Friday, September 15, 2006

Homework: It's the parents stupid

Before I had children of school age, I watched with interest the rising tide against homework. The idea was that children (especially those under 10) had too much homework at night. Well, the academic in me said "what rot? Work good." And I awaited when one of my own children would be assigned homework.

Well that happened when my eldest daughter was in Prep and it started with 'The Readers.' This was an endless parade of little books designed to encourage children to gain confidence in reading. Every night several of these would come home and every night we would struggle through them. And I would wonder: isn't this what they should be doing in school?

It took us two years and then we fought back. We simply said 'no.' If we are going to spend half an hour a night on educational activities, it is going to be on stuff I don't think she is getting at school and on stuff that she will do enthusiastically. So we switched to maths activity books with 'word problems.' This encouraged her to read and to solve problems; two hits for the price of one. And near as I could tell, she wasn't doing these types of things at school. That made our lives considerably easier.

A recent discussion by Emily Brazelon in Slate echoes similar feelings as she reviews the literature on homework.
When I shopped around the arguments against homework, I discovered that how you feel about it depends a lot on what you think kids will do if they don't have any. Eli's homework seems like an imposition when I measure it against running around the playground or playing card games or building with blocks or talking to his little brother.
Which was exactly our point in substituting reading for maths. And it turns out that homework has observable impacts on performance only when it is very targetted. That seems to be the logic behind the spelling homework we do every night. A list of eight words over the course of four days that we try to get learnt; usually successfully.

But even so I worry that the total volume of work time after school -- piano (15 minutes), spelling (10 minutes), project or maths (30 minutes) -- is still too much for a 7 year old. This especially given the case that they attend after-school care most days and on other days do piano or swimming. That leaves the weekend for any simple, do whatever you want, play time. Sure, that is what adults do all the time but that isn't much of an argument.

And so how did we get to this situation? Well, we do other activities because we choose to. And we could (superficially) blame the schools for the rest. But, actually, I suspect that we (or at least all other parents) are at fault. It is they that ask the teachers for more work and they who use homework to judge school performance. Not surprisingly, it is easy to send students home with more work just to shut them up.

For that reason, I am more inclined to ignore, at least, school directed homework and to choose our own time and activities. Hard to know how long we will be able to keep that up in today's competitive world.