School homework: Does it have any benefit at all?

One of the lessons of the past year is that children need different types of learning

‘We need to be far more creative about how we assess ability and we need to be far more inclusive of different skill-sets,’ says psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor. Photograph: iStock

‘We need to be far more creative about how we assess ability and we need to be far more inclusive of different skill-sets,’ says psychotherapist Dr Colman Noctor. Photograph: iStock

 

When the children returned to school last September I dared to dream, for the short while I was allowed, that homework might be a thing of the past. Our afternoons and evenings were our own, the kids were more content going to school in spite of all the necessary changes, and things were certainly less fractious around the dining-room table. Had the pandemic finally seen off the one thing that many parents had longed to see the back of for years? 

Alas, it was not to be. Just a few short weeks later, the dreaded homework returned – and, with it, the familiar dip in the afternoon mood.

As my troops returned in staggered sequence to school this time around, excitement levels were just as high as last September. They’d missed their friends, teachers, classroom learning and routine. In fact they’d missed every single thing about school except homework. The time, however, there was no homework honeymoon period.

There’s nothing any more to suggest that the kind of homework we were getting when we were in school is in any way beneficial at all for the children who are doing it

With many parents, teachers and mental health professionals against the idea of homework for primary-school children, you’d have to wonder why we continue with it at all.

“Tradition is the simple answer” says Simon Lewis, principal of Carlow Educate Together school. “People don’t like the absence of something that’s been going on for a long time.

“There’s just nothing any more to suggest that the kind of homework we were getting when we were in school is in any way beneficial at all for the children who are doing it. Much like everything else in education, we either have to evolve what we’re doing to suit the needs of today or we have to scrap things that make no sense any more.”

Instead of the traditional homework we’ve come to know and loathe, Lewis would rather see children “getting good at whatever floats their boat”.

“You’ve got people who’d be very traditional and conservative in their views and have lots of arguments as to why we should keep homework. I spend a lot of my time debunking all those myths.”

One such myth, Lewis says, is the argument that homework is good at preparing pupils for secondary school. “It’s a very weak argument. Even logically it makes no sense.” He dismisses the notion that “a child isn’t going to know what to do because they didn’t have eight years of it previously”. Otherwise no child would be capable of taking up a new foreign language at secondary school, for example.

Anything that tends to their mental health is where I want to be focusing my energy this year, and that doesn’t include homework

“I get asked about reading. That’s always a counterargument, and it’s probably the best counterargument that I’ve heard. But, again, everybody doing the same thing, everybody reading the same thing, just doesn’t make any sense, because children have different interests; children have different levels of reading. Even families have different interests.”

Lewis has banned spellings and tables at his school, because “there are so many better ways to learn, and learning lists of things off by heart is no way”. He says that there are benefits to parents being kept up to date with what’s going on in school but that the apps used during remote learning facilitate this. “I’d like to think that most schools have now reasonably well-established models for contacting parents.”

Lewis believes his feelings about homework are common among principals. He gave a presentation a couple of years ago at the Irish Primary Principals Network conference, he says, where a straw poll was done. More than 90 per cent of principals said they would get rid of homework immediately if they could. “I think we’re just waiting for somebody to pull the plug on it, but we’d have to be backed up to do it, because it’s so emotive.”

Emer O’Connor says homework for her children will “typically take an hour”. “Although teachers say the homework should only take a short amount of time, this is not my experience. The children are tired and distracted.

“The homework is usually the same every day, so they are not excited about it. It’s a chore that just has to be done, and the parent is the one who has to cajole, pressure, force, bribe, etc. It drives a wedge between parents and their children and has a negative effect on their relationships,” she says.

“They need this time outside more now than they ever did before. They are sitting at their desks more. Classroom movement is hugely restricted. There are more rules to adhere to. They have no drama, music, playball or GAA. Even outside school their activities are curtailed due to Covid.

“The very last thing I want to do when they come home from school is to tell them that they have to sit back down again at the table to do more work. Now more than ever we are being encouraged to tend to our children’s mental health. Anything that tends to their mental health is where I want to be focusing my energy this year, and that doesn’t include homework.”

O’Connor says she would love to see schools look at this “with fresh eyes and make it something that works for our school and our families”.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said there will be no homework for children on April 12th. While it’s a start, Starcamp summer-camp owner Aideen O’Grady says she “strongly and categorically believes” it’s time for homework to become a thing of the past for primary-school children.

Parents and students have had enough of kitchen-table schoolwork this year – the focus between Easter and summer should be on wellbeing

“By the time they get home from school, at around 3 or 3.30pm, they eat, and then it’s straight out with the books until dinner time, by when they are exhausted. It’s often stressful, tiring and repetitive.

“Children should be allowed to be children. To simply play, to engage in sport, to be challenged and to challenge, to use their imaginations, to create, to listen to music, to be at one with nature, to find fun, to push boundaries, to find themselves, to lose themselves, to be with their friends, to climb trees, build fairy gardens or forts, to find solutions to real life situations, to fall and pick themselves up, to learn to think outside the box, to communicate more, chat with parents, grandparents, neighbours, to find out who they are, where their talents lie and what they love about life.”

O’Grady says not enough emphasis is put on balance for children. “If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to enjoy life as much as we can – and this should include children, who have suffered enough. Sometimes people keep doing what has always been done, without evaluation or an upgrade. Homework is one of those things that has gone without change for far too long. Has anyone stepped up and truly reconsidered the benefits of children being free for what is only a few hours after school?”

Dr Colman Noctor, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, says he does not see the purpose of starting homework “so early and so stringently” and believes homework at primary school at the moment is not a good idea. “Parents and students have had enough of kitchen-table schoolwork this year – the focus between Easter and summer should be on wellbeing.

“I work off a cost-benefit-analysis philosophy, and while the benefits are minimal for some, the costs of homework are great for others. I am fully aware that my role as a psychotherapist means my view is skewed by the fact that I only hear about the problems with most things, but the stories from parents and children about homework are unanimously negative. The argument and stress that these tasks cause some families is phenomenal.

“What I have learned is that ... lots of homework stresses the studious, conscientious child out and causes the unenthusiastic child to opt out.”

Noctor believes there are lessons to be taken from the pandemic and school closures. “What the last year has taught us is that our education system is a very narrow measurement which rewards the child who is engaged, well-supported and has a proclivity for rote learning and a good memory. What we have also learned is that if you are not that type of learner, then tough luck.

“We need to be far more ambitious about what we understand learning to be. We need to be far more creative about how we assess ability, and we need to be far more inclusive of different skill sets. For me, homework and the traditional Leaving Cert are borne out of the same ideology, one that values compliance over engagement.”

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