Behind The News Homework Debate

Now there have been questions about whether primary school kids should be given homework. Some researchers say there's no proof it helps kids to get better grades when they're older. Now before you start celebrating, it's important to know that not everyone agrees with this view and many teachers and parents still think it can be vital. So who's right? Sarah has a look at the debate.

SARAH LARSEN: It's four o'clock. You're home from school. You've had a snack and walked the dog and then it starts; homework.

KID: Tonight I'm doing some stuff about clouds so just looking at the clouds and seeing what sort of clouds they are and predicting the weather.

While it might not be your favourite pastime, lots of people think it's an important way to teach you about the world.

VICKI ATSALAS: Don't forget that whatever you don't get done in class you'll have to do for homework.

Ms Atsalas is a homework fan. And no, she's not mean. She just thinks it can really help kids - reinforcing the stuff they learn at school and building extra knowledge and skills.

VICKI ATSALAS: I also know that in the beginning a lot of my students don't agree with that but with the skills that they develop even they can see the benefits.

KID 1: Think homework is beneficial. I don't enjoy it but I think it is helpful to get life skills that you use later in life.
KID 2: You learn life skills as in like juggling work with your commitments.
KID 3: I think it will help me when I'm at a job and at high school I think it will help me when I'm studying for a test.

These guys say regular homework has helped them work efficiently and get organised; the sorts of skills they'll need later in life.

VICKI ATSALAS: When they get older there are going to be more responsibilities put on them and they'll be able to manage them much better having acquired these skills beforehand.

But how much homework is too much homework? And does it actually help kids to get better marks?

They're the sorts of questions Professor Richard Walker was trying to answer in a book he helped to write about Homework.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR RICHARD WALKER, UNIVERSITY OF SYDNEY: Generally speaking what we're saying in this book is that less homework is better and that the quality of homework has to be improved.

He says for primary school kids, homework won't necessarily lead to better marks.

Some schools like this one choose to give none at all.

MARC WEDDING: We don't feel like there’s any significant gain to be made in student’s education when it comes to homework.

Marc Wedding says when you're in Primary School you need to time to be a kid without stressing about homework.

KID 1: Reading books, going outside playing sport being active in bike riding or various other sporting activities they will have more impact in their lives rather than doing repetitive tasks.

KID 2: I like to play with my dog, feed my birds and then read some books that I got from the library.

KID 3: Considering you go to school for six hours you don't need to do any homework afterwards.

If you do have to spend some of your evenings like this experts say it's not necessarily a bad thing. While it might not guarantee you straight A’s, they say it can teach you to manage your own learning and organise your time. As long as it's quality homework; stuff that's interesting and stuff you can work on with your parents.

When you're in primary school afternoons are precious but so is your education. So where do you stand on the homework debate?

Homework - do you love it or hate it? Parents, educators and early childhood experts seem to fall into two very distinct camps on the topic of homework. However you feel, homework is bound to be a part of your child’s school life.  

Australian seven- to eight-year-olds spend an average of 954 hours in the classroom annually, according to the OECD Education at a Glance 2009. Australia is one of the highest of the OECD countries and excludes time spent on homework.

Some schools set fun tasks like “help mum cook dinner” or “make a paper plane” while others send home readers, spelling and “homework grids” for littlies to spend time on each night.

In the last 15 years or so, setting homework for primary school students has become a wider practice – but whether young children should have to do homework is regularly and widely debated.

According to NSW Federation of Parents & Teachers Associations’ publicity officer Sharryn Brownlee many parents demand that homework be set for their children.

“Many parents support homework and are keen for the children to extend and consolidate their school learning at home,” she says. “But there are many more who due to work and other commitments find it hard for the child to have the time to do homework.

“But we would not support a punitive or onerous approach to homework. If it supports the children’s learning and does not interfere with family time, then there can be a place for homework.”

Is homework beneficial?

According to several studies, there is no evidence that homework benefits achievement during the early school years. US educator Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, likens homework to cod liver oil, asking why teachers and parents continue to administer it in the absence of any proven benefits.

Kathy Walker, Melbourne education consultant and early childhood expert opposes homework in the early school years unless it is reading at home.

“Homework for homework's sake is not necessary,” she says.

She says the best types of homework for young children and their parents in their first years of school include:

  • Some time to relax and play and be creative at home and outside each day
  • To be read to by a parent each day for fun and relaxation and to enjoy some parent-child time
  • To read a book from school each day or second day
  • To eat together as a family as often as possible without the TV on, so children are practicing speaking, listening and sharing together.
  • To provide lots of things at home to write, draw, create and construct with.

She encourages parents to limit time spent after school watching television and playing electronic games.

“The best homework of all in those early years of school is having family time, playing together, talking together, enjoying books and not being too overscheduled after school each day,” she says.

What do education departments say about homework

Most state education systems in Australia tend to favour some form of homework. The amount and frequency varies from school system to school system and between levels within these.

The NSW Department of Education and Training has a website section which discusses homework expectations. Its official line on the subject is this:

“Homework bridges the gap between learning at school and learning at home. It reinforces work done in class. It helps develop skills such as research and time management. Homework helps to establish the habits of study, concentration and self-discipline. Parents/caregivers have the opportunity to see the progress of their child. Homework provides challenges and stimulus to gifted and talented children.”

The Victorian Government recommends that children from prep/kinder up to fourth grade do no more than 30 minutes homework a day, with no homework on weekends or holidays.

In Queensland, there is a state schools homework policy which recognises that the setting of homework must take into account the need for children to have a balanced lifestyle and should be purposeful and relevant to student needs.

Some schools tend to assign much more than others, but this doesn't always guarantee higher achievement, especially in primary school. Beyond a certain point, homework not only can become overwhelming, but it squeezes out other valuable activities, such as play, sports, music lessons, hobbies and relaxation. More is not always better.

Parents and homework

When it comes to homework there are three camps: those who are passionate about it, those who don’t see any point to it and those who simply go along with whatever system operates at a particular time.

Some parents feel a lot of pressure to help their kids do their homework perfectly. But here's the hard part for parents: part of our job is to allow children to fail from time to time. This may seem the opposite of what a responsible parent should do, yet children learn from failure as well as from success, and how you approach those failures is what counts.

It's better to be a coach when it comes to homework, than fall into the trap of being the doer and facilitator. When your child does stumble, rather than rehashing what she did wrong, talk with her about what she can do better next time.

This story was written by Fiona Baker for Kidspot, Australia’s leading Back To School resource, from sources including Early Life Foundations, Australian Government Department of Education, The Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations of NSW , NSW Public Schools, Vic Department of Education and early Childhood Development, WA Department of Education, Tas Department of Education, Qld Department of Education, Training and the Arts, SA Department of Education and Children’s Services and ACT Education and Training and NT Department of Education and Training.

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