Schoolbags were a lot lighter at the beginning of this primary school year, but the bags weren’t the only things that were empty. Many schools decided to give homework a pass in September and, as a result, many homework journals remained empty too.
"When we came back this year there was a real push to have no homework because there was a heightened level of anxiety," says Keith Ó Brolacháin, principal at Gaelscoil Mhainistir na Corann, Midleton, Cork.
Many have since kept these policies in place and given the return to online learning are in no rush to reintroduce them. So, could homework – at primary level anyway – be gone for good?
"Attitudes to homework are influenced by what is happening in society at the time," says Dr Joan Kiely, dean of education at Marino Institute of Education (MIE). "Covid-19 is acting like a catalyst to shine the light on homework."
Kiely says the way we live now has changed from how we lived 30 years ago.
“Homework has not really moved with the times, in terms of the pressures on families, parents and children,” she says.
Ó Brolacháin began questioning the merit of traditional homework many years ago. “I noticed more and more people coming to my office door with worries and anxieties and, with a lot of them, it turned out that homework wasn’t helping,” says Ó Brolacháin.
Research conducted by MIE confirms that homework is the source of “considerable stress regardless of children’s dispositions and academic abilities”.
Kiely says parents may be working late or trying to complete homework while managing other aspects of homelife.
“Parents are often multitasking and are making the dinner at the same time.” Working from home can also add another dimension to the pressure felt by parents.
As for Ó’Brolacháin, he says his decision to review homework was not driven by a desire to abandon homework, but to revise its purpose and expected outcome.
“I have no problem giving work to do at home if the work we are providing is of benefit,” he says.
This benefit does not have to be strictly academic but can also be physical, social or emotional, he says.
“Why don’t we assign PE or sport or movement for homework?” adds Ó’Brolacháin.
His school set up a homework committee and has taken a whole school approach to homework. The focus in infant classes is on reading, which is in line with current research on homework for children in the infant classes. The focus on reading remains throughout all class levels but is also paired with number skills and project work in the senior years.
Ó Brolacháin says it can be difficult for schools to make the move away from traditional written homework.
“People can judge a school on how much homework they assign to their children every night,” he says.
He believes communication is key and that principals should inform parents of the reasons for any change.
“I sent home information to the parents to highlight the academic benefits of reading,” he says. “Maybe people underestimate the importance and the power of reading. Reading can open new worlds to all of us.”
They have also decided to assign the homework on a Monday and children can complete it throughout the week.
Dr Kiely says it can be helpful to assign homework this way as many children – in normal times – have busy timetables after school. She also suggests that oral language activities should play a bigger role in homework.
“Things like interviewing Mum or Granny about what life was like in their day, playing oral language games, playing board games – in other words, making homework a little bit more playful, so that parents and children don’t feel stressed out doing it,” she says.
Parents said that homework gave them an insight into how their child was progressing academically at school
Kiely says parents should be informed of the benefits of assigning oral language activities as homework.
“Language actually develops your thinking and when children become adept at oral language, they are better able to express themselves. Your thinking actually improves as your language improves.”
One of the positives identified by parents in a homework survey conducted by Ó Brolacháin was the link homework created between the school and home. Parents said that homework gave them an insight into how their child was progressing academically at school.
“For me, if you are relying on homework as your strong home-school link then, I think more work is needed there,” says Ó Brolacháin.
The research conducted by MIE also questions the value of relying on homework as the home-school link.
“The fact that homework feels mostly stressful to parents does not warrant positive involvement in learning and may, therefore, not function as the best tool for parental involvement in children’s education,” the research states.
Ó Brolacháin suggests that digital platforms such as Seesaw offer parents a more realistic insight into their child’s progress.
“We are building online e-portfolios for kids,” he says, “They are aware of themselves as learners in the process and if the teacher sends home a picture, the parent can have a conversation with the child about what they have done, they know exactly what is going on in real time.”
Another reason often put forward in defence of homework is the role it plays in preparing primary school children for the work they will be expected to complete in postprimary school.
“There is merit in the point that parents are worried about their kids and that transition to secondary school,” says Ó Brolacháin.
However, while he understands that parents may be concerned, he believes it does not justify assigning extra written work.
“It is not good enough reason for me to have to assign an hour’s homework for the sake of assigning it. That’s only practicing writing, getting them to use a pen for an hour so that, when they go into secondary school, they can use it for an hour and a half.”
Kiely agrees that increasing written homework in primary schools, as a means to a postprimary end, is not justified.
Children may choose to present what they have learned artistically, using pictures or dance, or they may choose the more traditional written format
“Just because the system in secondary school isn’t great, we can’t punish the children by bringing it in earlier in primary,” she says.
Gaelscoil Mhainistir na Corann has placed a stronger emphasis on project work from third to sixth class to help students develop independent study skills.
“It is not just about an A3 page or copying and pasting,” says Ó Brolacháin. “It is about independent learning, researching, working together and about deciding what platform to use to present your points. Kids need to be taught how to do a project but, also if there is going to be an approach for project work in a school, then there needs to be a whole school approach to it.”
Ó Brolacháin says the child’s choice should be celebrated: children may choose to present what they have learned artistically, using pictures or dance, or they may choose the more traditional written format.
“If it is for a child to show what they know and have learned about something, then leave them do it in their chosen way. They should be celebrated.”
Kiely agrees that project work is preferential to traditional written homework but says it can be daunting for children with additional educational needs.
“Some children with learning difficulties can find unstructured homework very challenging as well,” she says, “It depends on the expertise of the teacher.”
Kiely says any school considering updating their homework policy should include parents in the conversation. In the meantime, she has one strong piece of advice for parents.
“Breathe, try to keep the stress out of it – but that is easier said than done.”