Thursday 20 October 2016

Homework is a waste of time for kids and parents

Children work all day, then we school them at home, writes Sarah Caden, for fear of the dreaded exam fail

Sarah Caden

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

Too busy to play: God forbid that children should be allowed to actually enjoy their childhood when there are exams to pass Photo: Depositphotos
Too busy to play: God forbid that children should be allowed to actually enjoy their childhood when there are exams to pass Photo: Depositphotos

When my first daughter was in junior infants, I met another mother who was a homework conscientious objector.

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She had older children, so she was longer in the school game than a newbie like me. She had lots of reports to hand on the pointlessness of homework and her children seemed undamaged by the fact that they did no homework beyond some reading assignments.

Still, I did not join her on the sidelines. Instead, I had rows with my then four-year-old like nothing we had ever experienced before. She sobbed under the kitchen table while I coaxed, threatened and eventually cried myself, one as frustrated as the other.

I told myself that there was value in it, if only that it allowed me to see if and how she was progressing in school. There was a point to it all, I told myself, though I look back now and cannot believe that I put her through it.

That child is in third class now. Her little sister is in senior infants. The younger one, due to Down syndrome, I'd be drilling in the evening anyway with speech therapy and suchlike, so I reason that I might as well be doing prescribed school homework, but the older one? I'm starting to sound like that conscientious objector when it comes to the older one.

It's nothing to do with her school or her teacher. The school is open to discussion and the teachers are very clear that the children should do their homework for an age-appropriate amount of time, then call it a night.

Obviously, though, most kids worry so much about getting in trouble that they slog on. And on and on.

And to what end, I find myself wondering more and more. What lessons are children getting from all this homework? Apparently, according to homework advocates, they are learning lessons in perseverance, time-management and self-esteem.

Evidence of the above, most parents will testify, is a child wilting, worrying and wearing themselves out, repeating what they did in school and not necessarily learning more. Instead, most parents will observe, it's a process of diminishing returns. They've spent their day at this stuff, and now they come home to do more.

In my opinion, what they are learning is that life is a grinding relentlessness.

The drive behind the homework brings us back to this mentality of tunnelling our children towards The Exams from the earliest age. We get them on board with the mentality of joyless cramming in of information without end from the age of four, as if we're doing them a favour by not frightening them with it when they hit the Junior Cert cycle.

Schools that eschew homework for the junior and senior infants years are regarded as lulling the kids into a fool's paradise, out of which they'll get a rude awakening in first class.

Schools that are progressive and open to adjustment on the homework front seem to insist on it because the curriculum demands it and not because they necessarily believe it's helping. It's helping the kids, basically, by teaching them early that endless repetition is what gets results. And as a consequence, conscientious objectors, such as the woman I know, are considered to be setting their kids up for an exam fail.

And exam fail, as we all know, is a fate worse than death in this country. Even though we know that the exam system itself fails a lot of our kids. But we go along with it, because it's all we have. And as a knock-on effect, we go along with homework, no matter how much it makes our children cry with frustration and exhaustion after a long day at school.

Not to mention following the after-school activities that are not just an indulgence but often key to them getting enough exercise.

Yeah, yeah, they should be playing on the road and climbing trees for their daily exercise, but that's not possible for a lot of people.

And who has time for that, particularly into second-level, where school can go on past 4pm and homework can take up to two hours?

There are an abundance of studies that show homework to be a futile, pointless exercise. In fact, even the studies that show homework has a positive effect on learning in children point to two things: that it works best for older kids, who have developed the brain power for extended concentration and self-discipline and information retention. And also that it works so long as not too much time is taken over it.

Ask any parent in Ireland and they will tell you that far too much time out of school is taken up with homework.

It prohibits having friends over - unless you're a glutton for getting homework done with a child of unknown temperament and habits - and leads to this mentality of a black cloud hanging over the hours in which school is officially out.

In my house, I've kicked the testing on Irish phrases into an over-the-breakfast activity and found myself with growing sympathy for non-Irish parents, of whom there are more and more in every school, who can't even know where to begin with this stuff.

And in a way, the whole argument against homework is mirrored by the learning of Irish. For the most part, our children will never use the Irish they are forced to learn. They are learning it in order to pass exams. In the real world, it's a hiding to nothing.

They will not use it in day-to-day life and they will, most likely, end up like their parents, who have a glut of nouns, a scrap of grammar and no understanding of the Nuacht. Unless it's a week like last week, when there was the bus stailc and they remember learning off the grammar for that by rote in case it came up in the Inter Cert English during the glut of 1980s strikes.

What of the non-Irish parents, though, who can't know the pronunciation of any of it and can't help their children with it in any way?

How crazy must it seem to them that their children are obliged to learn this thing that they will never use? And you can argue that we have a cultural attachment to Irish and that it's part of who we are, but none of that changes that we make the children knuckle down to it because it will, ultimately, come up in The Exam.

That's our mentality when it comes to learning. Is it coming up on The Exam? Will your child be fit for The Exam? If you become a homework conscientious objector, will your child fail The Exam?

And we breed that fear into the children from the first years in primary, through the homework and the insistence that if they don't do it, there's a fail waiting down the road for them.

So the parents put up with it. They more than put up with it. They have the fear of the fail through them like a stick of rock since their own school days, so they go along with spending the evenings drumming into the kids what they know they spent hours at in school. They watch the tears, they shed a few themselves, they wonder what lesson is being learnt beyond that life is hard and dull and a constant test.

Sunday Independent

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