Thursday 5 December 2019

Sarah Caden: 'The end of homework is the start of learning'

Children may learn more without the treadmill of school homework, writes Sarah Caden

SCHOOL’S OUT: Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget concludes children do best through ‘discovery learning’. Stock picture
SCHOOL’S OUT: Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget concludes children do best through ‘discovery learning’. Stock picture

Sarah Caden

'The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for the child to invent and discover. To create people who are capable of doing new things," said Sr Maria Hyland last week, when called upon to explain how and why the Dublin primary school, of which she is principal, has stopped giving written homework.

She was quoting Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget who did groundbreaking work in the mid-20th Century, as the first scientist to study how children learn. The conclusion of his research was that children do best through "discovery learning", which is the opposite of what he considered the classic guided, some might even say spoon-feeding approach.

In Piaget's work, he spelt out how, when confronted with something unknown, it was more long-term productive for children to be unsettled and disrupted by this lack of understanding, and thus jolted into trying to work it out or find the answer. This route to the solution, he said, made the information better absorbed into their scheme of knowledge.

They became "active scientists", according to Piaget, and how this relates to homework is easily understood. Homework, if you are among the tribe who regard it as a post-school cramming of even more information, of learning off what's coming up in the test, is not discovery learning. It's passive and, perhaps, goes in one childish ear and out the other.

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Clearly, Sr Maria Hyland, who is principal of Loreto Primary School in Rathfarnham, south County Dublin, agrees with some of Piaget's principles. Her school is trialling a no-written-homework policy, which means the children still have some basic stuff to do in the evenings, but they are not sitting down for hours writing out work.

So far, according to Sr Maria, it's all going well. "Children come in fresh and happy in the mornings," she said last week. "There's a great buzz around the place, which is nice."

Parents seem happy with the change, also, even though some were anxious about it initially. Interestingly, that parental anxiety is common, internationally, when conventional homework is challenged. Kids, obviously, have no qualms about ditching the drudge, but parents are wary. They worry that their children will fall behind and they worry that, long-term, those with no homework will not do well.

Studies have shown, however, that this is not the case. There are several studies into homework that suggest it has real positive advantage for very small children, which makes sense given their concentration spans and levels of exhaustion at the end of a school day.

Studies, such as the best-known one, conducted by Harris Cooper, another psychologist, in Duke University, North Carolina in the mid-2000s, suggests that at the upper end of primary school and into secondary school, children can benefit from some homework, as a form of practice at a skill. You keep doing it, and you become better at it.

However, while Cooper is often cited as concluding that homework is outright useless, in fact he was more concerned that the volume of homework rendered it pointless rather than the homework itself.

In keeping with this, some educators encourage a 10-minute rule, which proposes that kids in their first year of school get 10 minutes of homework, and in their second get 10 minutes multiplied by 2 (20 minutes), all the way up to a maximum of two hours in secondary school.

This, again, seems like common sense, but as most parents will testify, their children more often than not exceed the 10-minute rule, and seem to spend their entire days at school work. Homework is often the number one battleground in Irish households. It's regularly hard to see what its benefit is.

In keeping with their regard for Jean Piaget, Loreto Rathfarnham is approaching their new rule as an opportunity for the pupils to do something else, rather than do nothing.

They are full of suggestions of how that time once put aside for homework can be used productively. The children are not encouraged to sit down in front of a phone, tablet or TV screen for hours as an alternative. Instead, it's suggested that they watch RTE children's news, read, play sports, help around the house and even help out with the dinner.

Even if you believe in the value of homework, you would be hard pressed to object to these proposed activities. In particular, the helping around the house fits with all those things we moan are lacking in our children. These are the life skills we say they lack, while ignoring that it's partly our fault with our taxiing around and picking up after them. These alternatives to school work are where they will do the "active scientist" piece of real life. This is where they will get the soft skills that so many employers say young people lack, while being over-endowed with university qualifications.

We all complain about homework, but what the Loreto Rathfarnham model points up is the importance of replacing it with something worthwhile. And by that, I do not mean more after-school structured activities.

Homework is often cast as the bad guy, that weighs down on our children who are worn out from school and, yes, all their activities. But while we are willing to lament how they get worn out by extra work outside school, we rarely look at how we are potentially overloading them otherwise. I'm not suggesting that activities and sport are bad in themselves, but in the spirit of ''discovery learning'', it's potentially a mistake to make their lives so structured all the time. Also, there's a danger that the volume of activities diminishes the good of doing them.

Jane Austen's most marriageable ladies were less accomplished than some of our kids, but much like homework, is that time they could be spending learning about living? And to what end is all this allegedly improving activity?

What it would seem they are seeing in Loreto Rathfarnham is the benefit of taking the pressure off. They are seeing how it works when we free children from the treadmill of relentless busyness, which is as much the scourge of our adult lives as it is of theirs.

There is a buzz about the place, as Sr Maria said. It is the buzz of energy, which is allowed to exist when, oddly, you outwardly appear to be doing less.

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