Homework, life balance

By Lawrence Watt

How much homework is too much? And is it of any value, anyway?
Homework is no substitute for good teaching. For some students, homework can reinforce a feeling they are no good at school. Pic Getty
Homework is no substitute for good teaching. For some students, homework can reinforce a feeling they are no good at school. Pic Getty

Every weekday Jessie (year 11, age 16) gets home from her Auckland secondary school and sport, has dinner, then sits down to homework till 10 or 11pm. She has a full curriculum, taking six subjects: art, history, French, science and English.

"My nights are sport, dinner and work. There is no time to relax," she says.

Friday is Jessie's evening off. On the weekend, homework usually takes six hours on one day and two on the other.

The only evening she has time to watch TV is Friday and she is generally too busy doing homework to go out with friends during the term.

There will be a mock exam this year, in preparation for this year's final, so she expects these holidays to be fulltime study.

"We will probably get very tired, then under-perform," she says.

Jessie finds art projects probably take up the most time, but she feels the number of maths exercises they are assigned is excessive.

What would she change? Well, she would like teachers to communicate better with each other, so they are aware of each others' demands.

However, with English, they may be given deadlines for two pieces of work, one day after the other.

"I feel the teachers don't comprehend that we have a life outside of school," she says.

"I would like teachers to understand a bit more that we need to work in some subjects, in some weeks, more than others.

"There is a real drive for excellence - you are trying to keep up with the high standards of your peers."

Some 45 years ago, I recall having copious homework, with little co-ordination between teachers. Little seems to have changed.

At age 13 there was so much my father wrote a story for me. The teacher couldn't tell it wasn't mine, but at least he read it.

Getting through weekend homework on one day was well nigh impossible.

So what is homework's value? Is it good or bad or a mixed bag? Is there an optimal amount - and a way of balancing between homework and having a life?

Jessie does seem to get a lot. OECD data shows Australian 15-year-olds are set just six hours of homework a week, higher than the OECD average of 4.9 hours. It's less than what many students report is set.

Professor John Hattie, ex-Auckland University, now at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, has studied homework's effect against other factors.

His research uses modern techniques to bundle together the conclusions of over 100 studies.

He found homework is a useful tool at secondary schools but less than half as effective as having a good teacher. You can read about it here: http://www.teacherstoolbox.co.uk/T-effect-sizes.html

Hattie's work shows primaary school homework has an effect-size of zilch -- well, slightly above zero. He doesn't want to scrap homework for young kids, though. "We need to get it right, not get rid of it," he says.

"Perhaps one set of reasons why the effects of homework are lower in elementary levels is that younger children are less able than older children to ignore irrelevant information or stimulation in their environment, have less effective study habits, and that they receive little support from teachers or parents."

Hattie says homework should be about revision rather than learning new work. The reason is that teachers actually do have skills and a purpose.

Homework becomes less effective in proportion to the complexity of the task involved.

And shorter is better. "The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is to reinforce something you've already learnt," he says.

Hattie says many parents judge a school by the presence or amount of homework, although they generally don't get involved in it.

Homework is more effective in some subjects than others. "The largest effects were in mathematics, whereas the effects in science and social studies were the smallest, with English in the middle," he says.

A strange thing about homework though, is its cultural relativity, although the amount seems to reflect racial stereotypes.

UN researchers have found teachers in New Zealand, Australia and other Commonwealth countries set about the same amount of maths homework. German teachers set a lot more, Dutch teachers hardly any.

But homework is no substitute for good teaching. For some students, Hattie says, homework can reinforce a feeling they are no good at school.

He quotes this paragraph from novelist Richard Russo: "She tried shit like doing her homework for a while, but it was counter-productive since she always did it wrong.

"Doing homework wrong, to her, was worse than not doing it at all, because doing it required time and effort and yielded the same results as not doing it, which required neither. Besides, our teachers had it all figured out in advance, she said, like who was going to get good grades and who'd flunk."

So it looks like homework is here to stay, although primary kids are probably better off playing outside, making something, or reading a book.

But teachers might consider that research shows homework may not be as effective as they think, that that it's about reinforcing what you taught them.

And to realise there is more to life - and learning - than homework.

Jessie's name has been changed

- NZ Herald

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