Friday, February 12, 2016

Is School Homework Useful? Or is it a Waste of Time?

I hear two types of complaints about school homework?  

Type 1 - parents complain that their kids don't get enough homework.  
Type 2 - others suggest that the homework that children do get is often a repetition of work at school and that it teaches little.

The question 'Is homework useful?' is never far from conversations between parents about school, or between teachers when discussing parents. Like every teacher I have felt the pressure of parents wanting their children to do more homework. In spite of this I have never been a fan of homework in the primary years of schooling (age 5 to 12 years). Yes, homework does have a place, but not the exalted place that many parents want to give it.

Why you might ask? 

1. Because the vast majority of homework is banal and features drill of things that contribute little to the areas in which we want children to learn. Memorising spelling lists is a case in point (see my previous post HERE) with little contribution being made to the ability to write well.

2. Because school homework is often a substitute for things that are more critical to children's development. For example, play (posts HERE), discovery learning and problem solving (posts HERE), creative expression in varied forms and (dare I say it, rest at day's end).

3. Because it allows society at large to fill the school day with other things that parents have failed to teach their children and simply shift curriculum work to the category of homework, which has to be packaged in bundles that children can complete largely undirected (see #1).

4. Because it reinforces narrow definitions of learning, curriculum and assessment. Homework ends up being simply a test of work done at school, often in the name of practice.

In short, school becomes squeezed by the imperative to test children's learning for public assessment (see related posts HERE), and the hours after school end up being used for largely non-directed and repetitive tasks that help children to pass tests delivered at school.

Is there an alternative? Yes!

Step 1 - Ensure that any after school time whether at home with a parent or carer or in after school care is spent well. Set high standards.

Step 2 - Control access to the things that distract children from rich learning and exploration. I'm thinking of course about 'screen' time (limit daily screen time), computers, gaming and television.

Above: Screen time needs to be controlled, but it can also be a key tool for learning

Step 3 - Apply some simple tests for any after school 'homework'. Does it develop new knowledge and skills? Does it expand repertoires for learning - discovery, imaginative recreation, dialogue, observation etc? Is it enjoyable and challenging?

Step 4 - Make sure that you know what your children are doing, that you monitor it, and that you show genuine interest in what they are doing. 

What might post school time look like?

Hopefully time after school will have a level of planning (kids you need to do X, Y, & Z). Make sure that set agendas like sporting practice, music etc don't shut out everything else.

Start with down time - let them rest, talk to other people about their day, feed them, let them have some time to choose what they do (within predetermined limits).

Incorporate varied activities - some time outside to run around in an unstructured self-directed way; a time for exploration and discovery (this can include reading, viewing, hands on activities like craft drawing, construction etc); a time for school directed homework (I'd limit this in the primary years to no more than five times their age, i.e. thirty minutes aged 6, fifty minutes aged 10 etc); self-directed reading (e.g. HERE, HERE, HERE & HERE); family down time to chat and hang out.

Above: A different type of 'homework'

I understand that the complexity and varied nature of family life will always make after school time 'messy'. But we need to ask ourselves, how messy is it? What negative impact is the messiness having on family life and learning? What can I do to change things?

One thing I am certain of, the solution to the messiness isn't simply to ask schools to set more banal tasks, disconnected from 'real' learning which we police with minimal supervision.

I would love to hear your comments and suggestions.

Other posts

Other posts that address creativity, imagination and play (HERE)

Other posts that address homework alternatives (HERE)


Whitney Brown said...

"Is School Homework Useful? Or is it a Waste of Time?' These are two questions that I as a special educator have battled with throughout my teaching career. My initial reaction is...No, school homework isn't useful and yes it is a waste of time. This initial reaction is due in part because many of the students that I work with don't have the support at home to help them complete the homework resulting in students returning to school with incomplete homework. Because of this, unlike you, I have not experienced parents asking for, wanting, or expecting more homework to be sent home with their child. However, I find your insight into the issue very interesting. After reading your blog I would have to say that I agree that homework does have a place, but it must be given in moderation and it must be relevant. Homework needs to be an extension of what was taught at school through engaging activities/assignments, not mere paper and pencil work. In terms of parents wanting and expecting more homework to be sent home, I think the problem lies in parents want to see what their children are learning at school, and in there minds the best way to do that is through homework. I also think parents want to feel as though they are contributing in some way to their child's education. Being able to find a balance that makes all parties happy is the key to the answers to both of these questions. So in revisiting the two questions of "Is school homework useful? Or is is a waste of time?", I know believe that yes, school homework is useful and not a waste of time so long as it is given in engaging formats and in moderation.

Courtney Callicutt said...

I really love what you had to say about homework in this blog post. My mother was a public educator for many years and never once assigned homework. She sent home enrichment suggestions to parents each week, but those suggestions were easily accessed regardless of income. She's now an Assistant Superintendent and patiently campaigns against mundane activities designed to drill rather than enrich. She fully believes that rote memorization and drills don't instill a love of anything, and when we're trying to create lifelong learners with a passion for reading, homework is like taking one step forward and two steps back.

Prior to my entry into public education, I was employed as a piano teacher at private arts academy, so I know the value of rote memorization and drills. Without said drills, I wouldn't be able to play all of my scales and arpeggios with my eyes closed. Those drills served a purpose, but that purpose did not make me fall passionately in love with scales and made me hate them. When public school teachers assign mundane and droll homework assignments, we're effectively killing instead of instilling passion.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Whitney, thanks for your very helpful comment. I reflected on my own post as I read it and was aware that I grew up in a community such as the one you mentioned, and in a family that showed no interest in my schooling. Not once in my life did they ask about it. So it's true some parents aren't aware of it and don't push it for various reasons. On the other sign of the coin we have parents who believe that the more hours their children work at home the greater the chance of success at school and in life. To some extent it is true that they'll do better at school, I'm not so sure about life. The sad reality is that teachers can shape what they do to cater for the 'squeaky' pro-homework group, at the expense of good educational strategies and the needs of all students. I've seen this in other people's children's experience of school. Anyway, thanks for your excellent comment!

April Hobby said...

I really enjoyed this post on homework. In terms of literacy, you are right, homework has become skill and drill on words/definitions that seem more like 'busy work'. Homework can be very beneficial even though it has turned into a different beast. I like the thought of having literacy homework become more. Possibly have it be a week long (or two!) to have it expand as extra practice for what is being learned in the classroom. Maybe send home a short book, have students and parents work on identifying/describing characters, work on summarizing, whatever the skill is that is being developed in class. By doing something like this, I believe parents will be more invested in homework as opposed to handing their child a worksheet to keep them busy for an hour with concepts even they may not know.

David Smith said...

Hi Trevor, your article seems to assume that children remain youngsters. What is your reaction to the demands of learners as they develop into High School and University? In both those contexts students are required and benefit from some set-apart time at home to revise, to complete assignments and to finish tasks from school.

Surely a reasonable amount of homework in the Primary years is important, not necessarily for the learning itself, but in developing the habit and discipline of doing some work outside lesson times.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi David thanks for your comment. My post does focus on the early years (0-12) but not exclusively. There is some benefit in children of any age learning that work is part of life, and dare I say it, even hard work. This becomes even more relevant as children move into the teenage years and approach the next stage of either work or higher education. Having said this, homework should be worthwhile as I discussed otherwise it simply takes the place of other life activities for students and sometimes families. I see little reason for busy work. I hope this clarifies the argument.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your helpful comment April.