Have you done your homework?
That's the cry that goes up every night in many Irish households. But how much homework is enough? Catherine Troy reportsWhy does one teacher give mountains of homework and another none at all? Why does the homework correcting system repeatedly humiliate weaker students? These are the testing questions that concentrate the minds of teachers, parents and schoolchildren alike.
Irish pupils spend more time on homework than their counterparts in Britain, America and Canada but are we putting our children under too much academic pressure and taking the fun out of learning and causing academic burn-out at a early age?
Department of Education inspectors insist that homework should start at seven in primary school, with children doing anything from ten to 20 minutes' homework a night. This should build up to one hour's homework in sixth year. In secondary school, students should do one hour's homework in first year, and thereafter it should build up to three hours (plus weekend study) for students taking examination.
Two basic skills are necessary if homework is to be beneficial. Firstly, parents must perceive homework as important, and your children must voluntarily support that stance. Secondly, all children must have the basic reading and maths skills to study effectively for the given period.
``If a child is to study effective they must have good reading and mathematical skills. But, these abilities can vary a great deal from one child to another,'' says Professor Lachlan Cameron, Department of Education, Trinity College Dublin.
``For example, the reading skills of 12-year-old children, who have finished primary school, can vary in standard by 10 years. The weak pupils may only have the reading skills of a seven-year-old, while others in the same class may have the reading skills of 17-year-old. The same problem can be found with maths skills.
``Children who don't have these skills take longer to do their homework and often end up with the wrong answers after hours of hard work. It's imperative that these reading and arithmetic problem be corrected at an early stage. Then, and only then, can you start talking about study skills that is, getting children to concentrate on a given exercise and learning to grasp information quickly, using indexes, graphs and reference books. And, of course, all within a reasonable amount of time.''
Ideologically, we could say that homework brings knowledge and education into the Irish family home. But, the reality is that at the mere mention of homework the whole atmosphere can deteriorate into rows and sulks. In many homes today, where both parents are out working all day, they are often too exhausted to take on the homework battle every night. For while parents want their children to excel academically, they are often don't have the energy or are unwilling to create an environment that is conducive to study.
Meanwhile, children see homework as a chore that eats into leisure and television time.
Television is the main bone of contention. Repeatedly, parents chant: ``There is nothing but rubbish on that box'' and ``you'll never get anywhere in this world if you don't study.'' Then, lecture over, they plonk themselves in front of the TV for the night.
``Parents and pupils alike have to sit down and discuss the whole subject of television and a reasonable approach has to be adopted. Whatever, the decision, it has to be an agreed decision by the whole family. Nothing is gained by fighting,'' says Fionnuala Kilfeather of the National Parents Council.
Teachers can ease this tension by explaining to both parents and pupils alike the importance of homework. Obviously, the homework demands of primary school, first year secondary and Leaving Certificate students will vary enormously. This should be explained to all students and parents at the beginning of each year. Also, each student should be equipped with a study timetable which allocates a fair amount of time to each subject.
`Schools should try to have a formulated policy on homework to ensure that students aren't given an essay in English and an essay in history on the same night. All subjects and all teachers should be given an equal amount of homework time and this policy should be worked out in the school,'' says John White of the Association of Secondary Schoolteachers.
Homework correction is a very contentious issue with both students and parents. Obviously, teachers have to outline what is right and what is wrong. Similarly, laziness has to be distinguished from confused effort, but everyone appreciates that there is nothing worse than having copy books full of repeated Es and Fs with accompanying snide comments.
``I don't think grades should be put in the copy book'', says Prof Cameron. ``Instead, the teacher should keep their own private record on the progress on each pupil. Also, I think teachers should explain their marking system to parents at parent/teacher meetings because this would end a lot of confusion and hurt. For instance, a teacher should explain the level of praise or encouragement to a weak student, who has made a great deal of effort, would not be the same praise as that given to a very able student who produces the same work but is capable of so much more.''
Homework corrections are extremely important. Both teachers and students agree that the soon they get their homework back the better. The fact is, if a long time elapses between homework and correction the student's concentration moved on to another subject and the corrections are lost on them. Meanwhile, teachers insist that students should read and review their homework rather than just looking at the grades and remarks and stuffing the copybooks in their bags.
Correcting homework is a contentious matter, Obviously, the teacher has to outline what is right and that is wrong. Similarly, laziness has to be distinguished from confused efforts. But, that said, marking should be done in such a manger that it isn't humiliating for the student. The important thing is to encourage the student to keep up the effort.
At the end of the schoolday, everyone can learn from homework teachers, parents and children alike. Students have to honest with themselves and their ambitions and approach towards homework. Parents have to be tolerant and realistic about their children's abilities and results.
And, finally, at the end of the lesson everyone need the encouragement to keep opening those schoolbooks every night.