Homework: Help or Hindrance?
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2015 Issue
By Martha Beach
Each day after school, eight-year-old Miranda heads home and unwinds from the social school day, plays outside, and has a snack. But after dinner it’s time for Miranda to get to work. Only halfway through grade three in the east end of Toronto, Miranda is still getting used to weekly assigned homework.
Getting into the routine of completing pages of math questions, reading review, and writing at home is no easy task. “I have to annoy the heck out of her to get her to sit down and do it and there will be eight distractions on the way to the table,” says Miranda’s mom, Kathryn Rose. “Miranda and I have a terrific relationship, it’s fun and humouristic. But when she’s doing her homework she gets a lot of attitude. We have to make friends over and over,” Rose says. “She claims she doesn’t need my help, but I have to come and go and supervise to keep her on track.”
Some good news for parents like Rose is that educators are starting to place more importance on home activities and reading rather than repetitive, regurgitative homework. It seems that traditional homework is not necessarily helping students succeed academically. A new homework philosophy is on the up and up: enjoyment of learning through home practice. There are many ways for teachers to help students continue learning outside the classroom by assigning constructive homework and communicating with parents about how best to support students without helping too much.
A growing number of teachers don’t think traditional homework is working. “Teaching a kid to do traditional repetitive homework makes them equate doing multiplication with punishment. They aren’t interested,” says Dave Martin, a calculus teacher at École Secondaire Notre Dame in Red Deer, AB, who stopped assigning his classes homework three years ago. “If there has to be homework, it should be personalized. Kid A should have none, kid B two questions, and kid C should have five and they should all be different questions,” he says. “But no one wants to sit down and just do math problems.”
Indeed, a 2008 University of Toronto study from Linda Cameron and Lee Bartel found that 85 percent of children in kindergarten are enthusiastic and willingly cooperative when it comes to doing homework. But these attitudes quickly change as they get older: by grade four, 61 percent of students are very resistant or only grudgingly cooperative. “This change is related to the time required by homework—more homework correlates with more negative attitude,” write Bartel and Cameron.
Amount of work isn’t the only concern. “Homework takes the individuality out of learning,” says Martin. He recommends using games to practice concepts. Monopoly and cribbage require math skills, while checkers and chess are all logic. Find video games that require problem solving, hand-eye coordination, math, and reading. (Martin shares the ultimate success story: four of his students told him one Monday that over the weekend they got together to play a video game. Partway through, they put down their controllers in order to figure out the gravitational pull in the game, just because they wanted to.)
Find ways to incorporate learning into their interests. For example, ask young basketball fans how the points add up. “Find something relatable,” Martin says. “It won’t help them on their quiz on Friday, but who cares?”
Jordan Kleckner, Vice Principal of North Glenmore Elementary in Kelowna, BC, agrees. “The main thing with work at home is that it should be fun. It shouldn’t be pulling teeth.”
Many teachers do still assign traditional “pulling teeth” homework, and parents help with that homework: over 80 percent say they help their child(ren) in kindergarten up to grade two “usually or always,” and this continues at around 77 percent through grade four, according to Lee and Bartel’s study.
But research published by U.S. sociology professors Keith Robinson from the University of Texas and Angel Harris from Duke University comes to the surprising conclusion that no clear connection exists between traditional parental involvement and success. “Helping with homework is not associated with reading or math achievement,” write the duo in The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education, a book that looks at how parents across socio-economic and ethnic groups contribute to academic performances of students in kindergarten to grade 12 in the United States.
One would presume that teachers would stop assigning homework if parents are “helicopter” helping (carefully and closely circling their child like a chopper, occasionally making an emergency landing to drop in the right information). Some schools in Canada are trying just that. One example is College de Saint-Ambroise, a small school in Quebec’s Saguenay region (in the southeast) that launched a one-year pilot program in September 2014 where every class in grades one to six has an almost complete ban on homework.
But Christina Rinaldi, a child psychologist and professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta, doesn’t think eliminating homework is the answer. “To say you got rid of homework is unrealistic because any work outside of school is homework,” Rinaldi says. “How a teacher defines homework is part of assigning it.”
Before sending home assignments, worksheets, or learning games, Rinaldi reminds teachers to communicate their philosophy on homework with parents and students: what are their expectations of the student, what is the purpose of work that may be sent home, and what is the teacher’s goal when assigning home practices? Teachers also sometimes have to communicate with parents what may seem obvious to educators: “Helping with homework is more so knowing that the child is doing the work rather than how well or how quickly or even if they’re finishing every little thing,” says Rinaldi.
Traditional homework is different from home practice. “I come from a background and philosophy of no homework, but I’m a big advocate of home practice,” says Kleckner. “It’s not about going back to school and being marked. It’s about practicing for the sake of skill development. If you already understand it before leaving the classroom, regurgitating it at home won’t do anything.”
Kleckner also agrees that communication is key. “Parents will tell you if it’s not working, if it’s a fight every night, or if they don’t understand the work. Parents will also give positive feedback if the kids are playing games and are enthusiastic and are learning,” he says. “Teachers also need to recognize that parents are doing a zillion other things. They aren’t experts on reading help or math help, so it’s best to make information about how to help easily available.”
“Parents should ask the teacher for help knowing how to support their child, how to find resources,” Rinaldi adds. Rose occasionally asks Miranda’s teacher for suggestions on ways to help because she herself doesn’t understand the work. “I’m only now just getting comfortable saying what I don’t understand,” Rose says. Despite some of the work being a little tricky, in general Rose feels homework is a way to teach responsibility and reinforce lessons. “I think homework is a good way to help grapple with what they’ve already learned in school.”
The main method for parents to help kids do that grappling is something Rinaldi calls “scaffolding”—providing hints, prompts, and ways to set them up to find the answer themselves. “It means communication with the child of the expectation that they do homework, not ‘I’m going to make the best exploding volcano for you!’” says Rinaldi.
“A parent can’t helicopter if the right task is sent home. So if you’re sending a kid home to make a volcano, then yes a parent might make it for them,” Kleckner points out. Send homework students can (and have to) do on their own, with a bit of scaffolding.
But some the most beneficial work isn’t meant to be done alone. In younger grades especially, families are expected to simply read together. “Parents should be aware of projects and worksheets, but mainly they should focus on literacy,” Rinaldi says. Research in The Broken Compass found that reading to children is associated with increased reading achievement. Simply put, any form of reading is beneficial.
Kleckner worries about misconceptions around reading development. “For example, parents don’t let their kids read the same book over and over because it’s just done by memory. But what’s more important than if they are reading from memory is whether or not they are enjoying reading. So if they read the same book twice, that’s OK,” he says.
Enjoyment is a huge part of learning. “The question shouldn’t be: ‘Did you learn this?’ It should be: ‘Did you enjoy learning this?’” says Martin. “We need to change the game. When I started teaching, I was traditional. I assigned 35 minutes to one hour of homework per night. At the time, my failure/dropout rate was 50 percent. I was proud of that. Now my failure/dropout is only one percent. I thought I was weeding out the people who didn’t want to do math, but I was just killing their passion,” he explains. “My goal now is to get students interested in and talking about math at home.”
It’s part of a teacher’s job to communicate with parents the best method of support: encourage students to learn things in ways that interest them, but remember that ultimately only the child can be the student. “I’m learning this year to try and allow Miranda to do it right or do it wrong or not do it. She has to have the consequences. That’s important for her learning,” Rose says.
“It’s always going to go back to why are we doing this. If it’s a logical answer, then continue,” Kleckner adds. “If you feel like the why is going to help strengthen the child’s abilities, then continue with that.”
Martha Beach is a recent graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.