What is the real value of homework?


With the school year in full swing here in Australia, I am amazed at the amount of homework that all 3 of my kids get from their subject teachers and each night I hear the constant grumbles about their workload post school….maybe they have a point and we should be listening as this is neither a new issue or debate within the learning community.

OK tell me why do we send our children to school?

If they attend for 5 days a a week and have about 8 hours of classroom learning per day that equates to 40 hours of formal learning per week. Now if my 8th grade and 11th grade daughters are a good example they would on average do up to 3 hours of homework during the week and about a further 5 or so over the weekend, which maybe sometimes be punctuated by chat, Facebook and or Skype but this comes out to about 20 hours or additional work for them.

My eldest daughter tells me that it is more like 30 hours when you take into account all the research, planning and preparation so even higher than first thought ….so what are they doing at school and what are we paying for???

I have long struggled with the concept of homework as it is often not linked to any formal classroom work, has low intrinsic value from a grading view point and personally does little to reinforce little alone support learning as the time and or length that is made available to complete the set homework tasks are limited. A good example how do you describe a complex bit of work in comparative analysis in less then 3 minutes when realistically it should be done in 5 minutes, where is the value. I listened to my daughter practice her classroom presentation and it was like listening to a bullet train. lots of great ideas and data but it is all lost by the artificial barriers that were imposed by her teacher.

Value nil, increased knowledge nil, frustration and effort high, not what I would call conducive factors for learning I think.

Have a look at a really smart guy called Clark Quinn had to say about this issue in his insight ‘getting it off my chest’ department:

I gave a talk to a national society last week on the future of learning. An off-hand comment on ‘homework’ got more interest than I expected. My point was that there are limits to reactivation. However, given the battles I know so many are having with schools on homework, and we too, some thoughts.

The underlying mechanism, roughly, for learning is associations between related neurons (and, at a bigger scale into patterns). However, our brains saturate in their ability to associate new information. Some activation a day is about all a brain can take. Re-activating is key, over time. That is, the next day, and the next. And, of course, the feedback should come quickly after the effort (not the next day). And, let’s be real: some kids need more practice than others. Why aren’t we adapting it? And are we really rewarding achievement? In elementary school, my first-born noticed that by being smart, he got more work than the other kids with the ‘stretch’ assignments, and wondered why being smart was punished!

So, in theory, a light bit of homework on a topic that was first visited in prior days might make sense. So you see it on Monday in class, say, and then visit it again in homework. Note that reactivating it in class the next day in a slightly more complex problem is better. And, as, John Taylor Gatto has hypothesized, everything we need to learn in K6 really ought to take only 100 hours to learn, if the kids are motivated. With the feedback coming the next day, it will also be harder for the learner to be able to make the connection. This post I found while verifying the 100 hour claim is fascinating on the amount of time really necessary.

However, that’s not what we see. I’ve seen my kids complaining about trying to solve more of the same problems they saw in school that day. That’s not going to help. And it’s too much. If every teacher wants to get an hour out of them, they’d be overloaded with homework. This is middleschool, but the same problem manifests in K6, and I’m only dreading what comes next.

And then we get the ‘coloring’ assignments. I’m sure the argument is something along the lines of ‘by seeing the information represented as they color, they’ll remember it’. Sorry, no. If they’re not applying the information, or extrapolating from it, or personalizing it, processing it, it’s not going to lead to anything but prettier classrooms for open house. I’m sorry, but don’t spoil my child’s youth to pretty up your room. And it’s very clear that, at least in our school, largely the mothers are doing it.

And then there is the weekend homework. I’m sorry, but I do believe kids are entitled to a life, or at least most of one. Why have work hanging over them on the weekend? Now, if you give them long term projects and it replaces some homework, and they decide to put it off ’til the weekend, well, I suppose that’s ok, because I think interesting overarching projects are valuable (and bring in important meta-skills). So then there’s the homework assigned on Friday that’s due on Tuesday, so supposedly you can get it done on Monday so it’s not really homework, but who do you think you’re fooling?

So, my first-born got hammered with homework the first year of middle school. Worse, it was idiosyncratic; so it was luck of the draw whether your kid got a teacher who assigned lots of homework. My school admitted that while the math teachers were pretty much in synch, the science department had great variability, and didn’t explicitly admit that they can’t do anything about it (*cough* tenure *cough*). This had been going on, but now my better half had me behind her as she rallied the other mom’s into a persistent force against what was happening. There’s now a homework policy, which still gets violated (oh, this is a honors class at highschool level, so we have to assign weekend homework). Nope, sorry, don’t buy it.

My second has not been hammered by the first year of homework (luck of the draw, the science teacher who doesn’t believe in homework), and hasn’t had her love of schooling squelched. The first, however, has had to have serious support by us to not turn off completely. I really believe that the middle school (a good one) has a belief that the only way to deal with all these coddled elementary school students is to hammer them the first year. Frankly, I’m not convinced that most kids are ready for middle school in 6th grade. But I’m getting away from my point and getting personal…

Some reactivation, within limits of the overall load can’t keep kids tied to desks hours after school’s out, can be understandable, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s not really that necessary. If we tap into motivation, we can accelerate learning and get more utility out of school. Doing the same problems at night, overloading from too many classes, and weekend homework don’t really provide enough advantage to justify such assignments.

I’m not sure whether they’re teaching the principles of homework to teaching students, and whether there’s any education of existing teachers from whatever path, but we’ve got to get it right. If Finland can get by minimal homework, I reckon we can too.

How many of us are required to spend hours helping our kids with their homework, yet their teachers encourage us parents to stay out of their learning and development as we are to out of touch or even more sadly how many parents especially in the junior years end up doing their kids homework anyway, I have seen and still see some great example of this happening even today.

As end note can someone please remind why we pay for school fees when most of it is done at home…lets change the learning model a little, who knows maybe more of this could be done in class time and form a part of a normal learning routine rather than be seen as a bolt on, you note that I have avoided the word Add On as this form of learning is not additive but repetitive and in some cases even punitive.

Happy learning one and all.

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