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Homework: valuable learning tool or complete waste of time? Add to ...

The model of a medieval castle, cobbled together with bits of cardboard and leftover recyclables, was the final straw. When Rob Young, a single father, saw what his son’s Grade 5 classmates had constructed – including a castle built entirely of meticulously glued rows of bite-sized cereal – he decided his family was done with homework.

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He e-mailed the principal at St. Therese of Liseaux Elementary School in Hamilton, cc’ed all the teachers, and declared his home a “no-homework home.”

Six months later, he says he and his two children couldn’t be happier. There are no more fights over the “right” way to do long division or last-minute dashes to the craft-supply store.

“What a great feeling when the kids come home and we know that that evening is ours,” said Young. “Board games, cub scouts, watch a movie – we can do anything we want to do because school does not invade our house.”

Young is part of small movement of educators, parents and policy-makers who are pushing back against homework. French President Francois Hollande recently became the most high-profile and powerful homework detractor when he proposed that after-school assignments be abolished. A socialist, Hollande was appealing to anti-elite sentiment, arguing that homework reinforces the disadvantages of poorer students compared to peers with two highly educated parents keen and able to oversee school assignments.

If the anti-homework brigade succeeds, however, it would fly in the face of research that suggests that the right kind of homework can help to drive student achievement. Neuroscience is giving educators a better understanding of how young brains learn, and its findings could help structure what kind of homework is assigned. The familial angst, sweat and tears that go into after-school assignments is not necessary for learning, experts say, but doing away with homework is not the best option either.

The case for homework

Studies of how students learn have found that several techniques improve memory and recall. They all involve repetition, but not in a rote way. One strategy relies on frequent, short tests. Another requires material to be reinforced and reintroduced throughout a longer period of time than a typical classroom unit.

Homework is another key way to promote information retention, so long as students can complete work that draws on classroom learning beyond what was learned that day. Called interleaving, the mixing up of problems beyond the immediate unit studied can lead to gains on test scores for fourth graders, according to a recent study in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Charles Ungerleider, an education sociologist at the University of British Columbia, says homework is not a frill. “Repetition is absolutely necessary for learning,” he said.

Dr. Ungerleider believes the French president’s proposed ban is doomed to fail because it won’t close the achievement gap. Middle- and upper-class families will continue to lend extra support to their children, signing them up for tutoring services and discussing their lessons at home.

“Those parents are going to do the kinds of things that reinforce what’s happening in the classroom,” he said. “They’ll ask their kids, ‘What did you do in school today?’ ”

Meanwhile, in the long term, less homework could lead to Canada lagging in international competitiveness. Students in China and Korea are surging ahead of their Canadian peers in international tests, thanks in part to after-school tutoring programs that make the average North American book report or Popsicle stick diorama look like child’s play.

The case against

Neuroscience does not drive most homework assignments. In Canada, homework policies are generally drafted by school districts, and guidelines for the amount and type of homework always leave room for interpretation, increasing parent frustration. The Toronto District School Board’s policy, for example, says that homework in Grades 1 through 6 “shall more often take the form of reading, playing a variety of games, having discussions and interactive activities such as building and cooking with the family,” but offers no specific guidance on volume. This means that within the same school, for example, one Grade 4 teacher could be assigning 30 minutes of reading or projects every night, while another could require students to do only what they didn’t finish in class.

Some classrooms become “pressure cookers for achievement” where standardized test scores drive learning, demanding mounds of math worksheets and book reports from children, says Heather Blair, a professor of language and literacy education at the University of Alberta.

The most dreaded form of homework, particularly among parents, is the project.

Book reports, dioramas, science projects and the like have consumed countless hours in Heather Murray’s Kingston, Ont., home. Murray has children in Grades 6 and 9, and questions what they learn from assignments.

“They eat into after-school time, the deadlines creep up on us, we’re up late in the evening gluing Styrofoam pieces together and the work becomes contaminated with parental input,” she said. “The running joke on the schoolyard goes something like, ‘Hey Anne – did you get an A on Johnny’s project?’”

“Homework may be the greatest extinguisher of children’s curiosity. It creates an incentive to see learning as work, rather than learning that is engaging,” says American educational author Alfie Kohn, who wrote The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.

Kohn says the strongest evidence for homework improving learning is in the correlation between standardized test scores in math and extra homework practice, but he questions what even that correlation means. Is homework improving students’ understanding of mathematical concepts, or just their familiarity with test-taking?

“It certainly does nothing to enhance their enjoyment of math,” he said.

Homework is a key issue for parents. Globe readers weighed in:

As a high school science teacher, I do believe a moderate amount of homework is a good thing. Thanks to the Internet, it doesn’t really allow me to see my students’ comprehension, but it does allow me to teach them other skills that are important in life – time management, when to ask questions, working hard, etc. The students who will go on to study further will be completely shocked and overwhelmed by their university/college workloads if they are not properly prepared.

Shivani Ruparell, MississaugaThe argument that we should not give homework on the basis that all students should have equal opportunities is absurd. No two schools are run the same way, no two teachers teach in the same way and no two students learn the same way. Let us remember that being give equitable opportunities is very different than being given equal opportunities.

– C.D. Borges, TorontoHere is our most recent, exasperating example of “project homework.” This past weekend we spent several hundred dollars on equipment for a terrarium that must support a living ecosystem for 90 days with no further intervention after initial set up from our Grade 9 student. As parents we helped out a ridiculous amount in terms of sourcing and obtaining the plants, aquarium and assorted supplies, and I have low expectations of the fish living due to the tight time frame to set up the equipment.

I have no clear concept of what the teacher is hoping to achieve. The class did the project in pairs and will now have 15 or so terrariums and aquariums plugged in around the classroom for the next 90 days. Maybe keeping spiders, beetles, fish and plants alive will impart a higher level of understanding. Maybe it is a classroom-wide, $3,000 (estimate) parental spend that could have been something rather more.

– Bobbi-Sue Menard, EdmontonAs an elementary teacher and as a mom, I hate homework. As a teacher I hate creating it, I hate marking it and I hate asking young kids to do more “school work” after six hours of it. As a working mom, I don’t want to spend the very little time I have with my child fighting about homework.

Kids need to play after school, childhood obesity is skyrocketing, only eight per cent of kids are active between 3 and 6 p.m. on weekdays. They don’t need to be coming home to sit and do more work. Homework does not translate into academic success.

– Beth Ritchie, Toronto

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