Homework an Exercise in Futility

How much homework goes on in your house? Are you a fan of the after-school revision, assignments and projects? Or do you resent the impact homework is having on your family life?

At the risk of launching into a full-blown rant I have to state my view of homework, it is simply an exercise in futility.

It’s been ten years since we first experienced the joys of homework. Since we began with the nightly readers and spelling sheets of the early primary years. The first rule of homework was learnt early when we arrived at school with our “car” that we had made out of some of our old packing boxes. Our car was great, made by Princess Child with some helpful advice from Dad. It quickly became obvious that the child wasn’t supposed to have made the vehicle – as shiny, well put together, expertly painted models made their way into the classroom I thought I had mistakenly wandered into a Mercedes dealership. I’m sure the Mums and Dads were proud of the “A’s” they scored. Did the kids actually learn anything? I doubt it.

Last night on Today Tonight, psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg stated that 22 per cent of kids tell him their parents have done their homework for them – and that’s just the ones honest enough to admit it. Carr-Gregg is a strong opponent of homework saying it’s the modern day equivalent of cod-liver oil, everyone thinks it was good for you but in reality it does nothing.

Speaking from personal experience homework has caused our family a large degree of angst. It has impacted on family activities, created arguments and led to disappointment and a sense of failure (for all of us).

While there are guidelines to the time that should be spent on homework the reality is that many children won’t fit into those guidelines. They struggle to work independently or without direction, they fail to grasp the task, they are overwhelmed by the information. While parents aren’t teachers, they get frustrated at being unable to explain the concepts in terms children understand. The guidelines are a false recommendation while in practice even a simple worksheet can take double the time you would expect in a classroom.

There is no doubt in our home homework has at times made stressful situations worse. When my husband was undergoing a double heart-bypass my mother was looking after the children (both then still in primary school) she soon became aware that Hippie Child was not just worried about her father but frantic about homework and assignments she had due. Nana Shambles headed into the school and explained “I can get these kids fed and dressed and to school on time every morning but when it comes to homework I’m useless. As far as I’m concerned a powerpoint is where you plug in the kettle I have no concept of how to turn one into a presentation”. While the school said they would give extra help,  busy teachers and a child reluctant to speak up meant that help didn’t arrive. We also had the incidence of Mr Shambles flat on his back just days out of the surgery trying to explain maths concepts over the phone to get that week’s homework sheet finished.

Later in the first term of high school we were living with my Aunt while desperately trying to owner build our house.  The wireless internet connection was pretty much unusable most of the time. The maths teacher required homework to be submitted via the on-line Moodle system. At the parent/teacher interview in term one I explained our predicament, only to be told in no uncertain terms that my child was responsible for getting her homework done regardless of personal circumstance and she would need to spend lunchtime in the library to complete it if necessary. I may be odd but I actually wanted my daughter out in the playground developing social skills and growing a friendship group at the start of high school, guess I’m radical that way.

Homework is one of the most socially unjust features of our education system. When educated parents with access to resources are struggling to help their children succeed what chance does the child from a lower socio-economic background have? When parents are unable or unwilling to participate in the nightly homework routine, when books and computers are absent from the home how do those children manage with the tasks allocated? Knowing each morning they would have to face the ire of the teacher for not completing the given assignment is there any wonder they are giving up?

Carr-Gregg said last night that homework has more than doubled over the last ten years. Are we seeing increased benefit from all this extra work? Well according to the recently released Gonski Review of Funding for Schools

“over the last decade the performance of Australian students has declined at all levels of achievement, notably at the top end. This decline has contributed to the fall in Australia’s international position.In 2000, only one country outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy and only two outperformed Australia in mathematical literacy. By 2009, six countries outperformed Australia in reading and scientific literacy and 12 outperformed Australia in mathematical literacy.

In addition to declining performance across the board, Australia has a significant gap between its highest and lowest performing students. This performance gap is far greater in Australia than in many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, particularly those with high-performing schooling systems. A concerning proportion of Australia’s lowest performing students are not meeting minimum standards of achievement. There is also an unacceptable link between low levels of achievement and educational disadvantage, particularly among students from low socioeconomic and Indigenous backgrounds.”

Richard Walker, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Sydney, said in an article that the research shows homework doesn’t improve the achievement of children in the early years of primary school,  has negligible benefits in the higher grades of primary school and very limited benefits in junior high school. While at the senior high school level, homework benefits the achievement of about 45 per cent of students.

Over at Mojito Mother Caz Makepeace wrote a brilliant blog on this topic yesterday and I loved her version of what homework should be.

“You have a new project for homework tonight and every night. It’s called ‘Play, Follow your Dreams and Let yourself Breathe’

From now on,  you must spend every night talking with Mum and Dad about anything you like, playing with your toys, taking one step towards that dream of yours, and then sit in a quiet space on your own, close your eyes and breathe.

I’m not going to check in on you that you have done it, because I believe you will. ”

In a world where children are being increasingly asked to follow an adult timetable, not getting home until 5.30pm or later then being expected to sit down and start work again it’s time to reassess the whole homework debacle. Our children need time to switch off, not be bogged down in responsibilities beyond their ability to manage.

What are your thoughts on homework? Has it been a good thing for your child? Or do you find it a stressful add-on to an already jampacked day?

19 thoughts on “Homework an Exercise in Futility

  1. I was wondering, does your school carry those Mercedes in red? Seriously, I think the entire education system needs to be reworked, beginning with what our children are being taught in school. As far as the homework goes, let’s just say, I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that headache anymore. The only up side I see to home work is that it gives the parents an idea of what is being taught in the schools and on what level. But given the time a part and stress in general, especially for working parents, it is hard to fit time for homework in.

    • The time factor is the big killer. Kids are getting home much later nowadays there is simply no time for play if you are going to get homework done, have dinner, bath. More than once we have pushed bedtime way back just to get homework finished resulting in tired kids the next day who are in no fit state for learning when they rock up at school.

  2. I don’t have too much of a bug with general homework but do with all the assignments that our kids are given. They are very rarely able to complete an assignment without major parental intervention, resulting in all the stress and frustration that you described so well. Similarly to your Mercedes experience, my daughter (who incidentally is in Princess Child’s class so Janine will be sharing my pain) has completed her article for their current Antarctica assignment but then came home yesterday and said hers looks terrible compared to some that others have brought in. One of them sounds as though it was created by a professional seamstress, not by an 11 yr old playing on the sewing machine or having their first go at hand sewing. Obviously a parent has had a major hand in this, which has resulted in my child and no doubt others, feeling theirs is inadequate when in reality I thought she had done a pretty good job “on her own”. Thankfully there no longer have to make an electric circuit at home which my elder two had to do in Yr 6, as I was going to pull the “sorry, can’t do this as I’m a single parent”bag out of the hat, which is an awful thing to admit but I have spent 45 years no knowing how to create an electrical circuit and am quite happy to spend the next 45 not knowing either! On a final note, I can only guess it is pretty excruciating for teachers to have sit through the presentation of thirty weather instruments and Antarctic flags each and every year, which is what they would have had the pleasure of doing this week alone. Aargh!

    • My experience has been when I leave my children to complete an assignment beginning to end on their own we get a “C”. When I am heavily involved, guiding, suggesting, supporting, explaining (stopping short of actually doing it) they get an “A”. I am making a huge effort this year to try to be more involved because I think Princess Child needs to taste some success just for her self-confidence. I find that my kids struggle with understanding the task, they get distracted from the main point, lose focus. Back in our day when we had an assignment you opened up the World Book Encyclopedia and every bit of information you needed was laid out in front of you (teachers back then have probably re-read the World Book millions of times thru the projects). Nowadays you do a google search and are faced with millions upon millions of entries – children simply don’t have the ability to synthesis that level of information, they can’t identify which site is relevant to their assignment and they become overwhelmed. They also need to taught to touch type in kindergarten – the frustration at watching them do the “hunt and peck” on the computer drives me to distraction. Thank God the electrical circuit thing has gone – in our house that would have been a recipe for disaster we’d have probably blown the house up! We’ve only just finished the windmill about to tackle Antarctica this weekend – wish us luck.

  3. There seems to be a problem with commenting on wordpress.com blogs at the moment. If you have a gravatar or have ever linked your email to a wordpress account before you seem to have to log on via you wordpress login. I apologize for the frustration and hope that if you can’t comment today you may revisit next week when hopefully wordpress will have fixed the problem. Feel free to contact me via Facebook or Twitter @Shambolicliving also.

  4. When I was in school, I took homework as a personal affront and did as little as possible. Oddly enough, I always did fine on the tests in everything but math and homework wouldn’t have helped me there. Lu is in 4th grade and she has to read for twenty minutes a night, which I don’t mind because she can chose whatever book she wants and reading is just a good thing to do. She has a couple of math worksheets every week but they are usually just practicing math facts and that doesn’t bother me either. You learn your times tables by practicing. There isn’t much else in the way of homework. The pace of life is pretty slow here in Maine and I don’t think parent’s would be too happy if there was tons of homework, I know I wouldn’t. If my kids had the level of homework that you describe, I would probably homeschool them. If they’re going to spend a gazillion hours doing work at home then we might as well just do school at home.

    Lu had a project like your daughter’s and her’s looked like it was done by a nine-year-old, because, it was… I made it very clear to the teacher that she did it with ZERO help from her parents. She got a good grade and it was nice for her to know that it was all hers.

    On another note, I just realized that I never put you on my blogroll… I just fixed that 😉

  5. hello janine – i got my master’s in education and did my thesis research on homework. it’s interesting. there is no connection between the amount of homework and academic success (as measured by test scores) in the lower elementary grades. by high school, however, there is a strong relationship – more homework = higher achievement.

    i understand your frustration, and try not to give assignments that parents might do FOR their children. the whole idea is to help the child.

    hope your weekend is relaxing!

    • I think that here the problem is one high school in particular has an overload of homework from day one of year 7 “preparing students for the HSC” this then leaks down to the feeder primary school who up the amount of homework particularly in year 6 to “prepare students for high school”. To me it feels like we are putting unnecessary pressure on kids too early. I would have liked to have seen almost no homework in primary school, minimal homework in years 7 & 8 increasing in years 9 and 10 to then be ready for the extra workload of years 11 & 12. I fear that at this rate, by the time the kids get to 11 & 12 they will be burnt out and not achieve their best anyway. However, I know that many parents expect homework from the very beginning and have had teachers tell me that they often get complaints from parents that there is “not enough homework”.

    • Actually the latest German research indicates that more time spent on homework is associated with lower levels of achievement…google Ulrich Trautwein

  6. Homework. Oh wow. A topic still so close to home. My parent’s probably stopped helping me do my homework some time around the fifth grade – maybe this worked out okay because I was always friends with the smart kids in class, so anything I didn’t understand I could just ask them. What’s strange is my mom was even a math teacher and didn’t help with math. My dad definitely built an “Invention Convention” project for me once (not really by my choice – he just sort of had this great idea), but I’ve got a feeling the judges didn’t believe it when a 9-year-old walked in with a great way to monitor if your house oil tank is running low.

    I remember homework being reasonable until the 9th grade. Then I switched to a private high school (for better, for worse). For some reason, there, it was just assumed that you would have at least 2 hours of homework a night, usually somewhere between 2 and 4. And you were expected to partake in after school activities to be a well-rounded student. Did I learn anything? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I never learned history or biology – my brain just can’t retain it, so those assignments probably weren’t worth it at all. The math and chemistry I actually really enjoyed – and I was lucky enough to go to a school where I could email the teacher directly and get a response within 30 minutes. (Did I mention the teachers were just as crazy as the students?)

    I guess I lucked out – it wasn’t too bad (other than the history assignments). I can’t believe the teachers wouldn’t work with you through those circumstances, or that they wanted to take away her lunch – that’s just ridiculous.

    One thing that I do know is that I wouldn’t have made it through all of the homework assignments without my friends right by my side. Study groups, anyone?

    • A school were you can email the teacher and get a response in 30 minutes? Our teachers would be overrun with queries (but at least us parents would be off the hook). Interesting that you relied on your friends for help.

  7. Pingback: Sunday to Sunday A Week On The Phone | Shambolic Living

  8. This year, my eldest is in Year 7 (still primary school in Qld) and her teacher has advised that all assignments and projects will be completed during class time as they were concerned that there was too much input from parents and they were unable to grade them fairly. Good call if you ask me, especially from a parent who does not do the project for them!!!! I try to make them do as much of their own work as possible, much to the disgust of my eldest when I won’t even tell her the meaning of a word when she asks and make her look it up in the dictionary!!! Yes, shock horror – a dictionary?!? It seemed to work for me when I was a kid!!!

    • Thank goodness your teachers have seen sense. I tried the whole do the work yourself thing but found they just struggled too much. It’s fine for the subjects they are good at and/or enjoy but for the most part they even struggle to get started unless I offer advice.

  9. My wife is a fully qualified teacher and I have two degrees and yet there are many days when the work that comes home is absolutely confusing and impossible to do. Thankfully, our school believes that the best homework is to read every night and that classroom work should be accomplished there. Some assignments are so poorly explained, on paper, that I need to make a special trip to the school to sort them out. It’s just so crazy.

    • You have no idea how much better that makes me feel. I too have a teaching degree (although aside from a few days casual teaching here and there I’ve never used it) and I sometimes struggle with what they want!

  10. Hi – funny you should say that (all of the above). Similar conversations led to a bunch of (non-teacher) parents working at the NSW Department of Education and Communities creating http://www.schoolatoz.com.au. It’s specifically aimed at supporting parents of school-aged kids with everything from homework (maths and English facts sheets and glossaries, assignment starters, ‘how-to’ videos, etc) to information about your child’s health and well being. We also encourage other parents to tell us what’s missing – either through the website or on our Facebook page : http://www.facebook.com/schoolatoz (Sorry for shameless plug, but figure it’s pretty relevant and extremely useful).
    VickyN @ School A to Z
    P.S. There’s also a free app which is going gang busters with parents and kids: http://bit.ly/nXFCVx Among other things, it has a Spelling Bee game which lets you record your own spelling lists, along with hundreds of pre-loaded words from the Premier’s Spelling Bee ( Australian accents included!)

  11. A really fantastic post Janine. Some great responses too. Thanks for the site links up there too ^^^!
    I really hate homework, I am no good at it 😀

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