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Today's homework

How heavy should a backpack be?

As independent school parents, teachers and administrators, we are well meaning when it comes to homework. In fact, our default position often reflects the so-called "hyper-active" approach now the subject of scholarly analysis, whereby many career-orientated, highly-motivated parents (and, yes, some teachers) feel compelled to ensure the same level of advance for those in our care. In doing this, we often link the quantity of homework assigned to academic rigour and achievement. A, B, C inputs yield X, Y, Z results, we often claim. "And by golly, that's how little Johnny or Jeanie's life is going to go! And the sooner things get started, the better!"


If children are programmed correctly, goes this thinking, they will get a head start on a stellar career much to the self-satisfaction of both those paying for and delivering first-rate educations. Homework goes unchallenged for the large part because heavy backpacks (along with increasing back, neck and shoulder injuries in youth) are just another fact of life.

Like requiring children to eat their greens, we assign work to be completed outside of school because we believe "it is good for them." But it may be that tradition and fear dictate the necessity of homework without an appreciation of what the pros and cons may be. What if our assumptions are wrong? What if homework does not really help students learn or achieve? What if living ww vicariously through our students (and our own children) means that they carry an unnecessarily heavy burden with few proven benefits? It seems that our teaching colleagues in the public milieu are questioning homework's necessity and we may well benefit from at least listening in on the conversation.

What is striking (and ironic) is that something so fundamental has been the subject of limited methodological analysis. Historians among us will likely point to several high points during homework's "golden age." Sputnik renewed interest in educational rigour in North America during the 1950s, as did the push to keep pace with the Japanese in the 1980s, at least until students there started crumbling under the pressure from the stress of competition and the shame of failure. For the most part, though, motivation has been largely external, and the assigning of homework from kindergarten onward has remained justified by "common sense" assumptions. Certainly, my own contemporaries have echoed these assumptions in various recent conversations.

"Homework promotes good work habits," Brian Profit, a colleague, describes. "A majority of professions do not solely operate in a nine-to-five timeframe and students should get ready for it, especially those that attend an independent school and have high career aspirations." Another associate, Cindy Barr, shares that "basic skills like grammar, spelling and multiplication tables require drill" and that "learning how to begin projects, searching for answers and problem-solving are skills that adults use daily, and must be learned early through homework." In addition to reinforcing concepts and improving study habits and aptitude toward school, we also talk about homework promoting self-direction and self-discipline, and developing time-management skills.

There are also supposed family benefits. As independent-school teacher and father Bob Loiselle reflects, "Homework can be a great opportunity to work with your children, review and comment on their work, and to show interest in what they do." In this home, there is an effort to schedule regular time for homework. "I will often pull out my own paperwork at the same time. For me, it is key family time," he shares. So, homework, at a daily rate of 10 minutes per grade level seems to benefit many of the families our schools serve, students with the ability to work independently, mixed with a high level of parental interest. The results appear to include the building of skills over time and the comprehension of responsibility. Certainly there are convincing arguments to be made in support of homework.

So why has the homework pendulum started to swing backwards on the homework front? Why is popular now trumping compelling? Why, for example, has the Toronto District School Board introduced policies that will limit the amount of homework its students will be assigned during the 2008-2009 school year? While the cynic may argue that many peers in the teaching profession have simply conceded defeat in an age demarked by more distractions and a decreased work ethic, others pin their arguments on the "better" research underway whose early indicators suggest the necessity to rein in the homework forces at play. This research, also, based largely on anecdotal studies, finds little evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school, and very limited merit in the senior years, concluding that the positive effects of homework are largely mythical.

At this end of the spectrum, homework opponents use words and phrases like "saturation," "loss of interest," "frustration" and "mental fatigue" to describe the current "crisis" whereby schools have colonized after-school hours by asking students as young as four years of age to work at home. Moreover, we are told that there is no empirical evidence that homework builds character, teaches good habits or offers any international competitive advantage. What it does proffer, suggests this new line of argument, is tension between parents and children, the curtailment of other more creative activities, and little more than preparation for the drudgery of work to come at each grade level. The statistics and opinions bubbling to the surface are compelling.

A 2007 study conducted at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), "Homework Realities: A Canadian Study of Parental Opinions and Attitudes," found that Ontario students are receiving on average 40 minutes of homework per night and that by Grade 4, most of their parents feel inadequately prepared to assist with the content. It also advanced that much assigned homework seems "unnecessary" and "marginal;" that a great deal is not taken up in class, shared or evaluated; and when it is, it is not returned to students in a timely fashion.

The OISE professors, Linda Cameron and Lee Bartel, also found that while parents support building good habits and opportunities to be involved in their children's academic lives, the amount of homework is interfering with family time and play time in an era of heightened obesity rates, amidst a growing disconnect with nature. Also, it seems the 10-minute rule seems agreeable in the early years, but once students reach Grade 6, one hour of homework becomes a burden that only doubles by the end of high school.

As a former classroom teacher, I never put much conscious thought into why I was assigning homework. It was the custom. It was expected; it was what one did in a school known for its academic rigour. Indeed, some independent schools were included in the OISE study and it was found that the workloads expected of students in independent schools are twice the provincial average. The authors also report that 75 per cent of independent school parents feel homework has great value; although these numbers decrease proportionately to time on homework with two hours being the optimum for high school students. Not surprisingly, they also observed that student enthusiasm for homework decreases each year from kindergarten through Grade 12. As for educators, the report suggests that 30 per cent of high school teachers disclose that they assign homework because they cannot cover the whole curriculum in class and 25 per cent of elementary teachers do the same, while 60 per cent of all teachers surveyed felt homework had a neutral impact on student achievement. However, the pressure from parents to assign it, as proof of academic quality, remains irresistible.

As an administrator, I can relate first-hand experiences with well-intentioned parents demanding that their already over-taxed youngster would benefit from more "drill and kill" homework exercises like the ones they did in school. In some cases, the pressure for student performance marked by hours of homework and often sparked by the parents need to see a tangible "return on their investment," has been misguided. Often, it is difficult to express the reality that a student would likely benefit much more from simple, age-appropriate, dramatic play with peers or a brisk walk around a local pond.

Other parents have echoed this last observation.

"Children have very little time just to be kids," one mother, Karen Gallant, laments. "We have a tendency to schedule their entire lives. Between school, play dates, sleepovers and various sporting activities, our focus on raising children 'successfully' has, for the most part, produced children who expect to be entertained and are unable to relax," she says. "Unstructured play time allows children to use their imaginations. There is so much to be said for the child who can appreciate the beauty of a dandelion."

Our task is to assign purposeful homework, designed so that students will complete it, involving parents in appropriate ways and carefully monitoring the amount (and the age at which it is assigned) so that it is meaningful. As one colleague, Whitney Woloshyn, summarizes, "I think it is unrealistic to think that a student is able to do endless hours of homework every night without getting burned out." She adds that at the same time it is equally unrealistic to think that a student is expected to grasp everything he or she needs to know strictly during the academic day. "There needs to be a balance," she says. "Homework is also about learning how to prioritize, make choices and organize." If we are reminded of anything, it is that inappropriate homework may produce little or no benefit. So our schools need to ensure that homework is a tool used effectively and properly.

Given that the educator's ultimate obligation is to do what is best for student learning, the independent-school conversation on homework is long overdue. The obvious response is not to "throw the baby out with the bathwater," but to understand the gradations involved. Indeed maybe the Toronto District School Board is on to something with its new homework policy. They have banished homework for kindergarten; instead the focus will be on encouraging families to play, talk and read together. In this board, independent work will only start in late primary and junior grades. Grades 7 and 8 students will be expected to work for one hour per evening, with high school students working for two.

Additionally, no one will be assigning homework over holidays and take-home work will generally be assigned in blocks of time, so that families can flex their schedules to accommodate. A great deal of co-operation and communication will be required between home and school and among faculty, but it is a start.

In my experience, independent schools are only now getting past pat responses to the key questions of homework and just beginning to ask: How much is too much? Who benefits? At what age? At what level? And, we are only just beginning to place homework within a larger context. Many of us assign homework in a traditional fashion, without pausing to remember that different times may require different approaches. We acknowledge the context, but few are bringing that knowledge back to the question of homework.

It is a different world: Brain research that tells us that younger students need 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night; increasingly, children are suffering from anxiety at extraordinary levels; there are growing issues of sedentary children and obesity; and, over-programmed youth populate our classrooms. Moreover, at the senior school level, we pay lip-service to the need for more cross-curricular ties, single projects that satisfy more than one course at a time, and an appreciation of learning styles. All this, at a time when there are greater curricular demands and a need for higher grades for university admittance. Having acknowledged these challenges, where do we turn with homework expectations and how does homework support learning in this brave new age?

Perhaps, the coming homework debate will be the "perfect storm" that forces us to better grapple with the complexities of school life both in and outside the classroom. If independent schools, already well-positioned to understand the nuances of the debate, are going to engage in the homework conversation, they had better get started.

Our parents are waiting.

—Kristopher Churchill
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