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Homework: some is good, more is not better

Every few years, usually at the start of the school year, researchers, parents, teachers and students debate the value of doing schoolwork at home.

There has been a shift towards less homework recently. School boards across Canada have different policies, but most of them have children do 10 more minutes of homework for each grade they complete. Some districts, such as Vancouver, do not allow homework up to Grade 3. However, by Grade 12, most students will take home two hours of work each school day. Parents and students are now asking what they should be getting out of those 10 hours a week.

Criticism of homework

Critics of homework point out that it can create an uneven playing field between students. "In shifting learning from the classroom to the home, we risk shifting benefits to middle and upper-middle class families. With a parent close by, a computer and internet access and a quiet, organized space for homework, kids in upper-middle class families have a real advantage," says Peter Chaban, a teacher and researcher at The Hospital for Sick Children.

Chaban's views are reflected in research conducted by Etta Kralovec, a long-time teacher and former professor of education. Her research into the effect of homework on families in general found that it often punishes students from lower-income families. These disadvantaged children "have family responsibilities, parents who work at night and no educational resources in their homes." The tasks that are done as homework, Kralovec says, need to be moved back into the school, even if that means extending hours and hiring more teachers. The payoff would be a school system in which working class and disadvantaged children get an equal chance to learn.

Another advantage to schoolwork instead of homework is closer teacher attention to the work students do. Parents cannot do a child's research or math problems for them if the work is done in the classroom.

Understanding the importance of homework

It is important for parents to talk to teachers and understand the importance of the homework they assign. Harris Cooper, an education researcher and professor at Duke University, led research into how children, parents and teachers feel about homework. He found that if parents are not convinced of the value of homework, their kids will not be as likely to do it.

This finding is especially true if parents and students both see homework as something that takes time away from other useful activities. For example, Grade 12 students working two hours each day on their homework may be giving up a lot of informal learning opportunities, such as a part-time job or the chance to practise a musical instrument or build an athletic skill.

As a parent, you can meet your child's teacher to explain any trade-offs between homework and other activities and discuss if any changes can be made.

Government and school board guidelines on homework

Sometimes students experience a teacher handing out busywork, consistently not marking homework or assigning students to learn new material on their own. "Homework should not be a discovery process - that's for the classroom. The curriculum is supposed to be taught, not assigned," says Chaban. Guidelines from provincial ministries of education and various school boards across Canada make this clear.

The following school board policies are among many that are published online:

These homework guidelines and policies - and others - have a number of common themes.

  • Homework works if it gives an opportunity to practise skills or reinforce information learned very recently.
  • Too much homework is bad, especially in younger grades. Children find it hard to sit still and focus, especially with the distractions of home around them. Homework should fit into a child's developmental capacity to remain focused on a task. More is not better.
  • Homework should not be used to introduce new material or difficult tasks. Parents should not be responsible for teaching the school curriculum.
  • Homework should never be used to punish a child or to fill time. A guideline of an hour a day does not mean that the hour must be filled with busywork if it cannot be spent usefully on reviewing what was learned during the day.
  • Parents play an important role in homework. Teachers rely on parents to neither undermine nor take over a child's homework.

If you have questions about the amount or type of homework your child brings home, it might be helpful to check your local school board's policy. If you do not think your child's teacher follows the guidelines set by your local school board, bring some homework and the policy to a parent-teacher meeting. A teacher may have a good reason to go outside the guidelines, for example if the school year was disrupted in some way or if many children in a class did not meet goals in the previous year.

Homework: some is better than none

Although researchers may differ on where homework is best completed, there is general agreement that children need to time to practise the skills and reinforce the information they learn at school. Children also need to learn how to set aside time for important work, plan large projects and discover information on their own.

If parents and educators keep these goals in mind, homework need not go in and out of fashion every decade or so and the work that students take home can be valuable to their education.

Tips to help your child with their homework

The Ontario Ministry of Education has produced some tips for parents on helping a child with homework.

  • Set a routine: Work out a homework schedule and make sure your child sticks to it.
  • Give some space for homework: Do your best to create a bright and quiet space where your child can concentrate on schoolwork.
  • Practise, practise, practise: Have your child practise reading, writing and math with you every day, even for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Check in now and then: Once in a while, see how your child is doing with their homework and ask them if they have any questions.
  • Turn everyday activities into homework: Include children in everyday tasks and assign activities such as searching newspapers, reading recipes, creating shopping lists or plotting out routes on a map.
  • Make kids proud of their effort: Regularly review your child's completed homework and always look for something positive to praise. Encouragement gives a child confidence and makes them feel good about doing their best.
  • Encourage questions: Give your children the confidence to ask for help if the homework is difficult or confusing.​
Patrick J. McGrath OC, PhD, FRSC​
9/23/2013

​Sources

Cooper H.M. (2001). Homework for all - in moderation. Educational Leadership 58 (2001):34-38
Kralovec E. & Buell J. (2001). End homework now. Educational Leadership 58 (2001): 39-42
Ontario Ministry for Education (2009). Tips and Tools for Parents: 10 Tips to Help Your Child with Homework. Ottawa: Queen's Printer for Ontario.​​​​ 




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