Hounded by homework: Do the benefits outweigh the hassle?


This column originally appeared in The Saturday Daily Telegraph. By Stacy Farrar.

It’s a scene played out on Sunday to Thursday nights at kitchen tables around the country. As dinner boils over on the stove, family tensions also boil over as a week’s worth of forgotten homework suddenly becomes the most pressing issue of the night.

As Mum tries to work out how to sequence numbers by seven, her grade three daughter’s eyes glaze over. Her grade six son draws a half-hearted diagram of space as quickly as possible so he doesn’t miss too much Adventure Time. In the end, the family’s collective hands are thrown up and Mum scribbles the answers in — hopefully messily enough to fool the teacher the child has done it themselves. On a good night, no one cries.

Ask many parents and they’ll tell you that homework can be a family battleground. Between sports and social commitments, after-school care and just trying to fit in family time, the three R’s are a hard sell to the time poor.

But do the benefits outweigh the hassle?

Educators are as torn on the topic as parents. Michelle Horne was a teacher for 16 years, before taking time off to have her three children. She’s now a passionate advocate of the benefits of homework and has started a social media group Homework Help for Parents, to give Australian families a network in which to discuss issues around homework.

As a teacher, Ms Horne said she used to give children detention for not completing their homework. Now she’s a parent, she’s gained some sympathy for parents struggling with time, but hasn’t lost her belief in the
importance of homework.

“The true value of homework in the right quantity and quality far outweighs any inconvenience that you or your child might feel,” she says. “At some point in their education your child is going to need to do volumes of homework. At university they’re told they need to do one to two hours work at home for every contact hour. If they’ve never done homework before, they won’t have the necessary skills and discipline to be able to do that volume of work on their own.”

Routine is the key

Ms Horne says getting children to focus on homework is all a matter of training. “The most important thing is to set an afternoon routine,” she says. “So with my kids, they know that after school they have some free time, but at 4.30 we sit down and do homework. When that’s done, they know they have time to play outside or in their rooms or whatever they want to do, so they know there’s a reward at the end.”

When it becomes part of the after school routine, it’s easy. “At first I was doing it with them all the time, then when they get a bit older they can do it by themselves. I’m always there to help if they need me too, but they’re so used to it now they often don’t need me there.”

On the question of time, Ms Horne says if there are conflicts, the time needs to work around the family schedule.

“Be creative. The kids can practice spelling or read their books on the car on the way to school. I might be listening to my little one doing his reading while the older ones are at sports practice.”

Is homework really necessary at all?

But other educators question the value of making a homework routine — and some question the value of homework at all.

Misty Adoniou was a teacher for 17 years in Australia and Greece and is now a senior lecturer in Language, Literacy and TESL at the University of Canberra — who thinks homework is a waste of time. As a teacher, she says she stopped giving out homework. The kids at the school she was teaching at were largely from non-English speaking backgrounds and the parents were unable to understand the work the children were set.

She has since uncovered international research that shows parents helping with homework can actually make children less successful at school, because having someone talk them through everything makes them lose the ability to make independent decisions.

It’s also a great unleveller, she says. Some parents are able to help, others aren’t. And some have the means to outsource homework altogether, by sending their children to after-school coaching colleges.

Dr Majeda Awawdeh-Caleo runs the Global Education Academy, a research based learning centre in Kogarah. She says the real benefit of after-school coaching is as a way of reinforcing what students learn in the classroom.

“A successful learner has the skill to retrieve stored information from long term memory and use it in working memory when it is needed. This is evidence that learning has occurred,” she says. But, she says, it only works if the subject is engaging in the first place.

Call to teachers

“This is my call to teachers: When you assign homework, please consider the main function of homework; it is to revise, to help the student like the subject, and most importantly it is for the student to complete, not the tutor, not the parent.”

Ms Adoniou would prefer to see schools sending home newsletters outlining topics the teachers were talking about in class that week, then some suggestions of complementary conversations and activities they could do.

“What we think homework is about is well, it instils discipline in them for later years. The rationale is well, we all have to do things we don’t want to do later in life.”

But the research doesn’t show that it is actually giving them those attributes. “When it comes to uni, there is no one around to pound on them to do homework.”

To encourage after school learning, Ms Adioniou suggests, teachers and parents should try to focus children on working in areas they are interested in. “Interest them in the classroom, and you’ll find they’re interested outside the classroom.

“The kids will be coming home building the bird houses. They’ll be saying “Mum, Dad, I’ve heard there aren’t enough bottle brushes in our environment. Can we plant some?”

She believes rather than having the tears around the table and everyone frustrated, the best thing parents can do is “read with their kids and talk with their kids”.

Why I don’t force my kids to do their homework

It’s a view shared by Hunter Valley mother of four Cordelia Troy, who doesn’t force her 11-year-old twin son and daughter and 13- and 15-year-old sons to do homework.

“There’s approximately six hours per day for the kids to be schooled. To supervise all homework as well as after school sport is next to impossible,” she says. “Apart from the pressure it exerts on the kids after a long school day, it interrupts the ability for the kids to unwind and tell us about their day.”

That time for talking is the most important thing, she says. “We are raising active, well-rounded young adults
and the constancy of extra-curricular school work impacts beyond the effectiveness of learning anything more.

“Take this example – I work as a painting contractor. I can achieve more in the first half of the day than in the afternoon. There’s a burnout, a max learning point. Homework directly contradicts this. Let them be kids, with time to play, time to be bored, time to talk to their family.”

The subjects covered in homework are also an area of conflict for parents. Homework policies differ from school to school, with principals ultimately responsible for what homework their students do in after school hours. While some parents, like Ms Adoniou, question the value of sending children home to make things like “a respiratory system out of recycled goods”, others reject the rote spelling and maths exercises that can make standing over a child feel like slave driving.

Teachers are time poor, too

Ultimately, the decision on how much homework a child does is up to the parent. Teachers rarely have time to check if the children’s homework is their own, and whether or not it has been done willingly or under extreme duress.

But that’s the point, says Ms Horne. Teachers, particularly in public schools, are even more time poor than parents. That 15 minutes at the dining table may be the closest attention a child gets from an educator that day.

“Most teachers would love to spend one on one time with each student, but this is not feasible in the current system,” Ms Horne says.

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