Since Venetian teacher Roberto Nevilis invented homework in 1095, parents, children, teachers, boards of trustees and governments of the day have danced the dance of homework done, not done and supposedly eaten by the dog.

Here in New Zealand there appears to be a shift, in line with a myriad of international and online theories and articles, away from homework for the sake of homework, and a move towards more customised and family-friendly tasks to be done at home.

The Ministry of Education advice on its website suggests schools make their own decisions around homework.

“Homework is valuable to many parents because it gives them a good sense of what their child is learning, which is important. Talking with their children about the learning, rather than merely supervising, is particularly effective. If homework becomes an area of conflict between a parent and a child, it can have a negative effect on learning,” the site reads.

New Zealand-born education professor and author of Visible Learning John Hattie said in a BBC Radio 4 interview that he thinks we get “over-obsessed” with homework.

“Five to 10 minutes has the same effect of one hour to two hours. 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.”

CORE education facilitator and Māori and English teacher Rosalie Reiri, is against homework for homework’s sake. In her blog, she advocates using educator Daniel Pink’s three-part test for teachers to gauge whether the homework they give is truly helping children engage:

  1. Am I offering students autonomy over how and when to do their homework?
  2. Does the homework promote mastery or something meaningful?
  3. Do my students understand the purpose of their homework?

If the answer to any of these questions is “No”, then homework may be a meaningless exercise.

Teachers may not be aware that you could be promoting disengagement at home and at school, says Rosalie.

“An example of this is when children complete tasks at home because they ‘have to’ and not because they want to. Negative consequences from home and school follow; not to mention the numerous arguments some families battle, which often become the normal routine. Thus, no real learning occurs, but instead homework headaches are created.”

Rosalie believes homework should be customised to the child, as Pink suggests.

“I think that’s the way to go. The question is, are we willing to devote the resources to that? Teachers would probably need to have smaller class sizes, which is more expensive. They’d need more time to develop not only lesson plans but also some degree of customisation, and that requires time and resources, too.”

Rosalie says she was frustrated when she began researching homework and found there was no definitive proof that homework helps.

“It really annoyed me. It takes a huge amount of effort and energy to set homework, get homework done and back from children and then to mark it.”

What many don’t understand, says Rosalie, is the almost countless variety of home and family dynamics for which teachers are setting homework. She thinks the move to more nuanced homework is too slow especially in lower decile schools where with time- and money-poor families, a more nuanced approach to homework could make the most impact. She is an advocate for kainga mahi over mahi kainga, and has found using a homework grid a powerful homework tool.

“That way, students can choose what they want to do. They can do something creative like baking a cake with a family member.”

Homework for parents: simply read and listen to your kids

Revolutionising school “work” and in the process homework is teacher of 15 years, Lisa Lyell.

Currently teaching a new entrants class at Palmerston Primary in Dunedin, her Year 1 students learn through play all day, every day. The only time play is halted is when the bell rings – and her students don’t take any work home and they are all reading and learning at the rates they are meant to be. She is definitely not a fan of homework for homework’s sake, beyond a home reader each night, and says that in a digital age and in our very scheduled busy lives, connecting with kids and reading to them and doing things with them is the best homework there is.

“I prefer for kids to be engaging with their family and playing outdoors. Some of my children get stressed by having to read their reader at night but hearing someone reading that same reader to them is just as good for us.

“Better than flash cards, better than anything, is talking to our children. They are better off discussing their day, reading stories in the newspaper, reading novels and having them read to them.

Parents can do something innately comforting by reading a story to their child.

“Children are overscheduled these days and that means they are more tired when they come to school than they used to be. I was shocked the other day at a conference to hear just how rarely the majority of Kiwi families are eating together at the table. If families aren’t talking to one another, if children don’t talk to a teacher during the day, are busy after school with activities, that is a lot of time not being connected with anyone … children need time to be heard, to just play and to be.”

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