Are teenagers asked to do too much homework in the run-up to Leaving Cert? And is the time used in the best way? Louise Holden reports.
Irish teens spend more time at their homework than most other students in the OECD. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment survey, Irish 15-year-olds do almost five and a half hours of English, maths and science homework a week. They also spend more hours in grinds, with about 40 per cent getting private tuition. Between 15 and 25 per cent hold down a part-time job and one in four are regularly involved in sport.
The recommended homework time in fifth and sixth year is somewhere between three and four hours. At this rate, a diligent 17-year-old may do a 30-hour week plus 15 to 20 hours of homework - a total of 45 to 50 hours of schoolwork weekly.
Are we asking too much of our 16- to 18- year-olds? Barbara Johnson, of the Catholic School Parents Association, believes the demands we place on our teenagers' time pushes the legal limits. According to our labour laws, she points out, no one under 18 may be employed for more than eight hours a day and he or she must have two days off in every seven.
However, most educators agree that regular independent application of classwork is fundamental to the learning process.
John McGabhann, of the Teachers Union of Ireland, says that independent engagement with the material taught in class is the only way for students to consolidate what they have learned in class. While it's a tough call to launch into three hours of homework after school, classroom time is largely wasted if the material is not reviewed soon after. The least painful way to approach homework is to establish a good routine from the start of fifth year and stick with it, according to McGabhann.
"Getting around to regular study and homework is bloody difficult," he says. "Schools need to provide guidance to both students and their parents in this regard. Explicit help with study techniques is required in fifth year and on an ongoing basis. This is not too much to ask of schools."
The other measure schools can take is to watch that they are not overdoing the written work, adds McGabhann. "We strongly recommend that students not be overloaded with written work. If teachers are piling on written assignments to prove that they are doing something, that's counter-productive. Work given should help the students contextualise the material. Asking them to write five pages about a poem will not help their understanding."
Problems with homework can be useful if properly handled. When students hit a wall, they should document their problem, according to McGabhann.
"Frame a question for the teacher, explaining exactly what the problem is, and move on," he says. "If the student does not feel comfortable standing up in front of the class (few students want to appear that interested) then he or she can simply pass a note to the teacher to be answered as part of the class. This kind of approach is exactly the point of homework. When the problem is described and dealt with, real learning is taking place."
Hours spent in grinds don't really count as homework, especially if the grind involves a rerun of the day's class (sometimes by the same teacher, McGabhann says ruefully).
"It's a waste of money paying for something you're already getting free. Time spent in grinds may be better spent in independent engagement with the material. We understand that students are looking for anything that will boost their confidence and parents will do what is necessary to give their children the edge. But there is a real danger of overload.
"Too much tuition time squeezes out the personal engagement with material that marks out the high-achievers."
Many parents describe evenings grappling with Leaving Cert material in an effort to jockey their teens along. It may not be the best idea, McGabhann fears.
"Parents are the only people who have difficulty viewing their teens as young adults. They can be massively intrusive and their efforts can breed resentment. Don't get offended if your son or daughter won't accept your help. And whatever you do, don't crow if they under-perform in the subject you could have helped them with."
Parents can be frustrated by the material. One father, a consultant paediatrician, admitted that he couldn't help questioning his son's biology course when he was supposed to be helping him, because it seemed irrelevant to his experience of working in the health sector. Bill Slattery, a computer scientist working with Tara Mines, experienced similar obstacles when he tried to help his son and daughter with his pet subjects, maths and history.
"I work in computers and I can't help but pick out the differences between what he is learning and what I am using in the real world," he says. "There's such a massive difference between education and training. By the time my son got to Leaving Cert he didn't want my help any more."
Ultimately, parents of Leaving Cert students are back-seat drivers. They can set the stage, however, and the hours that fifth- and sixth-year students spend at home need to be carefully stage-managed if they are to shine at exam time. The panel on this page lays out some practical measures for parents - beyond these, all that remains is to wring your hands and wish you could sit the exam in their place.