Homework – Who’s game to take the first step?

I remember a few years ago hearing a Horse racing trainer turned commentator (I think it was Richard Freedman on the Triple M Dead Set Legends) talking about the early starts that face race horse trainers and jockeys. When asked by his colleagues why they train so early in the morning he replied something like ‘because everyone else does.’ He went on to say that historically the hours gradually got earlier and earlier as trainers tried to get an advantage over their peers. When asked by his radio colleagues whether it made a difference, he replied “No”. So when they asked him why people keep doing it his response was “Because no one wants to be the first”. When it comes to homework, teachers and schools seem to be in the same boat. No one wants to risk being the first to cut it incase it does lead to lower learning outcomes.

So it was with interest that I read an article today from the Washington Post about an Elementary school in Vermont USA that removed all homework other than reading for pleasure each day.

A couple of days ago, I was talking to some friends whose daughter has just started high school at their local Girls school. I asked how she was settling in. Mum’s response was “Yeah, it’s going ok.” From her tone though I could sense that it hadn’t all been rosy. As I asked more about it, Mum said that her daughter had become very overwhelmed with the amount of homework. She wasn’t going to bed until 9:30pm each night and hadn’t had any down time to just relax.

We spoke about how they might be able to support her but I wondered how it must feel to be at the end of your fourth week of High School and come to a realisation that this is her reality for the next 6 years of her life. School, a few extra curricula activities and then a second shift of school work. And don’t even get me started on the teacher who told them that the work they were starting would be completed for homework if they don’t get it finished in class and then gave them more when more than half had finished before the end of the lesson! Trust gone.

There seems to be enough research to suggest that there is little academic benefit for Primary (Elementary) aged students and many schools have responded. Many have not. It’s also apparent that there is a slight academic benefit for students in early high school that grows as they get (Alfie Kohn, 2012). However, correlation doesn’t mean causation. That is, is the increase in academic performance due to a student doing homework, or, is it that the students performing well academically more likely to be doing more homework?

What concerns me is that regardless of what the research says, schools are still dishing out hours of homework based on historicity and unproven anecdotal evidence. On the other hand, we have rising child and teen mental health statistics and students who are under increasing time pressure. We need to balance the desire for higher academics with a desire to have healthy, well balanced students who have time to rest, time to play, time to be creative – all things that have been proven to assist brain development. The brain needs time to process but also down time.

If teachers are serious about the well-being of our students then we need schools to step up and reduce the amount of homework they are giving students while ensuring that what they do set is meaningful, engaging and, if possible, relevant to what the student has identified as an area of required practice or reinforcement in their learning.

So, who is going to be next to take the first step?

References

Cooper, H. Robinson, H. J. Patall (2006) Does Homework Improve Academic Acheivement? A Synthesis of Research 1987 – 2003 Review of Educational Research

Kohn, A. (2012) http://www.alfiekohn.org/blogs/homework-unnecessary-evil-surprising-findings-new-research/

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