The Great Homework Debate
Homework is often seen as a necessary tool to help children develop academically, expand their knowledge and deepen their understanding of the material covered in class.
However, from Dubai, Canada and China to the US and Germany, the global number of homework-free schools is growing. Finland tops the list: here, primary and high school students spend 2.8 hours a week on post-school tasks, mainly reading – half the global average (4.9 hours). Despite this, and shorter school days than elsewhere in Europe, Finnish children score tops in terms of academic performance and university enrolment.
That’s the word from the latest report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment, which is released every three years.
Anneska Goets Burger from Cape Town isn’t surprised to hear this, and wishes her children had no homework.
“My daughter’s in Grade 2 and she usually has one to two hours of homework per day if we don’t have oral exams,” she says. “Grade 5 seems to have less homework, but the tasks get more intricate.”
Christine de Nobrega, a school textbook editor from Cape Town, can relate. This is why she moved her 12-year-old daughter from a “high-homework and high-stress environment” to a no-homework school. “There were days she’d come home, do homework from 4.30pm until supper at 6pm, and then from 7pm until she went to bed at 9pm,” De Nobrega recalls. “She would sit there crying, exhausted whilst studying.”
Since her daughter moved to Generations School in Milnerton, the changes have been dramatic.
“When school is out, she is done. Her creative juices are flowing, and she is coming up with cool school ideas. They have extra-murals sometimes, which carry on until 4pm, but after that, she is done,” De Nobrega says, noting that homework had been a common concern among many parents at her daughter’s previous school. “Everyone complained.”
Dave Swart, principal at Riverside College in Cape Town, knows of the problems caused by too much homework. That is why Riverside pupils may spend the last 10 to 15 minutes of each lesson on their homework.
“Most children can get their homework done within this time. Until Grade 7, kids get about 10 to 15 minutes per subject. As they go higher and have elective subjects, this decreases,” he says, noting that homework isn’t always a bad thing.
“It teaches children time management, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills. I get people who say there is too much pressure on children, but how are they going to cope in the working world?”
Parenting and education coach Robin Booth agrees that homework is not all bad. It depends on how it is used and what the purpose is.
“Homework can enrich and further learning. Doing homework is a good life skill. It teaches self-discipline and the ability to focus. If those are the drivers of homework, it gets a thumbs up,” says Booth.
Reality tends to be different, he says, first and foremost because many teachers don’t have the capacity to assess whether a child has done his or her homework correctly.
“In traditional public schools, you have between 30 and 45, sometimes 50 children per class,” Booth explains. “How can a teacher critically evaluate whether their children have done their homework and understand the content?”
Goets Burger adds that parents aren’t always able to help their children with their homework. “My problem with helping my children with maths is that it is so different from what we learned in school. When we ask the teachers for support, they laugh and say the kids know the methods. What if my child struggles and I want to help?”
De Nobrega concurs. “Children today are taught different maths methods, and they are marked on that – not just on finding the right answer. That’s where many kids fall off the wagon, despite getting the answer right,” she says, noting that this prevents parents from properly helping their children.
“They are not told what the right methods are and must just know. There should be a parents’ manual for every textbook, so moms and dads can help their children.”
This problem is more pronounced in marginalised communities, where teachers have to work with even more children in one class, with fewer resources. Poverty disables caretakers from helping their kids.
“In rural areas, many parents may not be at home because they work elsewhere, with their children living with grandparents. Caregivers who are illiterate pose another issue,” Booth says.
Too much homework can also negatively impact the child-parent relationship, Booth adds. “Parents are required to manage, monitor and make sure the homework gets done after a child returns home from school, forcing them to enforce yet another boundary. If Mom or Dad don’t know how to do that without threats and ultimatums, this impacts the relationship.”
These are some reasons Sun Valley school in Noordhoek, Cape Town, went the no-homework route in 2016. “Neuroscientific research has shown that too much homework puts strain on the child and the family, and it creates lazy teachers,” says deputy principal Bradley Keller.
“We want our kids to focus on learning for seven hours and then allow them to play, enjoy quality time with their families, read before going to bed, and come back refreshed.”
Moving her daughter to Generations has been nothing but an improvement, says De Nobrega.
“I used to yell at her to get off her butt and do her homework. I was constantly nagging. That is gone. There is nothing to nag about. She now has playdates, which she never had before. She used to be very alone and struggle emotionally despite being an outgoing girl,”she says, noting that her results have gone up too.
At Sun Valley, the same trend has been observed.
“Every year, we have gone up in our national assessment results,” says Keller, noting that this doesn’t surprise him. “When kids are happy and are taught in the right space, they learn better.”
Homework tips for parents
There are ways parents can lower their children’s homework stress, even if they are not familiar with the content:
Don’t stick your child in the same learning mould as yours, says Booth. “Some children learn by integrating content and applying it by listening. Others learn by repetition and writing, and some kids learn through speaking about the content. Knowing and supporting your child’s learning style makes a massive difference.”
Create a calm post-school environment, advises Keller. “Coming home from school when things are tense, with people being unhappy and screaming and shouting, will not help a child to do their homework properly.”
Allow children to do their homework where they are most comfortable, notes Booth. “Social kids could do study in the kitchen or in your office with you, as opposed to alone in their room. I liked being alone; my daughter is more social. Figuring this out will result in fewer homework problems.”
Be involved, particularly when you have teenagers, suggests Keller. “Teenagers are often considered old enough to manage their own diary, but this is incorrect. They have hormones raging and don’t know who they are. Be involved and add some structure to their lives!”
Ask for help, says Swart. “If you need help to better assist your children with their homework, ask the school for the help you need.”