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The Ongoing Homework Debate: Will We Ever Get it Right?

written by: Wendy Finn • edited by: Laurie Patsalides • updated: 10/13/2014

The battle over homework is an age-old one, although it seems the pressure on our children is increasing all the time. Think you and your child are the only ones that get stressed about being given too much homework? Not a bit of it! It's a problem on a global scale.

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    Parents vs. Teachers Around the World

    parentchildhomework From Spain and the UK, to Singapore and Australia, not forgetting the USA and Canada, the homework debate is one that rages on, on a worldwide scale. Is there too much of it? Is it really helping? At times it feels like parents vs. teachers at war.

    I think that when teachers set homework, the time that's being asked of the parent as well as the child is given no consideration which is part of the problem. On most occasions when homework is set, it's the parents time that's being asked for as well, which can put a huge strain on the entire family. Younger children actually seem to like bringing homework back with them from school; it's the parents that will sigh. And yes, I'm not forgetting that the homework is for the child not the parent! But, especially with younger children, they have to be guided through it and even told what is expected of them -- it's not like you can leave them to read through their worksheet and work happily through it by themselves, or they'd get frustrated and nothing would get done. A lot of the homework argument boils down to its being a huge time strain on the parents as much as the child.

    So is this large amount of homework really worth it in the end?

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    Homework Doesn't Work

    boydoinghomework Dr Cooper, Professor of Education at Duke University, North Carolina, thinks that homework "...shouldn't be given in such large amounts that the child loses their motivation and begins to wonder whether they're truly interested in the activity: that's when homework turns from being good to bad.''

    Well, of course part of that is absolute rubbish. Given a choice, most children would start to question being interested in more dry subjects like Math (whoever said "Yay, Algebra!") but those subjects are vital to their development when in school. When was homework supposed to be fun? If students need to extend their studies beyond the classroom then chances are it absolutely won't be fun at times no matter how hard teachers or parents try. Surely the idea is to give them extra help to further their development and understanding. Sometimes that will be hard, but it will be more difficult if they are left with no extra help whatsoever.

    There is a line and it's not purely in the amount of homework a student gets given. Perhaps as it is homework, teachers should respect that the parent is the teacher in that scenario and can judge when their child has grasped the subject matter or not without handing out reams of worksheets to spend the entire evening doing. Then homework definitely becomes counterproductive and pointless.

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    It's a Waste of Teacher's Time

    There is of course the other side of the argument, that it takes teachers extra time to set suitable homework as well as then having to take the time to mark it afterward. And there is certainly a question about the effectiveness of homework at the elementary school level, anyway. So is all the time and effort from both the teachers' side of the fence and the parents' really worth the end result?

    Richard Walker, from the University of Sydney, Australia and co-author of Reforming Homework, is very skeptical about homework at the elementary school level. ''If the question is does homework improve learning and achievement as assessed by tests, then the answer, at primary level, is no. There is very little evidence to support it,'' he said. This is also a belief held by Harris Cooper, a professor at Duke University, who found only a small correlation between the amount of homework completed and academic achievement in elementary school.

    But what about those students that really do need the extra help?

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    Alternative Approaches

    There is no doubt that there is a need for homework, but perhaps it's not too much homework that's the problem, but just the type of homework. Maybe teachers could be taking advantage of the environment outside of the school to set different homework tasks to enrich the students learning. I'm not saying that all homework should be fun, but a different approach might be in order.

    Teachers might think about letting parents come into school to both assist with their child's learning once in a while and to understand how things are taught. How many thrown pencils and temper tantrums between a well-meaning parent and child could be avoided by just having a greater understanding of the teaching practices in school!

    Maybe, where possible, more practical homework could be set, with a small write up so teachers know the work has been done. Homework then becomes the child examining the world around them rather than just homework as print on a page -- there is really little need for marking on the teacher's part, too.

    An approach I really liked that my daughter's school adopted for weekly homework was that suggestions for study and practice were sent home rather than demands. This not only gave us the whole weekend to complete the work, but really lets the parent be the teacher outside of school -- a parent is likely to know where their child needs most help after all.

    sleepyhomeworkchild Perhaps we might consider the approach of setting 10 minutes of homework per grade per night, as being discussed in the New Jersey region. For a first grader this gets them into the practice of tackling homework without putting them off and is plenty of time for some reading or writing practice. In Singapore there is a particularly strong feeling about this as some first graders are getting around two hours of homework per night. I'd be amazed if my child of the same age would stay awake that long after a day at school, never mind complete the tasks effectively! Do we really want stressed out five and six year olds?

    Of course this same practice might also have the effect of clock watching from the child's point of view, or those children that really need the extra time to practice outside of the classroom to fall even further behind. Hmm, I'm beginning to see why this is such a minefield for all of us -- teachers, students and parents on a worldwide scale.

    Another approach might be to give the same amount of homework, but more time to complete it in. It's a much more efficient use of time and students are likely to retain more information this way.

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    What Happened to Work First Play Later?

    We've all had homework to do and I certainly don't remember doing cartwheels of joy when I got any to complete, but it is certainly very necessary and I believe it should take precedence over any other activities outside of school. Remember when your mom used to say "well if you do your homework now then it's done and out of the way?" Work first play later, right? It's evident there's a need for balance.girlscouts 

    There's also an argument put forward by teacher and academic coach Susan Schaeffer in the US that there's too much focus on the amount of homework, but no one questions hour upon hour of sports practice. Clearly here, the balance must come from the parents when considering extracurricular activities rather than just focusing on teachers for giving out too much homework. Some outside school activities are definitely good for children, but they don't have to do everything. Maybe it's not too much homework but just too much of everything that's the problem.

    My seven year old niece in Spain gets given an awful lot of homework for her age, but it is improving her performance at school to complete it. She is lucky in that the school provides a scheme whereby she can go to a club after school where the focus is on completing homework. They are given the right atmosphere and there is support there if they need it, but mostly they are left to complete it themselves. Then she has no choice but to work first and play later and there is less pressure on her parents. She then still has time to attend Brownies (Girl Scouts) and go through some homework with her parents later on -- oh yes, she still has plenty to complete later on too!

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    What's the Answer?

    So what is the answer to this global problem of too much homework? Clearly there is too much pressure on our children and whether a parent, a teacher or both, there is a definite need to ease off the gas and cut down not only homework, but excessive out of school clubs too. Consider the benefits, and if the child is really going to be helped by completing it, or has it become just another box to check, to keep 'the powers that be' happy? The child must be the primary consideration. Homework is very necessary, but there has to be a limit and at the moment, there's no doubt that the limit is set too high.

    What do you think? Does your child get too much homework? Does it help them or add to the pressures of family life? What is the answer? Drop us a comment below, we'd love to hear your thoughts.

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