Homework! Oh, Homework!

Years ago, when I  still owned my educational theatre company – Hooked on Books – I included a poem by Jack Prelutsky in the Senior Primary show. I had my actors sing the poem, with accompanying choreography, to the tune of George Michael’s Faith (which will give you a clearer indication of how many years ago I’m talking about 😉 )

Go on, sing it (you’ll need to extend some words and add in a few “oh-ohs” to make it scan – but you can do it):

Homework! Oh, Homework!
I hate you! You stink!
I wish I could wash you away in the sink,
if only a bomb
would explode you to bits.
Homework! Oh, homework!
You’re giving me fits.

I’d rather take baths
with a man-eating shark,
or wrestle a lion
alone in the dark,
eat spinach and liver,
pet ten porcupines,
than tackle the homework,
my teacher assigns.

Homework! Oh, homework!
you’re last on my list,
I simple can’t see
why you even exist,
if you just disappeared
it would tickle me pink.
Homework! Oh, homework!
I hate you! You stink!

Jack Prelutsky

Needless to say, the performance of this poem always brought the house down. The ensuing shouts and whoops of applause were not merely for the recognisable tune and hot moves, but also a show of solidarity with the poem’s content. Kids in Grades 4-7 hated homework in 1998. They probably hated it in 1898. They hate it now. Surely learning should be more inspiring? We’re designed to learn, after all.

I am certainly not one of those “all learning has to be super-fun and entertaining and children should only do work when they feel inspired to,” types. I always try to instill good study habits in students, explaining to them that even the dreamiest of dream careers requires a certain amount of drudgery and slog. Movies stars have to spend hours learning lines. No-one “loves” learning lines. Soccer stars have to practice drills and skills and read through lengthy contracts. We all have to do our taxes. But …

Today I tutored a little Grade 6 boy who yawned his way through the hour. He had rings under his eyes and was pale … and my session with him was at 2pm; directly after school. He completed an essay for me to check and then I helped him study for his History test, which is tomorrow. He has tests every day for two weeks. During this period of intensive testing, he also has homework; including an oral which he presented last week. This is a diligent, well behaved, active little boy who loves his sports. With all his sports team coaching sessions, after school Hebrew lessons and homework, he hardly has time to eat, let alone … dare I even suggest it … play!

Studies into the pros and cons of homework are still inconclusive and the debate rages on. Researchers pretty much agree on the benefits of up to 2 hours of quality homework per day for High Schoolers. There is, however, no conclusive evidence to date that proves any substantial benefits for homework at Primary School level; particulary Junior Primary.

In a review of studies published from 1987 to 2003, (Duke University social psychologist Harris Cooper, PhD, one of the USA’s leading homework researchers) and his colleagues found that homework was linked to better test scores in high school and, to a lesser degree, in middle school. Yet they found only faint evidence that homework provided academic benefit in elementary school (Review of Educational Research, 2006).

“There is a limit to how much kids can benefit from home study,” Cooper says. He agrees with the generally accepted rule of thumb that students should do no more than 10 minutes a night per grade level — from about 10 minutes in first grade up to a maximum of about two hours in high school. A quick squizz through our South African CAPS shows that we’re piling on a lot more homework minutes than than!

Cooper says that too much homework can do more harm than good. Other researchers agree with him; citing drawbacks, including boredom and burnout toward academic material, less time for family and extracurricular activities, lack of sleep and increased stress. I see all of these symptoms in the students I work with each week.

So what’s the solution?

  1. Planning: students often allow assignments and test preparation to pile up, resulting in weeks of little or no homework, followed by days of burning the midnight oil. Help your child to plan effectively – long and short term – to manage their time and distribute their work load more appropriately. Look out for my next TIME WISE Study Skills Workshop, which focuses on this important skill.
  2. Time-Management: help your child manage their time effectively and appropriately. Help them stick to a daily routine, that includes homework, exra-mural activities and play. Note: TV and iPads are not play! If anything needs to be sacrificed, the tech needs to go first. Technology is an incredible learning resource … but it’s a time-sucking, addictive leisure activity. Monitor your child’s “play” time with their screens.
  3. Communication: insist on clear communication from teachers. Teachers are    required  to provide termly lesson plans and assessment schedules to their heads of grade. The assessment schedules should be shared with students and parents, too. If you’re not getting them – ask!
  4. Planning at School Level: teachers should be meeting, by grade, to plan tests and assignments in such a way that distributes due dates throughout the term. Parents – don’t sit by and quietly accept a schedule where your child has 3 tests, 2 projects due and an oral all in one week. Communicate this, politely, with the Head of Grade and/or Academic Head of the school. It is possible for schools to plan properly and to avoid a bottleneck of assignments for your children. Don’t accept otherwise.
  5. Get Involved: when public and parental input is asked for, at school or government level, get involved. Be part of the discussion. Add your voice and the personal experience of YOUR child to the mix. Vote. Petition. Become an active citizen, invested in improving the education system for your child.

Finally, I think we all need to watch this increase in homework expectations for younger students very carefully. A generation that has been “trained” to simply work at scheduled tasks to the point of exhaustion and exclusion of play and creative discovery, is a generation that can easily be controlled, manipulated and exploited. We need to be raising independent thinkers, critical thinkers, inventors, creators, world-changers … goodness knows our world needs changing. Let’s do whatever we can to maintain the balance between learning and discovery.

Further Reading:

  • Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987-2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1–62. doi: 10.3102/00346543076001001
  • Galloway, M., Connor, J., & Pope, D. (2013). Nonacademic effects of homework in privileged, high-performing high schools. The Journal of Experimental Education, 81(4), 490–510. doi: 10.1080/00220973.2012.745469
  • Pope, D., Brown, M., & Miles, S. (2015). Overloaded and underprepared: Strategies for stronger schools and healthy, successful kids. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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