Afternoon angst: is homework really necessary?

Forcing primary school children to do set homework does not improve academic outcomes and causes stress to both children and their parents, say educators

US analysis of research found that, for children aged under 11, there was no link between homework and improved academic achievement. Photograph: iStock

US analysis of research found that, for children aged under 11, there was no link between homework and improved academic achievement. Photograph: iStock

 

It’s hard to know who hates homework more: teachers who have to set and correct it, children who have to do it or parents who struggle to make sure it’s done.

Yet, most persevere, with the belief it’s a necessary and beneficial part of schooling. Or is it?

The current system of primary school homework in Ireland is a “scandal”, according to one Dublin teacher who has studied the effectiveness of home assignments.

It is failing children, teachers and parents “and you could say it is failing the country”, says Martin Stuart, a teacher who specialises in learning support at Talbot Senior National School in Clondalkin, Dublin. “Kids are not enjoying the learning and they are more stressed than they should be.”

After reviewing international research for a post-graduate diploma at DCU, Stuart led a revamp of his school’s homework policy through consultation with other teachers, special needs assistants, pupils and parents. Schools are free to devise their own approach to homework and while they are not obliged to have a published policy on the matter, the Department of Education says having one and reviewing it regularly would be considered best practice.

“It is not teachers’ fault that homework is the way it is at the moment,” says Stuart. He blames the department for its lack of guidance for teachers and support for parents.

“This scandal includes the department’s apparent indifference to overwhelming research that homework has zero effect on achievement for under 11s,” he says.

Reference to such research is included in a new study commissioned by the National Parents Council Primary (NPC). Entitled “Parental Involvement, Engagement and Partnership in their Children’s Education during the Primary School Years”, some of its findings will be presented at the NPC’s annual conference in Dublin this Saturday, June 8th.

Academic achievement

One US analysis of research found that, for children aged under 11, there was no link between homework and improved academic achievement. Another study pinpointed how positive outcomes for homework depended on its appropriateness and suitability for the child, as well as clarity of content and purpose.

The literature on homework suggests the key to academic success does not rely on the amount of homework but rather on how students engage on homework

“The literature on homework suggests the key to academic success does not rely on the amount of homework but rather on how students engage on homework,” comment the authors of the Irish study, which was funded by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.

This is not the first time the parents’ council has tried to kickstart debate around homework. It conducted an online survey of more than 5,000 parents in 2016, the results of which illustrated the extent of homework angst in Irish homes.

Some 58 per cent of parents of children in the four to seven age group said doing school assignments at home caused the children stress some or all of the time. That rose to 65 per cent among parents of older primary-school children. Almost one-third of parents (31 per cent) said homework caused grief for the whole family.

Three years on, the NCP’s chief executive, Áine Lynch, hopes that with this new research in an Irish context by a team at the Marino Institute of Education, “we have a sense now of where we need to go”.  “We know from all the research that the home-learning environment is really, really important for children in terms of their outcomes,” she says. “When we look at the attitudes towards homework, we are almost setting up the home-learning environment to be one that is negative.”

The notion of just abolishing homework for younger children is gathering popular support. But the parents’ council believes that if homework is used properly to link home and school learning, it can have a very positive impact on children.

“They will see that their home and school is connected and they will see that the important adults in their lives are connected.”

Stuart is not in favour either of scrapping homework for under 11s. Rather, he sees great potential if schools would only change their approach.

“If you give kids choice, they can excel and they want to excel. Then they are very proud of themselves and they love showing off and they love learning.

“But if you give everybody the same homework, and aim for the middle of the class, then you are going to have many kids who are becoming discouraged, so that is demolishing their natural love of learning.”

Reduce stress

That’s why “enjoyment” is an explicit aim of his school’s new homework policy, which was ratified by the board of management last October. It is intended to reduce stress and increase the level of learning among the approximately 300 pupils.

“Instead of guidelines for how long homework should take – as teachers always underestimate that – we have introduced time limits,” explains Stuart, who will speak at the NPC conference. “So, children and parents are free to stop after 30-40 minutes in 3rd and 4th class and after 40-50 minutes in 5th and 6th class.”

The question of providing choice is up to each individual teacher in the school’s 14 classes, ranging from 3rd class to 6th class. While some teachers offer options, others don’t yet.

“It’s the number one thing kids want,” says Stuart, who has set up a website (effectiveforall.blogspot.com) to share his findings and ideas.

Homework choice can come in the level of challenge and/or in the content. Or it may be in the way students demonstrates their learning. For example, some are creating YouTube videos, such as an “eye witness” report from the French Revolution.

“Nobody told them to do that, or suggested it,” says Stuart. “They are having fun, really getting into it and learning lots.”

The role of parents in effective homework is to be a sounding board for their children, he says.

“They are not meant to be teachers and they shouldn’t be expected to police homework. But what would be beneficial, and this is proven, is asking questions that help children clarify and summarise what they learned, such as ‘What did you learn in maths? Tell me. Show me’.”

The Clondalkin school is in the process of consulting parents for a review of the new policy one year on but Stuart can report that “there have been very few parents coming in during the year complaining about homework”.

Martin Stuart with pupils at Talbot Senior National School in Clondalkin, Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times.
Martin Stuart with pupils at Talbot Senior National School in Clondalkin, Dublin. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times.

All the indications from pupils’ feedback so far is that the attitude to homework is improving.

“We have found enjoyment is up, but not enough, and stress is down, but not enough,” he says. “The kids like the content more, which is great, but still not enough. We still have lots to do.”

To improve matters, you need to ask the right questions of children and really listen to what they’re saying.

Kids are crying out for more exercise homework and art homework – fun activity that also boosts learning

“Kids are crying out for more exercise homework and art homework – fun activity that also boosts learning.”

Stuart believes that questioning of the traditional approach to homework offers a huge opportunity. If Minister for Education Joe McHugh wants to be “a hero”, it wouldn’t take much for his department to produce guidelines, he suggests.

“There are already research-based guidelines out there but Ireland doesn’t have any so teachers aren’t taught them. Teachers do what is traditional to them and, unless you’re taught something better, it just continues as is.”

What teachers need, he continues, is a summary of research and guidelines on how to do homework; exemplars on what is and isn’t good; a menu of ideas for various class levels and subjects and a way to assess what the pupil has done.

The department’s inspectors, he contends, never ask about homework because, in the absence of any guidelines to follow, they are not required to.

A word-search on the 10 most recent whole-school evaluation reports of primary schools on the department’s website shows that nine had no mention of homework, while one suggested a school needed to get more feedback from parents on issues such as homework.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education confirms there are no department circulars or guidelines regarding homework for primary school pupils. “While inspectors might talk to teachers and pupils about homework, the evaluation of the implementation of homework policies and practices is not an integral part of the inspector’s evaluation process.” 

Currently, he adds, there are no plans to formulate guidelines/policy on homework in primary schools.

Stuart believes that in years to come, Ireland will have official homework guidelines. So why not now?

“I want children to experience the love of learning; to experience success and not discouragement. To have homework that is enjoyable and not stressful,” he adds. “It wouldn’t take much.”

Lynch echoes Stuart’s comments on the need to pool ideas for more creative homework, rather than leaving it up to individual teachers.

“You go into schools and there are many, many examples of teachers doing really good things, but they’re just in that class,” she says.

“We spend a huge amount of time and resources on developing the curriculum in school yet we know from the research that up until between ages seven and nine, what happens in the home has more of an impact on the learning outcome for children than what happens in school and we don’t spend any time on how to support teachers to support this link.”

Home-learning curriculum

The NPC would like to see development of a home-learning curriculum, with more creative learning linked to the home rather than just doing more of the same from the classroom. To devise homework that draws on the many learning opportunities outside school.

“Some of the things that are already happening in families, when they are done with intention, are really good teaching opportunities,” Lynch says. “The thing is the teachers are not being supported to find those opportunities and the parents are too busy to notice them.”

For example, asking the child to teach the parent something they learned in school that day. “If they teach it, the learning is ingrained.”

Lynch also reminds parents they can have a say in schools’ homework policies through their parents’ association (PA), which should be meeting the principal regularly. She would like to see PAs putting it on the agenda for discussion in the wake of the conference.

After all, it’s in everybody’s interest if homework can become much more about the “buzz” of learning, rather than a dreaded weekday drudge.

The NPC’s education conference “Tomorrow’s World: Parents supporting children’s futures” takes place at the National College of Ireland, Dublin 1, this Saturday, June 8th, 10.30am-4pm. All parents of primary-school children are welcome to attend and admission is free. See npc.ie to register

Tears and meltdowns: parents’ homework stories

Hilary Lawrence never found it easy to get her eldest child to do maths homework and they would often end up in an hour-long stand-off in the kitchen, with her pleading with the six-year-old to “just do it, why are we still here, why aren’t you just doing it . . .”

After a particularly bad evening, when both had been crying “I can’t do this anymore”, she mentioned it to her daughter’s teacher at the Educate Together School in Carrigaline, Co Cork. The teacher was shocked and said this was never the intention and if her daughter wouldn’t do it after 10 minutes, she should just stop and report back.

Lawrence can laugh at the memory now as she explains this was a turning point for her adopting a more relaxed attitude to the completion of homework by her two children, now aged nine and 11. She tries to avoid having any arguments over it now.

“Generally, they are very good. They’ll come home, take a break and then do homework.” But if there are days where they’re very tired and cranky and it’s becoming a battle, Lawrence will tell them they needn’t do it but suggests they do something else, such as reading, writing a story or drawing pictures about something they are particularly interested in.

She will then write a note to say homework wasn’t completed and to explain what was done instead. “They are happy enough about that because it’s not happening every day.”

Teachers have always explained “homework is a revision thing”, she says, “so obviously it’s not vital to the future of their education that they do their homework. But when they get to secondary school it won’t be revision, it will be part of the learning process. So, I think the important thing is that they learn the responsibility of coming home and having to do it.”

She recognises there are issues with the current nature of homework, which is why she is flexible about it, but she still values it as a way of showing children the importance of independent learning and how nobody can do it for you.

Meanwhile for Miriam Meredith, the mother of four children aged 20, 10, nine and four, issues over homework was one of the reasons she took her two middle children out of school to educate them at home in Co Laois.

Matters came to a head for her second youngest child, who has a diagnosis of ASD and ADHD, while he was in second class. He was doing fine academically at school but he would really struggle with homework that involved things like putting words into sentences, or comprehension.

“It could take him over two hours to do homework,” says Meredith. She explained this to staff at the school who all said that wasn’t right but she felt nothing was being done in the long-term to sort the situation.

Although she gave her son movement breaks every 10-15 minutes, as he would get at school, he was still having meltdowns over homework, which was taking up all afternoon and meant he couldn’t go out and play with friends. He would be shouting in frustration that he didn’t want to do the work and asking why he had to do it.

“It was really out of character for him,” she says. It got to a point last June where she felt neither of the children was happy at school and that “life was too short for this”.

Considering the grief homework was causing, Meredith’s decision to home-school her children might sound counter-intuitive but she reports her son “has come on so much” over the last year. “I get things that would capture his imagination.”

When he was in school, he had an aversion to reading but now he really wants to learn. “A lot of the books that were sent home he had no interest in.”

Children need time running around, she adds, “exploring and figuring things out in a natural setting”.

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