While there are some benefits to homework for primary school children, studies show that it doesn’t have much impact on their academic achievement
Homework for primary school pupils has been in the national spotlight since President Higgins seemed to suggest, last week, that children should spend less time on homework to free them up for creative and imaginative pursuits.
I listened with interest to some of the subsequent discourse on various radio stations, and read a few opinion pieces in the papers about the issue. I have long believed that homework for primary school pupils is unnecessary. Much of that perspective has been framed by the anecdotal evidence from my clients over the last 20-plus years. Prior to the advent of smartphones, homework was the number one flashpoint for conflict between parents and their children. Since smartphones have taken that number one slot, homework has dropped to being the second most complained-about task by parents that I meet. It is of course possible that if homework didn’t exist then the conflict would be about something else.
That said, I have read a lot of recent research about homework and there isn’t clearcut evidence that it creates enough of an academic benefit to offset the stress that it causes. There have been many meta-analyses (an amalgamation of the results of many research studies) of the effect of homework, for primary school students, on academic attainment. The majority of them have showed that homework does lead to better academic results, but the effect size is small and often only statistically meaningful, as opposed to being meaningful in the real world.
One recent European study that looked at outcomes from 24 countries worldwide found that the amount of homework assigned to primary school students was not associated with their academic achievement. This means that their academic achievement must be explained by other factors than the amount of homework children are given.
At the same time, there are many other good reasons given for assigning homework to children. A recent Irish study examined teacher and parent perceptions of homework. Many parents expect their child to receive homework and would be upset if they didn’t get given homework, as they would fear they may fall behind academically. Teachers in the same study described how they wouldn’t be able to cover the curriculum if they didn’t give homework. Aside from the academic benefit that those teachers ascribed to homework, they also talked about how they felt homework set children up to work independently, taught them about time-management and prepared them for the additional rigours of secondary school.
All of these may be relevant reasons for giving homework to primary school students. However, as with any issue, we are always trying to balance the potential benefit of a task against the costs of that task. From my analysis of the research, these potential benefits are always going to be offset by the reported emotional and psychological costs to children and their parents.
A 2015 research study measured family stress and found that it increased as homework load went up and parents’ perceptions of their ability to assist decreased. Even though parents may feel they aren’t well placed to offer academic assistance to their child, they do experience a sense of duty to help in an instructional capacity. I think we have all come across examples of homework or project work that may, in fact, have been produced by a parent.
This is often the circumstance when stress is highest, as parents’ attempts to help can cause greater confusion and tension (“that is not how teacher showed us to do it”). Where parents’ involvement in homework is critical or controlling, it has been shown, by the research, to be associated with poorer academic outcomes and lowered self-esteem in the child.
Research evidence, then, does not give a glowing endorsement to continuing the practice of giving homework to primary school children. While there may be very small gains in academic achievement, it comes at the risk of creating greater conflict and tension at home, which in turn can be associated with a reduction in that academic achievement.
It seems to me that the practice of giving homework is simply part of the cultural norm in Ireland, which is not the same as saying that it is the right thing to do. President Higgins has done another good service to our country by highlighting an alternative view, and one that the psychological research would suggest is well worth exploring more.
While some parents may fear a lack of educational progress for their children, I could imagine that there is an equally large group of parents who would welcome the release from the tyranny of daily homework supervision and the tears and tantrums that can accompany it.