Wednesday 22 November 2017

Does homework do more harm than good?

Keep distractions to a mimimum during homework time
Helen Nolan from Carndonagh with her four children

Kathy Donaghy

Hands up who likes homework? If you’re a working parent of a primary school-going child, you’re probably conflicted. Yes, you like the opportunity to get involved with your child’s learning, but really — it’s taking up to an hour a night of your precious family time.

Couldn’t we just extend the school day by half an hour and cover the work at school instead? (Come to think of it, that would probably ease some of your childcare issues too.) And is it how you really want to spend your evening, tussling with a homework-averse child after you’ve rushed home from work and got the dinner on and off the table?

This is almost certainly what Texas teacher Brandy Young was thinking when she set a no-homework policy in advance of school returning this year. Her stance against homework ripped quickly around the world, sparking a debate about whether homework is actually beneficial.

The second-grade teacher last week passed out a note to parents on Meet the Teacher Night, announcing that she would not assign homework for the upcoming school year. Young said that she had done her homework on homework, and decided it wasn’t helping.

The parent of a child in Young’s class took a photo of the note, which urged parents instead to use the time to “eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early”. She posted it on Facebook and tens of thousands of ‘shares’ later, she had inadvertently re-opened the age-old debate about homework.

The homework wars have been raging for years. In Finland, a country long held up as having a model education system, pupils are given little or no homework, in the belief that children require family and outdoors time more than revision. 

Helen Nolan from Carndonagh with her four children
Helen Nolan from Carndonagh with her four children

Writing in ‘The Homework Myth’ in 2006, international parenting and education expert (and prominent homework critic) Alfie Kohn, argued that the negative effects of homework are well known and the positive effects imagined. He says homework does not reinforce learning nor improve academic results, while at the same time it reduces precious time with family and friends.

“For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement. At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied,” he writes.

So is homework a chore too far after a long school day? Is it putting pressure on precious family time and, at a time when obesity levels in children are at an all-time high, is it adding to the time spent engaged in yet another sedentary activity?

A new US study has found that children aged between five and 18 spend an average of 51pc of the after-school period in “sedentary time”. It identified TV viewing, homework and screen-based activities as occupying the biggest chunks of time for children after school, and identified these as the key areas for interventions.

Here, the aim of the new National Physical Activity Plan, launched earlier this year, is to increase physical activity levels across the entire population.

Children need one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in a day but up to 80pc of kids are not achieving that. And with 25pc of three-year-olds in this country already obese or overweight, do we need to rethink the emphasis on homework afterschool — a task that makes them even more sedentary?

The country’s leading obesity expert, Professor Donal O’Shea, believes homework is not the problem. The issue is how we function as a society and how we build more ways to be active into our lives.

“In general, children’s physical-activity levels drop at the weekend. When you think about it, the weekend presents an opportunity to get out and be active — we are not grasping that. Unless you actively plan activity for your kids, the default is that it won’t happen,” he says.

Professor O’Shea says parents need to look at the week and see where they can plan physical activity, they need to lead by example and be active themselves. And he says if schools were to assign a family walk in a child’s homework journal, that would be a really positive step. “If teacher were to say go for a family walk, it would be done,” he says.

Clinical psychologist Sarah O’Doherty sees lots of parents and children who are frazzled by homework. “You can’t have a child spending hours at homework in the evening after a long day in school.”

However, she says that homework can be a way of learning life skills. “Children are sitting down and learning to do something by themselves rather than having their teacher standing over them.”

O’Doherty says parents should encourage children to do their homework at the kitchen table rather than in their room, as this means they can be monitored.

“I’m a great believer in the kitchen table because you can make sure they are doing the work,” she says.

For Néidín Coulahan, who teaches at a primary school in Dublin, homework is a valuable tool in helping children learn the importance of being organised and in structuring their time. “It has to have a purpose and must be relevant and they have to see the benefits of doing it. Things like writing poems and creative writing need space at home to work on. It can also create a bond between parent and child in terms of their work. It also gives the parents an understanding of what level the child is at and what areas they need to develop,” she says.

Coulahan, who taught sixth class last year, devised a system where her students earned tokens, which they could use to buy a homework pass. They earned these tokens by performing well and doing all their work.

“They needed to earn six tokens and then they got a homework pass. That really worked as an incentive. It’s not something a teacher can decide by his or herself.

“I asked what the kids thought of it and I sent a letter home to the parents to see if everyone was happy. The parents and kids were brilliant about it. It really gave the kids autonomy over their own learning,” she says.

“In terms of the junior classes and homework, I think the emphasis should be on reading.

“But for senior classes,

I don’t think you can

discard it because you are putting them at a disadvantage for second-level.

“It does teach them life skills, like how they are going to get things done on their own and it gets them into a routine of preparing properly.

“If there was to be any overall homework policy, it would need to be a universal one and child-centred,” says Coulahan.

'It's about finding the balance between work and activities'

Mum-of-four Helen Nolan from Carndonagh in Co Donegal says while her children are not spending huge amounts of time doing homework, she does believe it has a value in that it teaches them the discipline of working independently.

"When you go to secondary school, the work increases - and when you go to university, you're really left on your own. Even when you're at work, sometimes you can't finish everything in the office and you take it home. I think children need to have a little bit of homework, as long as it's not excessive.

"A bit of homework during the week reinforces what they are learning and it teaches them something about life in general," says Nolan, who works as a parliamentary secretary to Fianna Fáil TD Charlie McConalogue. While her youngest daughter Eibhlín (3) isn't at school yet, her other three girls go to St Patrick's Girls School in Carndonagh where Aoibhín is going into sixth class, Caitríona is going into fourth and Niamh is going into third class.

"We try to get into a routine where homework is done when they come in from school and their Granny Bernadette helps with homework lots of days. They probably have something extracurricular every day, like camogie or athletics. The girls are very active and they enjoy getting out in the evening.

"Of course they like time on their i-Pads, too - it's finding that balance between getting the work done, their activities and some TV. Some days we do better than others," she says.

Top tips for homework

Keep distractions to a mimimum during homework time

* Set up a homework-friendly area in your home, preferably a family area like the kitchen table. This means you can be on hand to help with anything tricky but also make sure they are not spending their time on devices.

* Know the teachers and what they're looking for. Ask about homework policies and what's involved. If you're unsure of what's expected of your child, arrange a meeting with his or her teacher.

* Get into a good routine and schedule a regular homework time. If extracurricular activities mean the same time every day isn't possible, ensure that there is a designated time for homework on that day.

* Keep distractions to a minimum. This means no TV, no loud music or interruptions.

* Don't do the work for them. They won't learn if they don't think for themselves. You might be on hand to guide them through it but make sure they are the ones coming up with the answers. They are the ones who have to do the learning.

* Don't make a big fuss about it, thus charging homework time with stress. Keep calm and your child won't associate it as a time of anxiety.

Irish Independent

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