Is Homework Truly Helping Children’s Learning?


“Who has not done their homework today?” That was a question that I had never intended to answer when I went to school in Romania. Teachers would ask this question without realizing how degrading and insulting it was for a child to stand in front of the class and admit that he/she did not do the assigned homework. I did my homework mostly because I was scared of my teachers and my parents. I don’t think the teachers that used this tactic, especially at the elementary level, realized how intimidating was for a child and what a negative psychological impact could have on a child’s life. 

Homework was always graded. The last thing a child wanted was to get “caught” without doing homework. One bad grade was enough to ruin your average for 1/3 of the school year. That meant a lot of extra studying and work for a child just to make up for some of the lost points.

catalog

Photo above – Part of a Catalog or “Grade Book” showing averages “10 (zece)” or 100%  for each 1/3 of the school year. This was the grade everybody was aiming for. Students had to show as many “10”, or 100%, as possible. “9” was all right. Any grade below “8” made it difficult to make up for the lost points. A grade of seven needed FIVE grades of 10 to average to a “9.5”. Then it would be up to the teacher to round it up to “10”. In most cases, teachers did not go for this arrangement unless the child was an excellent student that probably made ONE mistake and received a “7”. Photo courtesy of Dan Nichifor, http://www.etimpu.com

At middle and high school levels, the Math teacher, for example, could assign 25 problems and expect them to be done by the very next day. It did not matter to that teacher that there were other 4-5 subjects for which homework was also assigned. I used to spend at least three hours every night on homework. It had to be done to perfection. Furthermore, homework had to be written in cursive using a fountain pen and ink. Every time that fountain pen leaked and left a mark on your work the page had to be ripped. Then you had to start again. (Photos courtesy of Dan Nichifor, http://www.etimpu.com)

homework-help

Over the years, the volume of homework increased to ridiculous levels. To keep up with homework, some of my classmates and I came up with all kinds of arrangements. One of them was a ” rotation” system where we were taking turns doing homework and then we copied it from each other because the time after school became so limited. I never complained about the amount of homework or its difficulty. I never questioned why I had to solve 10 problems practicing the same concept. “Homework” was a “taboo” subject that children and parents did not dare to negotiate.

How much has the meaning of homework changed in Romania today?

Today, homework is mandatory in Romania. I wonder how many hours children spend doing homework that either do not understand or is too difficult and don’t have someone to help them. Do these teachers realize that the purpose of homework is to supplement a child’s learning and use it as an assessment tool to measure how much of the material taught students retained in class and not bombard them with loads of exercises that they already mastered or are unable to solve because of the high level of their difficulty? Homework of great difficulty should be assigned to encourage children to earn additional points that they can use to improve their grades and/or obtain various “class privileges”. Teachers must keep in mind that if they assign homework that was not explained in class a child may have to spend a long time trying to figure it out. Teachers just “flipped” the classroom without even realizing it. The child had to find out how to solve something on his/her own and have it ready for the next day to explain it to the other children. 

How is homework viewed in the world?

Children in Shanghai spend 14 hours per week doing their homework (Rebecca Klein, HuffPost Education). This time is pretty comparable to the time children in Romania still spend on homework. Children in Russia spend about 5-6 hours per week doing homework. I have asked myself many times if a high volume of Math exercises, for example, that requires an extended preparation time, is effectively helping a child’s learning. It is interesting to notice that children in Japan, that are known for their high performance especially in Mathematics and Physics, spend only 4 hours per week doing homework. This may explain that learning in school is so rigorous in Japan that children do not need to spend long hours of individual study outside of the school program.

One of the Principals of the school where I teach said that the total minutes allocated for homework per night is the number of the grade level multiplied by 10. In other words, a child in seventh grade will need 7 x 10 = 70 minutes per night doing homework for all subjects. This equals to approximately 5-6 hours per week. Another school I worked for required that the number of grades for homework to not exceed 10 percent of the total grades for any subject.

What are the advantages of assigning homework? 

In ideal conditions:

  • The children get to practice at home what they learned in school.
  • Children are encouraged to think critically alone without help.
  • Children develop a certain level of responsibility. They understand that they need to turn in homework on time the next day or the next lesson.
  • It represents a good opportunity for the whole family to be involved in their child’s education.

What are the disadvantages of assigning homework?

  • Children need time for physical and mental recovery and play time after 6-7 hours spent at school. They also need time to spend with their family.
  • Too much homework encourages children to “copy” from each other and get “unfair” grades that do not benefit their learning.
  • Most teachers are very busy creating lesson plans that are time consuming and most of the time children begin to study something new by the time they receive grades for their homework assignments.

I would like to share some of my experiences with homework at middle school level, here, in the United States. Many times, I had to “chase” my students to constantly remind them to turn in their homework even though they knew that it had always been displayed in the same place in the classroom and it was their responsibility to look for it especially when they were absent. The majority of children fail to turn in homework “on time” and were penalized points. I tried giving children a few days so they can complete their homework such as extensions until Friday of each week. 

After a while, when children forgot to submit their homework their grades started to decline. I also allowed children on two different occasions for each “quarter” of the school year to complete their missing assignments including homework. Then I started to realize that trying to students to do homework required more work for me than for them. I spent Saturdays and Sundays grading homework besides my daily preparation for class. Furthermore, most of the homework was either incomplete or partially wrong. 2016-12-03-013

“Classroom Comics” – my first Principal gave it to me. Source: unknown

I must admit that I don’t always have time during the lesson to go over homework. It has become a big waste of time and energy from my part. I normally ask my students what problems they did not understand, explain them, and move on. I always review the material I taught the previous class.

In the past two years, I have stopped giving homework. Children receive exercises that they need to solve in class ideally by the end of the lesson. If they don’t finish them in class they can take them home to complete and turn in the next class. The assignment will be graded as “class work”. They can complete it if they stay with me after school or during an elective class where the teacher doesn’t mind allowing students to spend a few minutes to finish their work. If there are children who want to practice more at home I assign assignments usually online that will allow them to earn extra points. I prepared a list of websites that children could have available at home. This activity is only for the children and parents that request it. I realized that as long as the children retained the material taught during the lesson homework might not be necessary.

I think that eliminating homework or subtly transitioning it into class work will increase the students’ responsibility for quality work that teacher can monitor much easier while students are still in class. Children also become more interested in the lesson because they know that there will be an assignment following the lesson that will be graded. 

At home, the “stress” level caused by the existence and demand of homework will be reduced and children will be able to spend time being involved in other activities in which they show a personal interest and involve people that are close to them. I’m not saying that homework should be completely eliminated. Teachers are those that decide if homework will or will not benefit a child’s learning. When teachers assign homework they have to maintain a balance between the school life and the personal life of their students. Some students, especially at high school level, may have to work after the school program.

I have asked myself many time how many children will be able to remember and use in their life abstract concepts such as “Laws of Exponents” that have no practical application if they do not work in a field that uses this information. I am sure a lot of kids are thinking: “What’s the point? The Internet can solve all the Math problems anyway!”

Featured Image: http://www.pixabay.com

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