What death and taxes are to life, homework no doubt is to school – at least that’s long been the conventional wisdom begrudgingly but obediently accepted by teachers, parents, and kids for as long as anyone can remember

By: Ilan Preskovsky

Some of us may have gone out of our way not to actually do our assigned homework – and certainly not to do so at home – but it has always been an accepted reality that with any halfway decent education comes work that must be done outside of the classroom. Some fairly startling new research, however, suggests that this most unshakeable of institutions may be, at best, unnecessary and, at worst, developmentally harmful when it comes to primary school students.

The most extensive research done on the correlation between homework and academic performance was done by social psychologist and Duke University professor, Harris Cooper, who, over a large range of separate studies in 1989 and 2003, found a number of sometimes obvious, sometimes seemingly counter-intuitive facts about the impact of homework on your average student.

Completely unsurprisingly, he found that high school students, particularly those in the last couple of years of school, did better academically if they regularly and consistently did their homework. No surprise there. What also isn’t exactly a revelation, but is a helpful reminder, is that there is a general maximum limit to how much homework should be assigned to students per day – an amount that increases incrementally with each passing year but reaches a maximum of about two hours.

Students in grade seven should not, in short, be assigned as much homework as those in matric, and no student should be assigned more than these prescribed limits. As it turns out, overburdening school kids with homework not only doesn’t help, but severely negatively impacts their performance at school and their general happiness and well-being. The more homework they get past their threshold, the exponentially worse their academic performance becomes. This is all extremely obvious if you think about it, but in an increasingly achievement-driven world, it is very easy to forget.

We Don’t Need No (Homework) Education

One thing that most people probably wouldn’t have expected about these studies, though, is just how little correlation there is between homework and academic performance in elementary/primary school kids. There seems to be very nearly no benefit whatsoever to children in lower grades doing homework and, worse, there is plenty to suggest that homework may be detrimental towards building a child’s love, or even tolerance, for learning and can lead to some particularly nasty habits that may negatively affect how they do at school later on. And this is to say nothing of the harm to inter-personal relationships at home when parents spend most of the hours after they get home from a full day at work trying to get their hyperactive children to sit still for a second and do their homework!

Most of us are so used to the “homework is necessary” paradigm that we would never have even considered an alternative, let alone the benefits of such a possibility. It’s hard to deny that it makes plenty of sense though. The old cliché of children being like sponges is undoubtedly true, but just because they are far better at absorbing new information than adults or teenagers doesn’t mean that how they are taught is of little importance. Obviously, literally the opposite is true. Having a bad teacher in, say, grade ten is nowhere near as devastating as having a bad teacher in grade one.

With this in mind, doesn’t it make sense that you would rather have a hopefully fully qualified teacher educating your children than, well, you? This isn’t a dig at parents, to be sure, but just a recognition of our current reality where, as a rule, both parents have highly stressful careers with usually at least one of them working from nine-to-five, if not working multiple jobs. What this means is that most parents are so beyond exhausted by the time it gets to homework time that they end up wanting to be there doing homework about as much as their kids do.

This is something of a problem. With so much of their time together revolving around homework, the relationship between parent and child can easily devolve into one of coercion and animosity rather than genuine bonding. At the same time, the child’s attitude towards learning becomes more and more toxic, even as he becomes increasingly dependent on his parents who, in a desperate attempt to save some precious time, do most or all of his homework for him.

With all of this in mind, there has been a concerted effort by many in the field of education to entirely upend traditional homework practices.

A New Plan of Action

It goes without saying that such a radical departure from the norm as eliminating homework has been met with more than its fair share of opposition from both parents and educators. One can only imagine what Jewish parents would think of such a thing. Still, numerous schools in the United States and elsewhere have implemented no-homework policies in primary elementary schools and the results, overwhelmingly, have been extremely positive. Here, then, are two such examples: one, a K-to-fifth-grade school in Vermont, USA, the other, hitting closer to home, a primary school in Fish Hoek, Cape Town.

Back in the summer of 2016, Mark Trifilio, the principal of Orchard School in Vermont, sat down with some forty educators to discuss the issue of homework. He first became concerned with the impact that homework was having on his students when he noted that different classes in the same grade were giving out different amounts of homework to one another and that the amount given to students in different grades was no less arbitrary. Attempting to gain a better appreciation of the subject, he came across the research discussed above and decided to see for himself whether it was indeed the case that homework had little impact on the academic performance of primary/elementary school learners.

His proposal in this meeting with his school’s educators was simple: for the upcoming year, they would scrap all homework and encourage their students to rather do the following after school: go out and play, eat dinner with their families, spend twenty minutes reading, and then get a good night’s sleep. Such a course of action acknowledged the research that the only part of homework that ever had any positive effect on academic performance was reading, but gave the students the freedom to read, alone or with their parents, whatever they wanted from a long list of recommended books. The rest of the prescribed activities, on the other hand, were simply about providing a more balanced and developmentally appropriate structure to the lives of these children. At that age, play is crucial, as are socialisation and a good night’s sleep, and they offer far more concrete benefits to children than homework.

Surprisingly, every one of the forty educators at that meeting enthusiastically agreed to the “experiment” and it was swiftly put into action. Six months later, the results could hardly have been more positive. Teachers noted no detriment whatsoever to the work and progress made by students, while the vast majority of the parents of the school’s four-hundred-odd students fully supported the initiative, noting that their kids now had more freedom to be creative at home and had really taken to the reading, sometimes even going off and reading more on their own.

Fears about whether a lack of homework would leave their kids unprepared for homework assignments in middle school were acknowledged by Trifilio as valid, but that he was working on implementing projects that would inspire long-term planning such as science experiments or presentations – though, again, these would be prepared at school rather than home. Clearly his solutions stuck as now, some three years later, the no-homework policy remains in place at the school.

Even before Trifilio conducted his ultimately successful experiment, principal Gavin Keller did much the same thing with the children in his school, Sun Valley Primary School in Fish Hoek, back in 2015. The similarities between the two are striking – but then, Keller did base his no-homework policy on much the same research and even from attending a conference on the subject in the US – as the children at Sun Valley were asked to spend a few minutes a day reading on their own or with their parents, while the rest of the day would be devoted to playing, spending time with parents and friends, and getting some sleep. The results were, if anything, even better than their Vermont counterpart as not only were the children now happier and healthier, their academic results showed a marked improvement.

A Homework-Free Future?

With such promising results shown by these schools and a number of others, is this it for primary school homework? Probably not, or, at least, not yet. Homework is still just far too entrenched in our education system to go away any time soon. As recently as last year, in fact, the department of education in South Africa issued a strong “nay” to the #homeworkmustfall trend that has been growing in the country ever since the introduction of CAPS (Curriculum Assessment Policy Statements) upped the amount of homework in even the lower grades to many hours per day.

Still, just because its fall will probably be gradual, the anti-homework sentiment is backed by too much solid research and has far too many parents and educators behind it for it not to reach the stage where homework will probably be a thing of the past for younger children. Back in 2015, News24 launched a survey that asked parents and educators about the current state of homework in our primary schools, and, though some hewed close to the established belief that homework is a vital part of any education, a vast majority felt that kids were getting far too much homework, while a surprising amount questioned whether homework was necessary at all – especially as many parents admit that their own chaotic lives mean that they’re ill-equipped to properly help their kids.

As for our Jewish day schools, this is an issue that seemingly has not been resolved yet but desperately needs to be. The extra limudei kodesh offered in even the lower grades means that Jewish kids have longer school days and more time devoted to learning than their non-Jewish counterparts, so it becomes even more crucial that their learning doesn’t totally take over their lives. We are a people who place a premium on learning and on learning for learning’s sake, but does too much homework not jeopardise that very love for learning at a stage when children are at their most developmentally vulnerable? The jury is clearly still out on the matter, but it’s a question that can’t be ignored and will only become increasingly pressing as time and modern life marches on.


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