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Is Homework Really Important?

November, 2008
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  Let’s face it; most kids don’t like homework.

  Most parents, and in particular Asian parents, like to see their kids have homework but can’t or  don’t like to help them with it for long. However, nobody dreads homework more than the teachers. Imagine correcting several classes of 20 students writing about their last vacation, or a page of long division problems! So if it is so onerous why is it that students leave school each day with backpacks full of books pulling at their shoulders, and kids are sleeping in class because they were up late making a family timeline or finishing the science project?

  The answer is simple. Homework can help your child, but only if it is assigned for the right reasons, in the right quantity and is done by the student who believes it is useful.

A. The Right Reasons

  The right reasons for assigning homework are:

  • To expose the student to new material,
  • To reinforce understanding of skills already learned in class, and
  • To allow for project work.

Reason 1.

  The greatest advantage of using out-of-class personal study time to expose students to new material is that it simulates how most of us learn about our world as adults. We read. We search on the internet. We consciously and unconsciously make connections between pieces of information and develop an understanding. We save the information we deem useful. We make mistakes and learn from them, and we value our time and manage it as we think best. Learning how to efficiently self-manage learning is at least as valuable as the subject matter learned. The less prescriptive the assignment guidelines, the broader the opportunity there is for the student to self-manage their study. In addition the student experiences the pleasure of learning and the feeling of empowerment that accompanies this self-management.

  However, there are two essential criteria for the success of this kind of homework assignment. The student must have: A. a clear understanding of the task at hand and, B. the basic skills required to do the task. It is unfair to throw the student into myriad new ideas and sources and still expect a quality product or a positive learning experience. If the assignment is prescriptive, say “Read the first act of Romeo and Juliet and be prepared to contribute to thoughtful discussion”, then the learner has the option to take the characters into his/her own world. Reading, whether it is literature or history, is a solitary activity where ideas take the form of shapes and colors from within the personal experience of the reader. Reading in class, although appropriate in many situations, hijacks the intimate relations between the author, the characters and the reader. Reading outside the classroom is an efficient use of time and fosters a love for the ideas of others.

Reason 2

   Homework can also be useful to reinforce material and skills learned in class. It would be impossible to master Chinese character writing if it was only studied during class time. Identifying different types of problems i.e. do I divide by the denominator or cross multiply, comes with practice after careful explanation, modeling and practice in class.

  Reviewing material for assessment is also valid material for homework. We forget the majority of what we are told, but we retain considerably more by using the information in a practical way. Repetitive use of a calculator, piano, or computer keyboard is essential to the learning process and cannot be mastered in forty minutes of class time. Once the technique is clearly understood and correct habits begin to be formed the teacher can use class time more effectively as monitoring of basic techniques is now less important..

Reason 3

  Project work which allows the student to use resources and develop new ways of packaging their products such as the use of video or art works also requires considerable time outside the classroom. The key to the success of these projects is having mile markers for the students to achieve along the way. These divide what may seem to a student like a daunting task into manageable bits and the student gets a feeling of security from incremental feedback and achievement as s/he progresses towards the final goal. This avoids students (and their parents) finding themselves trying to accomplish the impossible the night before the assignment is due. Through this very valuable skill of time management is modeled, nurtured, and eventually learned.

B. The Right Amount of Homework

  Students may have seven or eight different academic subjects. If half of the teachers give even a half hour assignment on the same day this amounts to two hours of study a night. In addition, many students have music, language and other after school programs. So how is the child supposed to prioritize his/her work? It is impossible. By isolating the child in a one dimensional and very sterile ivory tower with a court of tutors, parents can hardly expect the child to develop independence or leadership.

  There is solid research supporting the value, especially in a child’s early developmental years, of activities such as day dreaming, play and time for observation and reflection. It is the responsibility of parents and schools to make sure children have the time and energy to explore the world around them and interact with people. To ignore the importance of play is to rob a child of his/her youth, stifle creative expression and deprive them of the real world experience of managing one’s self and others.

  Schools need homework policies that set out and enforce clear guidelines for allotting homework to ensure that students have meaningful and manageable amounts appropriate for their ages. In primary years a half an hour each day would be the maximum. Middle school students can manage 45 minutes and high school students should not be burdened with more than one and a half hours on average per night.

  It is not good practice to assign homework to complete works that didn’t get done in class. Homework is not meant to compensate for teachers’ poor time management. Certainly there is sometimes pressure for this to happen, especially in systems which follow national curriculums where everybody is supposed to be on the same page at the same time.  

  Homework is learning in a different environment than in the classroom and as such should be structured to take advantage of the larger world outside of the classroom. Assigning more work than the student can comfortably do well is counter-productive. Quality will suffer as assignments become files to get through as fast as possible. What is worse is that the student will begin to lose the pleasure that comes with learning. School will become a job with all the dread of the working world. Let’s not do this to our students.

C. Student Perceptions of the Usefulness of Work

  In primary years and in early middle school, students will still try their best on their assignment just for a smiley face or a “job well done”. However as the child begins to move towards high school, peers replace teachers as the most valued source of praise. The old “smiley face” either from the sticker or the teacher is not going to motivate a student who thinks s/he is wasting his/her time on an assignment that seemingly adds little value to life. Students value their time and will willingly give of it if they believe they are getting something of value in return. If not, the work will be shoddy and students’ respect for the educational process will be eroded. Homework has to be worth doing. Some teachers are under pressure from administrators and especially Asian parents to “pile on the homework”.

  Perhaps we should remember the Chinese characters for homework which in pinyin reads as “zuoye”. This brings together the characters for “grow” and “work”. Indeed, homework that helps students grow is useful and to be encouraged in amounts that are comfortably manageable.

By Sebastian Alexander

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