Should homework be scrapped for primary school students?
Some educationalists argue that homework provides little benefit for young children. Now, an Oireachtas committee is examining calls for it to be ‘eradicated’
‘Being completely honest, we all hate homework. We know it has to be done but it has a big impact,’ says Sarah Jayne Tobin (above) with her son Nathan Fanagan. Photograph: Dave Meehan
‘The brain needs some oxygen and some down time,’ says child psycholigist Dr David Carey
Do young children really need to do more work when they get home after a day at school? The Oireachtas committee on public petitions is currently examining a call for the “eradication of homework” for children in primary school on the basis that it provides little educational benefit is a source of stress and frustration.
It’s a view shared by a surprising number of academics who say, at best, evidence in favour of homework is inconclusive and, at worst, may be detrimental to younger children.
In Finland, so often looked to as a beacon of educational reform, students do not start formal schooling until seven years of age and are assigned virtually no homework.
Child psychologist Dr David Carey, who has over 25 years experience in clinical and educational settings, believes homework for children who are still in primary school serves little purpose.
“The research seems to indicate it doesn’t really consolidate learning. When children aren’t given homework, they don’t learn at a slower pace then when they are given homework,” he says.
“The problem with homework is the stress and strife it causes in the family, with parents being driven to distraction by children who don’t want to do their homework. It causes arguments, tears and disruption to family life,” says Dr Carey.
He maintains that children need to have a break when they get home from school.
“Nobody who comes home from work likes to sit down and immediately be asked ‘how much work did you bring home today?’ and ‘when are you going to do it?’, and so on, but this is what we do to children.
“They need a break, to relax and go out and play in the fresh air, get exercise, talk to other kids. That’s the work of childhood – it is to play, not to study endlessly,” says Dr Carey.
Geraldine Tuohy, a primary school teacher for the past eight years, works as a home school community liaison co-ordinator in an inner city school.
She feels the question of whether or not homework is a waste of time depends on the quality of the tasks required of children.
“Homework needs to be specific, brief and targeted. Schools need to concentrate their policy on what’s absolutely essential, such as literacy and numeracy targets.
“It needs to be manageable time-wise too. Primary school homework at senior class level shouldn’t take more than an hour and, if it does, the school needs to review it.
“I also think that a games approach could be adopted for homework purposes: parents and children alike should be encouraged to take up some board games both as socialisation tool and also for critical thinking and numeracy skills,” says Tuohy.
If there is an international authority in the field, it’s most likely Prof Harris Cooper of Duke University in the US.
He conducted the most comprehensive research on homework to date from a 2006 meta-analysis.
Prof Cooper found evidence of a positive link between homework and student achievement, meaning students who did homework performed better in school.
The correlation, however, was much stronger for older students than for those in younger classes.
Overall, he feels homework is important as it helps with simple tasks like spelling words, maths and vocabulary.
For younger children, he says the evidence recommends no more than 10 minutes per class per night.
“They won’t learn after a certain amount of time because their minds begin to wander and their motivation is reduced. I don’t advocate piling homework on; it’s not going to work.
“The older you get, the more homework you should get. But there reaches a point where the law of diminishing returns kicks in.”
While a 12 year old should only get an hour’s worth of homework, he says a 16 year old can manage an hour and a half, after which point their concentration goes.
Dr Carey, however, believes parents are hard-wired into believing all children should have homework, all the way down to junior infants, because they experienced it as well.
“Therefore, if a teacher doesn’t rightfully assign homework there’s going to be complaints.”
While he feels it has a role at second level due to our focus on State exams, introducing it earlier is simply counter-productive.
“Homework deprives children of a right to play, to sit and day dream and to sometimes do nothing in particular at all. The brain needs some oxygen and some down time.”
‘We all hate homework . . . but it has a big impact’
As soon as Sarah-Jayne Tobin’s son comes in the door from school, homework takes over.
“All our days are arranged around it. It needs to be done as soon as we get home otherwise Nathan is too tired,” says Tobin, whose son is in third-class.
“Otherwise, it takes twice as long and there can be tears. Like other kids, Nathan plays football and basketball outside school so those days in particular can be quite full on,” she says.
Nathan has dyspraxia which affects his writing and attention span. It means that Sarah-Jayne often has to hassle him to get it done.
“Trying to do homework on those days [when it he tired] is a nightmare . . . I hate being that mum, the massive pain in the bum!”
Despite the tears and occasional stress, she feels it is a good thing for Nathan and other primary schoolchildren.
“Since he started third class, my son Nathan seems to be getting more into reading independently and I feel this is down to the comprehension homework he gets.
“Before this year he was more into annuals and books that had short snappy paragraphs but his reading and comprehension exercises this year have really helped with his attention span. He’s starting to finally delve into the books I’ve been buying him for years that have been gathering dust.
“Being completely honest, we all hate homework. We know it has to be done but it has a big impact.”
“The only thing I’d change about homework is maybe the frequency; instead of getting stuff each night, maybe give them a Wednesday evening off to break up the week.
“On the issue of whether kids get too much homework; it’s hard to call. Different kids have different levels of ability, and where one may fly through an exercise in 10 minutes, it might take others 30.
“In my son’s school, they say no longer than 30 minutes per night night and it’s pens down whether you’re finished or not, but the adult supervising has to sign off on it.”
How much homework should my child expect?
The National Parents’ Council says all schools should have a homework policy which should be prepared in consultation with parents and children. In general, it says the following guidelines should apply:
Junior/Senior infants: No formal homework but perhaps drawing, preliminary reading, matching shapes and pictures or listening to stories read by parents.
First/Second class: 20-30 minutes
Third/Fourth class: 30-40 minutes
Fifth/Sixth class: 40-60 minutes