Every night, a similar drama unfolds at dining tables across the country. There’s nagging, cajoling, not to mention tears. Homework is the bane of existence for students – and parents, too. Are the reams of assignments they bring home relevant to their education? Are they getting enough? Too little? Or would that time on fractions be better spent on independent projects or family activities? We decided to find out what it’s like for students. We asked four Globe and Mail reporters to do their kids’ homework for a week and report back. Education Editor Simona Chiose moderated the (at times, heated) discussion.
What was the most frustrating part of doing your kid’s homework? Or were you all keeners, doing extra to show off?
Tavia Grant: The winner has to be math, an endeavour which frequently sparks World War Three in our house. In this case – due to my son (Grade 6) having forgotten to bring home the homework the week before – it snowballed into page after hellish page of long division and nonsensical puzzles.
Wendy Stueck: I expect my daughter (Grade 11) to have a significant amount of homework, but it was frustrating to hear that she had no time during class to, say, work through calculations when the teacher is around to help.
Steve Ladurantaye: I did my neighbour’s kid’s homework.
Ladurantaye: I didn’t think my own daughter would have any. She’s in senior kindergarten. But turns out I was wrong – every night Caitlyn has to read a book from school and I need to sign a form to prove that she did this assignment. I’ve mastered one-syllable words for the most part, but I did not know how much she was supposed to do on her own and how much I was supposed to help. Chloe, the neighbour’s kid, who’s in Grade 8, has a lot of evening activities. I didn’t get her stuff until after nine most nights.
Most school boards in Canada agree that elementary school students should have primarily reading homework, rising to an hour at most in junior high and two hours a night by Grades 11 and 12. Did you come in over or under that line? Did Google help you?
Stueck: I did find it difficult to answer the teenager’s demand of “give me one good reason I should do this.” There was questionable work that took up too much time, such as complementing an essay with a Power Point presentation.
Grant: Sometimes days went by with nothing assigned, sometimes an hour’s worth. French – negative forms such as ne ... guère – I was rusty. My tutor (i.e. daughter) told me the answers. Math took longer. Writing was fun.
Elizabeth Renzetti: On writing, there was a distressing moment when I realized that devotion to grammar, punctuation and the niceties of capitalization will possibly go out with my generation. I’m not sure it will matter when we’ve completed our evolution into giant walking thumbs. I’d bring books home from the library for projects and my kids would look at them with suspicion and return to researching on websites.
Does the reliance on the Web, and that they don’t know how to research using printed books, concern you?
Renzetti: The magical Google box came to our rescue when we had a screaming four-way family argument about order of operations. Teachers post assignments on websites, kids use presentation software and collaborate online on projects. However, and this is important, their teachers request that they each read for at least 30 minutes a night, so we have family reading time. Sometimes it’s horror comics, but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Ladurantaye: I’m often disappointed at how a fun little story loses a lot of its fun when it’s required reading. I know for a fact I wasn’t expected to read my parents a basic book when I was in kindergarten.
What did you learn?
Ladurantaye: A lot of it was subjective; I had one religion assignment from Chloe to answer the question “Who are you?” I don’t see how the teacher could give me anything but an A+, but I fully acknowledge that’s probably the kind of thinking that got me into trouble in Grade 8.
Grant: I scored six out of 10 on the French vocab test though I swear I’d do better on a retake. I was proud of one thing: My daughter’s Grade 8 math unit was on the difference between a census and a sample. “Actually, this is something I’m actually a bit of a whiz about,” I told my daughter, who was not suitably impressed.
Some parents say math is getting too subjective with the new creative ways of teaching math.
Renzetti: There were aspects of the new “creative” math that I loved. One of the questions in my daughter’s homework was: “When is 1,000 a large number? When is it a small number?” I was horrified to realize that even Grade 3 math made me furrow my brow once or twice. I have no idea what “base 10” means, and I’d forgotten entirely about ordinal numbers.
Grant: The best phrase for the math homework might be “slow and torturous.” I don’t understand why kids aren’t taught to memorize multiplication tables, nor the instructions on how they’re supposed to do long division.
Stueck: Over a curse-filled evening, I renewed my grasp of quadratic equations sufficiently to complete two problems that involved writing a quadratic function in vertex form. During the same time period, my daughter completed 13 similar problems.
Did the memories of homework past come back for you?
Ladurantaye: I still think I had it right in Grade 8: Do as much as you need to in order to understand the assignment, and sidestep as much as possible so you can go do things you prefer to do (like hanging out with your loser friends behind the portables or sneaking off to the mall with your girlfriend).
Stueck: There are even more distractions now, even when sitting down to do the homework – hello, social media. The ability to be in constant touch with friends through texting, to update Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, is seductive and can suck up hours of “homework” time.
Grant: I used to sit at the dining room table (all on my own!) and do homework without any hovering parents. Now, getting my own kids through homework is akin to an intense physical workout each night. We’re all limp and exhausted at the end.
Ladurantaye: That’s why my natural instinct is to say any homework is too much. I’d much rather see Chloe doing extracurricular stuff she loves every night instead of writing fake endings to ambiguous short stories.
Stueck: On most nights, my daughter is doing three to four hours of homework. Could she be more engaged and enthusiastic in class if she were not always tired and stressed? I wonder.
A teacher's perspective: There’s a classroom outside the school
I try not to send home homework very often. Most learning that can be done at school, is done at school. If you do a good job at teaching students, they don’t always need homework to reinforce a concept.
Homework should be purposeful, not onerous. Student have a long day of learning at school and to expect them to work as hard at home as they do in school is not fair to them. As well, part of growing up and learning should happen outside the classroom.
Whenever I send home homework, I try to make it so that my students don’t have to do it on their own (interview family members, play games with friends, etc.). If it is something that is specifically “for homework,” I try to create a task where students have to be home (or at least outside the classroom) to do it. For example, if we are talking about healthy eating, I will ask students to keep a food log for a week. This can’t all be done at school.
There are not enough hours in a school day to get everything done. Some students need more time than others to complete tasks. As long as the bulk of the task has been done at school, I ask students to take the task home for a night or two to complete it.
In terms of math homework, I think that practising skills at home can be useful, where there is no time permitted for it at school. What I mean is that if I am teaching multiplication to a class, I want to make sure my students get the concept of multiplication as “repeated addition” or “groups of.” There will be no time left for memorizing the times tables. So students should practise that at home. The reality is there are many students who will grasp the concept of multiplication very early on, without even being able to memorize times tables.
Helaina Cappel is a Grade 7 teacher at Essex School in Toronto.