework. Some state the year was 1905, while others go as far as saying it was 1095. And why did Roberto Nevilis create homework, supposedly? That’s also shrouded in mystery.
All in all, there’s no hard proof that a man called Roberto Nevilis even existed – or that he could be credited with inventing the bane of students’ existence.
So, don’t fall for this trick: it’s not the mystery man Roberto Nevilis that you should call the father of homework.

Pliny the Younger: All Roads Lead to Ancient Rome

Pliny the Younger (61 – c. 113) was a lawyer, educator, and author in Ancient Rome. He’s mostly known thanks to his extensive body of written letters, 247 of which survived to this day – and gave us insight into ancient history.
When he wasn’t serving as the magistrate of Ancient Rome, Pliny the Younger would teach the art of public speaking to his followers. He is credited as the inventor of homework for one simple reason: he’s mentioned in the oldest written record of anything resembling homework.
According to that record, Pliny the Younger asked his followers to practice their speeches outside of class. It’s unknown whether this was obligatory for his students or a mere suggestion. It’s also worth noting that his concept of homework didn’t involve any written assignments, unlike today.

Horace Mann: Father of American Education

Horace Mann (1796-1859) deserves the title of the person who invented homework as you know it in the United States. Mann dedicated his life to educational reforms – and even served one term as a member of the House of Representatives from 1848 to 1853.
When it comes to education, Mann promoted education as a public good. He was also one of the most influential reformers at the time, all thanks to his work on the Massachusetts Board of Education.
He posited that schools should not only teach specific skills to students, like reading or math, but also build their character. Mann’s reformist views were particularly inspired by his visits to schools in Prussia in the 1840s.
Upon his return, Mann strived to emulate the Prussian education system. Those visits introduced him to the idea of homework, already present in Prussian public schools (i.e., Volksschulen). In Volksschulen, students were given assignments, finishing which was a duty, not an option.

U.S. History of Homework 101: From the Early 1900s to Today

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While Horace Mann brought the concept of homework from Prussia to the United States in the 1840s, it wasn’t exactly popular with students – or their parents, for that matter. In fact, some parts of the country would go as far as banning homework altogether, and it would remain banned for decades.
So, as you can guess by just thinking about your experience of education – and all the homework that came with it – the history of homework in America isn’t a one-and-done story.
The homework origin involved first a rise in popularity and then a quick fall out of grace. Soon enough, homework was getting banned, only to become the new normal during the Cold War.
That said, it wasn’t the same kind of homework that reemerged later on. The 1940s and 1950s also marked a shift in what homework meant.
That’s why answering the question, “What year was homework invented?”, is impossible. Homework became integral to education only during the Cold War, which makes it a relatively young phenomenon in the U.S. But then again, obligatory schooling has also been around for just a century!

Early 1900s: Anti-Homework Movement

Following Horace Mann’s trip to Prussia, homework quickly became widespread not just in Massachusetts, where Mann served on the Board of Education, but across the United States. So, one way to answer the question “How old is homework?” would be, “Around 170 years in the United States.”
However, homework wasn’t exactly a favorite among both students and parents. Some parents became vocal advocates for banning it, believing it was stealing their children’s time that they’d otherwise dedicate to chores or farm work. The anti-homework sentiment permeated all levels of society, leading to Boston banning math homework in 1880.
Soon enough, California became the first state to ban homework in 1901 for students under 15. Across the country, homework fell out of favor – and was even thought to be detrimental to children’s well-being.

1930s: Homework Is Child Labor?

Yes, that’s exactly what the American Child Health Association called homework by the 1930s, only solidifying the anti-homework movement in homework history. The organization’s intentions were noble, however: the ACHA was striving to protect children’s rights at a time when child labor was widespread.
With the ACHA calling homework a form of child labor and the U.S. government passing the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, it became nearly impossible for schools to assign homework. And so, homework remained demonized.
1940s-1950s: After the Progressive Era
These two decades were the golden age for the research on education and the psychology of learning. It wasn’t the first homework advent, of course, but homework made a comeback after what is now known as the Progressive Era (the 1890s to the 1930s).
As research demonstrating the benefits of homework for knowledge retention and skill development mounted, it was becoming harder and harder to ignore it. However, these two decades also marked a shift in what homework meant, all thanks to that research.
Homework had traditionally meant memorizing texts or facts and preparing for tomorrow’s lessons up until then. But now, homework was meant to foster students’ creativity and match their interests. This is when writing essays about summer vacations and ‘show and tell’s’ became mainstream!

1960s: Cold War Shifts Public Education Policies

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite into the Earth’s orbit. That prompted a reevaluation of the whole public education system in the U.S. Effective education, especially in STEM disciplines, became seen as the key to beating the Soviet Union in the technology race.
This is the decade marked by many shifts in public education, from the establishment of federal student loans for STEM programs to, you guessed it, the rise in homework’s popularity.
That makes the 1960s another answer to the question, “How old is homework in the U.S.?”

1980s: Government Publishes the Nation at Risk Report

In 1983, A Nation at Risk, a report advocating for education reform, was published by the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education. It was a bombshell at the time, and it shaped the government education policy in the decades to come.
The report asserted that American schools were failing to ensure quality education for the younger generations. It proposed 38 recommendations to reform the education system in light of its continuous underachievement, which included 7-hour school days – and more homework.

Homework in Today’s Education

As you can attest yourself, today, homework is an intrinsic part of education throughout all of its levels, from primary school to colleges and universities. And students spend a significant part of their time on homework. For example, according to one study published by the Washington Post, high school students spend 2.7 hours doing homework on average.
But is it healthy? Stanford’s Graduate School of Education researcher, Denise Pope, argued that forcing students to spend more than two hours on homework a day is counterproductive back in 2014. Her study also found a correlation between a higher homework load and greater stress, adverse health effects (e.g., sleep deprivation), and difficulties in meeting developmental needs among surveyed students.
Of course, we also can’t overlook how generative AI is transforming the homework of today – or, rather, students’ approach to it. According to a study com survey, 89% of students have used ChatGPT for homework help at least once. On top of that, 53% of respondents admitted to using the chatbot to write an essay for them.
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FAQ

Roberto Nevilis seems to be nothing more than a modern myth. There’s no hard proof that this person ever existed. The online sources that mention him aren’t consistent as to when he lived or when he supposedly came up with homework.
Several people can be called the inventor of homework. The first written record of the concept itself credits Pliny the Younger, a public speaking educator in Ancient Rome, with giving his students homework. In the United States, however, Horace Mann was the first to suggest introducing homework at schools in the 1840s.
There is no cut-and-dried answer here. In the United States, homework was first introduced as a concept by Horace Mann. He observed that students in Prussia received assignments to take care of at home during his visit. However, it wouldn’t be until much later that homework fully became a part of the educational process.
The origins of the concept of homework can be traced to Ancient Rome. Pliny the Younger (61-c. 113) is credited with the earliest written record of assigning homework to his students. However, homework in its modern form appeared somewhat later. In the United States, its advent dates back only to the mid-1800s.