A young energetic girl, filled with smiles and zest for anything school related recently crashed. When I say crash, she has literally and positively crashed mentally; under the pressures that high school homework and its relentless, over demanding and often futile expectations. It is almost heartbreaking to see such things happen yet, unfortunately, this little champion, and her little conundrum is not a singled out occurrence. So, here goes. I’m throwing it fearfully, but off comes my worrisome hat and into the homework ring.
Being a teacher myself, I find it hard to find sanctuary on either side of this daunting and wearisome fence. There are numerous findings, theories and opinions that are, at times, hard to grasp, at least contextualise to your school and its community. One thing is for certain, students have no say on what is good homework practice and whether it should be given. This, to me, sounds rather odd as they are, after all, the products of our being in this profession. The students own their destiny, they control their path to adulthood, the emphasis is consigned upon the acceptance of one’s own actions through responsibility in our Australian cultural values yet, in society, students have little to no governance on their learning nor the decision involved in doing the extras. They are simply habitualised beings grown to believe homework is good because it makes you smart. But what if this was wrong? Like this ironic displacement, the research on this hot topic concludes scarcely differing results.
Richard Walker, Sydney University psychologist believes there are trends in the correlation between the overuse of homework in schools and the academic performance of students in testing. “Inundating children with hours of homework each night is detrimental, whereas an hour or two each week will not impact one way or the other”. Required seems to be a balance and, this alone will entice students to take on extra work, at their own will. Of course, students will take this leniency and rarely, perhaps never, complete the extras but that is already happening anyway. Small majorities will always exist, let’s flip the majority from being homework satirist to homework savvy. Walker concludes preparing students for the most important schooling time of their young lives with a ‘dip the feet’ approach will ensure the loading of senior school (Years 10-12) will be an easier pill to swallow. Drowning in homework for years in the lead up to this penultimate phase of schooling does not prepare a student, moreover, establish them an aberration for it, even the idea of having to partake in completing homework. Arduous activity is still arduous even if they have been doing it for years, it simply becomes more a negative and stressful activity rather than one of any real benefit.
We all know if we enjoy something, greater outcomes will occur; it doesn’t take a scientist to acknowledge this. Poor attitude reflects poor outcomes, in any walk of life. I say it all the time but instilling an environment that is nurturing and supportive yet still fraught with demanding and high expectations is the manner in which to best approach academic rigor. A classroom which is productive will have no need to give homework, and when it is necessary; it occurs due to the extension of content coverage, kudos to that or for consolidation at the very least. Parents and teachers can all relate to the feeling of angst. The feeling of not knowing how to help. What can I do with this child? They just don’t seem to be happy. They need to work hard to learn the necessities but it seems to be making the world a sad place when the work is even mentioned. Children have enough worry in the world to be begrudged with a truck-load of homework, dumped time and time again on their shoulders. And this is where the real homework issues stem from. Not the academic deficiencies that may occur regardless of homework completion nor the relationships with the teacher which can be strained when a constant nag is in place on the topic of homework completion, but moreover; the self-efficacy of the key stake-holder to this whole charade, the child.
The fights at home, the battle within the mind, the doubt, the shame and then the self-loathing reassurance that, as a person, you may never be good enough for anything if this homework can’t even be done with ease. Children between nine and fifteen are far more likely to demonstrate comparisons of themselves amongst their peers (good and bad) than any other age bracket and force feeding failure or strict time demands only exacerbates this negative onslaught of internal hate. Not all kids have this social boundary, some are the top end students whom never seem to worry about pleasing others, falling behind or teacher approval. This is though, the minority, the same minority who seem to find things easy and find no need to worry about the strains of keeping up or whether homework needs to be done. “I’ve done everything already” is a common phrase that is exuberated from this type of student’s mouth. They are not being challenged, they are ticking boxes and more importantly; they are not any happier, they don’t feel a sought after sense of belonging and they certainly aren’t getting better from doing their homework at school or really quickly, they are simply getting by. This whole idea that homework helps us apply ourselves only works with purpose and, sadly, most allocated homework is not inclusive of this, leaving a trail of social apprehension, home life anxiety and a declining care for the whole school experience. This is only something small but starts an ever-growing barrier between school and home; the underlying war of education institutes, ‘us versus them’ teacher/home relationships. A happy, healthy child will succeed at school, not an overworked, well weathered one. These battles aren’t healthy for anyone.
One thing exacerbating this is the timing of the feedback given, that is if given at all. Essential mitigating of errors or misunderstandings cannot be attended to without ongoing and timely support. It is one thing to demand extra work but if the teacher cannot accompany their own expectations on extra and, at least, offer to tutor, one to one feedback or some sort of support, the homework saga will endlessly continue to strain relationships between home and school. 'Practice what you preach' is the saying that comes to mind. There is no set advice based upon research as to how many hours, or time at all, for that matter, should be spent doing homework. This hasn’t stopped Education and school departments from developing recommendations. Within Victorian department guidelines, years pre-primary through year four are allocated half an hour of time spent on homework, three nights a week. This age range is four to ten years old. Research does suggest, on the contrary, that kids this age would actually gain more academically with an hour of extra sleep and reading with an adult aloud for fifteen minutes a night. The next bracket of year levels sees an increased demand to up ninety minutes per night at least three nights a week. With the middle years becoming more of an induction into a world riddled with the painstaking grind of homework. The fact is, set times are based upon the quantity of work we are dumping on our children, not the quality. That is a real issue in this whole debate we continue to ignore, simply knowing each child and their limitations will actually help broaden them. We must stop using homework as a remedial strategy, where we allocate it if one cannot cover all of a topic in class. This becomes a punishment consequence, further increasing the stress and self-efficacy issues of the child having to do the homework. Meanwhile, their friends are all bragging due to being ‘clever enough’ to complete it in class. This divide hands no favours to the students or the teachers for future management of classroom and pastoral happenings. As the true protagonist in the education sector, Hattie, announces; reflecting upon the outcomes of homework is something that is essential when allocating a student’s workload outside of school. He says, “rather than prescribing a way to do homework, let us work to provide evidence that homework is improving the outcomes for kids’. If it’s not improving results for any of the aforementioned, then why keep doing it? Forgive me for saying it but let's not 'flog a dead horse’ here.
Of course, when sitting precariously upon a fence that is clearly leaning to one side, you must acknowledge benefits on the opposite. For example, I’ve always given small amounts of homework as I'm not entirely one way or the other. This "homework" is coupled with home life activities and typically the type of tasks you would’ve seen on my homework grid last year were:
* walk or care for a pet
* read aloud to a family member or peer
* practice mathematics times tables
* help Mum or Dad with house-work
* Word of the week definition
* reteach one area of your learning to a family member (to consolidate)
* practice spelling words and use in conversation
* discuss with parents the origin of your name
-why you got that name?
- alternatives if you were born other gender?
-origin story or place?
Not only were these activities great discussion points for home and at school, they were relevant to the deficiencies of the child, they were purposeful and encouraged community-first mentality, building a sense of belonging for the child. Yes, I gave a small project type assessment from time to time, yet the task was always relevant if not consolidation to what was happening within the school walls, i.e; disaster movie diorama and review, or an historical inquiry interview with an elderly member of the community. These were, at times demanding but allowed students to take ownership of their learning, entrench a routine of application to study for future benefit and once again, consolidated that relationship with home and school. A continued and encouraged dialogue was always established with those at home which also helped the open and honest feedback that is needed for improvement, for all involved.
Another argument is that students need to learn how to manage their time and build resilience, stop looking for the spoon to feed them, hence preparing them for the big bad world out there, where inevitably, they will have to fend for themselves and meet deadlines under immense strain. This is spot on and giving kids an opportunity to develop independence is what school is all about. Don’t get me wrong, there is inquiry based, student lead study within the parameters of the school curriculum and the hours in which one spends at school. Once more we find that productivity (or lack thereof) may be the answer to this conundrum. If the classroom is run in a manner which allows for teamwork, supported extension and allows for independent growth, whilst acting as a safety net for when things get too tough, work will be completed, progress can occur and positive outcomes will come to fruition, all with no mention of homework.
Throughout history we, as humans have done one consistent thing in relation to homework; complain. We complained when the space race took flight as we needed to push our youth more, helping us excel on the global front, for there was a race to be won and intelligence would cater for this. Then we demanded equal rights on homework in the late 60’s, all kids should be allocated some homework, all kids deserve a chance in life, not just the wealthy. In the 70’s, we complained more about the lack of homework, the kids were getting up to too much mischief outside of school, experimenting with drugs, disco dancing and canoodling in cars at the drive in. We entered the new century demanding more of our teachers as no longer was the ‘E’ on Billy’s report his fault but more over the incompetent teacher. Billy wasn’t quite getting his homework because the teacher failed to do their job, teach. You were most probably right but the complaints were there all the same. And now, as we enter a new world of education. Where play is theorised to develop kids academically, meanwhile we manage our children with an iPad and one nasty social media epidemic, thinking they are sitting around working tirelessly on homework, hours on end. Most likely the cause of hours being utilised at the desk or at the dining table is that addictive screen and silent war happening beyond 'the cloud'. Oh, our little angels, so precious, so innocent. It must be, please, let it be someone else’s fault! Too much homework is bad but so is too much sugar, too much social media, too much Kim Kardashian and Trump! Our world is one big mystery and, despite thinking our complaints will help, they will not, homework is here to stay. Well, that is one side of the argument anyway.
In summary, homework is a difficult tool to use wisely. We must cater for our own unique child, in their own unique class, in their own unique school; which are all so different from the next. There's no real formula or right or wrong in this debate, hence, I shall resume my position upon my aged and tattered fence. That is until I have my own kids, then I'll do what humans know best, complain. It is not about who gives the homework or whether it is too hard, it’s simply a mixture of the following: teaching, support and purpose. And concocting the right remedy there is anyone’s guess. Try the Goldilocks method; not too much, not too little but just right. Oh, I hate homework! I need a sleep, now that’s for certain, sleep helps our brains grow, right…or does it?