What we need to be asking ourselves, when homework is assigned to already overly scheduled young children, is what other opportunities for growth and development are being sacrificed?
What about sociability, emotional development, creativity – all qualities that are less conducive to being nurtured in a classroom setting?
What about physical activity?
Psychologist and author Madeline Levine says in Teach Your Children Well, “We are spending way too much time worrying about our children’s performance and grades – their heads – and not nearly enough time paying attention to their hearts.”
Time is precious and we all know there never seems to be enough of it. But in order to develop interests, curiosity, a personality, character and loving relationships, we need time. Children especially, with their young minds, need time to daydream. They need to be exposed to and engaged within the broadness of their communities.
Homework takes away that time. The school owns the child’s mind, five days a week, 10 months of the year. Isn’t that enough?
What’s more, children need time to play because in play, they learn how to be in the world. Psychologist, blogger and author Peter Gray writes in Free to Learn, “The enormous educative power of play lies in its triviality.” According to Gray and many other researchers, the playful state of mind is the ideal state for learning new skills, solving new problems and engaging in all sorts of creative activities.
We want our children to grow up to be self-directed, confident, contributing adults, but when we spoon feed them, we limit their decision making abilities, we deny them autonomy in learning and then we are horrified by the increase in anxiety disorders and depression.
The good news? Children are born with the drive to learn and they are learning all the time: incidentally and authentically. They don’t need to fill worksheets to prove it, but more freedom to explore, and more support and love to nurture confidence. The rest falls into place.
While the homework debate rages on among educational experts, most agree that too much – especially when it’s empty busy-work – can be a problem. But beware. As often happens with trends in education, the pendulum is in danger of swinging too far in the opposite direction.
No homework at all is a very bad idea, but not enough is a risky proposition.
My kids have been schooled partly in the Northeastern states, infamous for educational rigour and competitiveness, and partly in Ontario, where a more moderate approach prevails. This dual experience has given me a lot of perspective. When we first moved back to Ontario, all we felt was relief. My sons, aged 12 and 10, had already been showing signs of homework fatigue. The hours spent on assignments every night had created stressed-out kids, arguments about getting it all done, and a gradual decline in enthusiasm for anything school-related. It was killing our family time, too.
While at first we enjoyed the reprieve, eventually I began to notice a change in my kids’ habits and attitudes. The light homework load (combined with the fact that most teachers never checked to see if it was done), eroded their fledgling work ethic and time management skills. Fast-forward to high school: they struggle as more demands are placed on them. I worry about their academic future.
According to a 2008 survey, one in six Canadian students won’t complete their first year of university. Students queried in Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Survey expressed that they were struggling with meeting deadlines and their study behaviour. And why might that be? In my opinion, the foundation was not laid early on.
Time management and the ability to work independently are competencies that can be learned, and they need to be practised. No matter if your child’s post-secondary goals are academic or otherwise, these skills are vital to success. A great way to develop them early on? You guessed it: regular doses of purposeful homework.
What if homework developed children’s imaginations, sociability and physical activity? Even such purposeful and creative projects would eat into leisure for the important values of purposeless play. But the statistics show that for many children, leisure time is spent watching TV, playing video games, tending one’s Facebook page, etc. All of these things can be of some value, of course, but if a small group project that stimulated and engaged children’s imaginations in learning about the wonders of their world were the homework alternative to a few hours of TV, the argument is less clear.
Can we rely on teachers to rethink homework assignments in the direction of such projects, rather than dreary continuations of what ought to be done in classes at school? Probably yes in some cases and no in others. The same conflict we see in the two thoughtful comments about homework could be reframed about what goes on in schools generally. When we give over our children to the care of a costly system run by the state, we want the best we dare hope for. And it’s hard not to believe that schooling – which is reflected in the homework – could be done better.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.