Saturday 16 December 2017

Is homework really a waste of time?

Many teachers question its value, and sometimes the help of parents can do more harm than good.

Hitting the books: Eithne Day with her five children, Cathal (5), Michael (11), Sam (9), Belle (6) and Mathew (8) as they do their homework at Scoil Mhuire, Coolcotts. Photo by Patrick Browne
Hitting the books: Eithne Day with her five children, Cathal (5), Michael (11), Sam (9), Belle (6) and Mathew (8) as they do their homework at Scoil Mhuire, Coolcotts. Photo by Patrick Browne
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

On the face of it Eithne Day's task as a parent looks almost impossible. How does she get her five primary schoolchildre to sit down quietly and do their homework every afternoon?

Homework brings stress to parents and pupils, and many teachers at national-school level now question its value. But almost all Irish schoolchildren have to do it.

Figures released by the Central Statistics Office earlier this month show that 69pc of children at primary level get help from their parents every day.

Four per cent of children never receive assistance from their parents at all.

Overall, 59pc of parents feel very confident about helping. This rises to 72pc where parents have a third-level degree or higher.

Every family experiences the fretful time late in the evening when assignments have not been completed and children and their parents are too tired to cope with it.

So how does Eithne Day, who has five children attending Scoil Mhuire in Coolcotts, Co Wexford, manage?

Scoil Mhuire is unusual in having a parents' room where mothers and fathers can supervise their children while they do their homework.

Every afternoon after school, Eithne uses this facility. At 2.30pm, she sits in the room with four of her children while they do their assignments for 45 minutes.

"It is a relaxing environment where you can get a cup of tea and toast," she says. "My youngest son doesn't come along because he is in Junior Infants and doesn't get that much homework.

"I like the children to get their homework done early, so that they have time for sports and recreation. It is much easier than if they are doing it later in the evening."

Like most primary homework, the assignments are mainly for maths and English. Typically Eithne Day's children have to do 20 sums, and learn spelling.

According to a report by the Educational Research Centre in Dublin, fourth-class pupils in Ireland receive shorter, but more frequent, English and maths assignments than pupils in most other countries.

Six out of 10 are given maths homework every day, and a similar number have to do reading. In contrast, Irish children are given very little science homework - 86pc do it less than once a week or not at all.

Schools vary in their homework policies, but tend to give very little homework in the infant classes; it gradually rises from 15-30 minutes in first class to up to an hour in sixth class.

Dr Eemer Eivers of the Educational Research Centre says: "There should not be one-size-fits-all amount of homework. Teachers could vary it, according to the child.

"If a child finds it very easy, it might be a good idea to give them something extra to do as a challenge."

The value of homework is the subject of hot debate in education circles, and researchers have tended to differ on how useful it is.

Dr Eemer Eivers says in some countries such as Holland very little homework is given.

The Irish Primary Principals Network has repeatedly questioned the amount of homework given to younger children.

Sean Cottrell, director of IPPN, says: "It is often said that homework is a good way of communicating between the school and parents, but there must be other ways of doing that. Too often it leads to stressful situations for parents and children. Correcting homework also wastes valuable time in school that could be used for teaching."

Mr Cottrell says: "Some teachers feel obliged to give more homework, because parents expect it and believe it is a sign of a good teacher. It is certainly not a good barometer of that."

The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) gives guidelines on homework for primary school children.

NCCA guidelines advise: "Try to make sure children make an honest effort to do the homework without assistance. If they have a difficulty, your help should generally take the form of prompting and guiding them towards completing the task that is set."

The guide continues: "If you have given them a reasonable amount of help and they still cannot complete the task you can help best by writing a note to the teacher telling them of the child's difficulties."

Pat Goff, principal of Scoil Mhuire, says parents can help by prompting their children to read. "If parents could encourage children to read for 15 minutes every night that is the best homework they could have."

Most Irish parents (93pc) read to their children when they are aged between three and seven, with 71pc doing so on a daily basis.

Although parents are keen to help, sometimes they can cause more harm than good, according to Pat Goff.

"They may help out with maths homework, but they themselves may have learned how to do sums using different methodologies to those that are used now in schools. That can cause a lot of confusion."

Irish Independent

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