Thursday Thoughts – Is Homework Healthy?

word problems

I’m of two minds when it comes to homework. I’m not sure if I love it or loathe it. When I was teaching I would hand it out with such exuberance knowing that children’s learning would be reinforced and excited for the families who would bond over the projects I set. Now I’m a mother and only the word ‘homework’ brings the worst out in me. When I read my daughter’s homework plan I pump myself up with enthusiasm only to be very quickly deflated by her reply! Last year (when she was aged 7) each Monday her spelling words come home – ten of them each week, accompanied with the simple (and so utterly boring) task of writing them in ten interesting complex sentences. So first up is the word dictionary. My daughter writes I have a dictionary. No, I reply, it needs to be exciting. So here she goes again, I have a dictionary but I lost it. Within twenty minutes (of which time the task could have been completed) one sentence is complete and I’m slowly losing the plot, as is she. Not one single spelling word is learned, nothing has been reinforced and as for bonding I’m beginning to sound like Miss Trunchbull!

In England and Wales the government’s guidelines suggest pupils aged 5 to 7 should do 10 minutes of homework per night, stretching it to 30 minutes a day for pupils aged nine to 11. Homework was part of my school life. It was part of my childhood and now it’s my children’s. But does it do more harm than good? The teacher in me started researching this exact question. According to homework research guru Harris Cooper of Duke University, “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students”. So why are we putting our children and us as families through it? An example of this, is that my husband’s family live in the Netherlands where there is no homework for primary aged children. My husband always says to me, children learn what they need to learn in school. It’s simple as that.

Don’t get me wrong there have been some projects come home where we’ve all enjoyed helping. Like the one where my daughter was asked to compile a book entitled This is My Life. For three weekends we spent time together looking through photos and recalling wonderful moments. And the one where she had to design a new game for her topic on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We talked about the games we enjoy as a family and what we liked about them.

For now, I’m sitting on the fence when it comes to homework – should we or shouldn’t we? Maybe that’s because all the homework is done for the weekend and we’re about to spend some quality time together! It’s a challenging issue for schools to find ways of presenting homework that is meaningful to children and their families. Let’s hope one day they get the balance right.

I’d love to know your thoughts. What is the homework situation in your house? Do you see the benefits of it? Or is it just something that needs to be done? Do your children have no homework and yet you’d like to see some? Do you think there should be more homework? Please share.

Vanessa x


Comments (25)

March 31, 2016

I think it is very important to strengthen the team child-teacher-parent; we have a lot of shared interest and we can’t leave it all to the teacher.
It should probably not be every day and not more than 10-15 minutes but I like that it forces me to keep in touch with what is taught and the progress.

Vanessa in Scotland
April 1, 2016

I agree I think it’s really important to talk to the teacher. It’s something which should be encouraged and the schools should allow. x

Nomi Olsthoorn
March 31, 2016

You know how I feel about homework Vanessa! I’m Dutch too and I feel exactly like your husband. However, here we are in the UK and indeed, spelling, reading and numbers homework is the order of the day for my five-year old. Like you, I like and see the benefits of her projects homework: assembling a poster or a book with facts about the local castle, looking up how people lived in our neighbourhood when these houses were built, 150 years ago, that sort of thing. It can allow for bonding but often it results in nagging on my part. The school days are so long already: unlike Dutch children, primary pupils here don’t have Wednesday afternoons off, so all clubs, sports and activities also have to take place late after school.
There is something to be said for repeating information in different contexts (school, home) in order to consolidate knowledge, and I do realise that the quirks of English spelling need a bit more reinforcing than the (much more transparent) spelling rules of certain other languages like Dutch and, say, Spanish. But the attitude towards schoolwork and childhood is truly one of the main reasons I would prefer my kids to grow up in the Netherlands…
I suppose luckily my daughter doesn’t know any different, so she goes with the flow (albeit understandably reluctantly sometimes)…

Vanessa in Scotland
April 1, 2016

Oh yes we can talk about this all day together…. I agree our spellings are that easy and reinforcement is good. There are so many other ways for kids to learn spellings though then write ten interesting sentences week after week. Helena’s teacher now gives them 20 tasks to complete and they can choose which one to do each week. I think it’s a great way of giving children some independence and choice in the matter. x

March 31, 2016

I’m no educational expert, but my sense is that children would do better in school, if allowed more free time: more time to be creative, relaxed and have a complete break from school work, in the afternoons / weekends. Especially when younger. xxx

March 31, 2016

As a teacher and parent I too find this an interesting question. I’ll never forget in a teaching job interview being asked my views on homework, to which I replied, ‘I actually don’t agree with it at Primary level, but would obviously follow school policy’ the interviewers’ jaws dropped! Having said that I still got the job! I think reading at home is essential and the odd child led project is great too as these opportunities are so squished out off the current school curriculum but other than that I personally think children should get a chance to switch off at home. Plus, as Einstein said, ‘Play is the highest form of research’

Vanessa in Scotland
April 1, 2016

That’s funny. I also got the same interview question and replied the same answer and still got the job! x

March 31, 2016

At my girls school homework is
Optional!!!! I opted out!!!

Vanessa in Scotland
April 1, 2016

Wow that’s really good to have the choice!

March 31, 2016

My very bright 10 year old son can turn 1 hour of homework into 5. He can’t stay focused, not because he has an attentional disorder, but because the assignments meant to reinforce learning, are the last thing that he wants to put his energy towards. He has no trouble finishing assignments in class and does very well. Homework is a battle, and is a constant source of stress for our family. There is no end in sight!

March 31, 2016

Let’s be real here. Homework is never for the child- it’s the parents that end up doing it! On one hand, it’s great seeing what level my daughter is at, on the other hand, she’s not even 5 yet and the expectation that she should be reading and writing and that after a full day at school (8.15 – 3.30) to then finally be home to ‘relax’ we are expected to get out the book bag and begin phonics. This leaves us both tired, frustrated, and just wanting to have that much earned ‘down time’.
I found that when she started falling behind, some simple flash cards on the weekend did 10 times more for her progress than writing the letter ‘f’ 20 times within the lines. And don’t get me started on those ‘diary’ projects. Can you see any 4 year old realistically taking well documented pictures of their weekend, heading to the local snappy snaps to print them out, writing a well thought out and witty caption, and sticking in chronological order?! Nope- it’s mama who is up until 10pm. Like I don’t have enough to do or other children who require some attention. I llet her stick to the decorating but this is a real Bain in my life right now! Down with homework I say.

Vanessa in Scotland
April 1, 2016

I’m with you on this one! I too am up late! Last week Florence had to write a diary of her week with her toy (she’s four). I had to take photos, print them out, help decorate the pages with stickers (once I’d been to the shops to buy them) and then help her present it. I got a good grade though!! x

March 31, 2016

Hi !
I live in France and I’m not quite sure about guidelines ; I kind of think they are more on a light side for the younger children. My son is at primary school and has every evening some 10 minutes of homework. I find this fine, he usually goes through a lesson, learns a poetry, tackles some maths. Nothing too excessive. However even in the same school, the amount varies from one teacher to another, which is to be regretted… and then again, the time they take varies from on child to another. and again from one school to another. My daughter is at “maternelle” a kind of pre-school/kindergarten, which children can attend between 3 and 6 (it is not compulsory, but nearly all children attend). There is no homework 🙂 children mostly learn to be sociable, and the “basics” : colours, shapes, size, letters and numbers…
I works well for my children at leats 🙂

Vanessa in Scotland
April 1, 2016

I did a short stint of teacher training in France and I thought they had a great balance. Helena also went to a French International School for 2 years and loved it there!

March 31, 2016

As father of three kids I feel that homework poisons the atmosphere when I come home from work, which is usually not too not long after kids came home from school or “clubs”. I have the benefit of leaving my work in the office and I am dreading to have to push my kids doing homework. Why can’t they have the benefit of “home” vs “work” I wonder?
I can’t understand that children aged 5,7,9 should spent their afternoons doing additional work for school after having spent in school all day already. If this is necessary one would think that either the teachers didn’t do their job or that children are slow compared to their peers and need to catch up. The latter can’t be true since all children have to do homework. So is it the former?
In a way it’s the parents own fault to be confronted with homework by demanding outstanding academic achievements from the schools, especially private schools for which they pay an outrageous amount of money. But on second thought, isn’t it mindboggling to first pay insane amounts of money for basic education and then having to support the people you pay? It’s like going to a five star restaurant and then having to help cook in the kitchen – who would do that as an adult!? And yet – in this circumstance we all do. Or worse: we pay tutors to do it.
All in the name of … what? In the name of “you will be thankful one day, son”? May be. But this “may be” comes at a high price – the association of learning as something that comes at the cost of freedom and playtime. I wonder how many kids look back after 10 years of school and say: My god was I lucky to have so much homework. It puts too much emphasis on school mandated themes and leaves little time to let curiosity naturally explore other areas of knowledge. I can understand that after long hours at school and homework all kids want to do is watch a movie or play on the iPad. Their brains are saturated.
The worst aspect of homework is that it forges this invisible teacher-parent alliance – even though we often do not even know the teacher very well. We take sides and adopt the agenda of a person who is not our friend and who we might – personally – not even respect or like. And still we bring his or her agenda home, into dinner time, to our weekend, thus disrupting quality time we could otherwise have with our children.
I really hate having to confront my kids (and which parent hasn’t gone crazy over enforcing homework) even though if I were a kid I wouldn’t want to do the work either. Where does that leave the loyalty of the family? What values does this project in terms of importance? Institutional demands count more than individual freedom? Shouldn’t parents side with their kids against pressure, torment, stress, academic overkill? Instead we are rather cause than relief, although only “accomplices”, executing “orders” but still – more often than not *against* our children’s will. Who do they have to turn to now, if they crack under pressure, if not their parents?

In my opinion school, and homework, are only a means to an end: to prepare kids for “life”. An essential part to be ready for life is self esteem. Self-esteem by definition cannot only depend on other people’s input, such as grades, house stars, awards etc. It’s called SELF esteem for a reason, not OTHER PEOPLE’s ESTEEM. For this, children must learn how to be proud of their own achievements. And I don’t call a 100% math score their “own” achievement. May be creative writing is something “own” even though even here writing has to follow strict rules such as story mountains, don’t use “said” etc.
I strongly believe that children who are encouraged to be imaginative, individualists, innovators and self-reliant will develop the skills to blaze their own paths, take command of a situation, take calculated risks and invest in themselves. To learn one must be able to make mistakes and accept that mistakes are part of life. School in this respect is almost antiseptic – mistakes must be avoided…

Anyway, I have been going on for too long and yes, I often wonder myself “so why do you still have my kids in this kind of school”?

At the core I welcome education and academic achievement, it’s the package not the content I am complaining about. I want my kids to be ready for life, not necessarily for a top 5 university. I am working on it…

If you managed to read until here I am glad, and – since you seem interested – I can recommend to further thought provoking inputs:
b) JK Rowling on “The fringe benefits of failure” – a great speech at Harvard University:

Vanessa in Scotland
April 1, 2016

Thanks Ben for taking the time out to read this post and to share your opinion. I loved watching the J K Rowling piece last night – such a great speech! I think it’s really important schools encourage us to talk to our child’s teachers and vice versa. Perhaps if we were asked what kind of homework we’d like to see at home it may help our anxieties. Maybe one day our government will get it right when they write the curriculums so confidently? x

Courtney in London
March 31, 2016

Michael recently forwarded me this article in the Guardian and I found it really interesting:

Before this year, our kids were at a school which didn’t believe in homework for kids until Year 5 (age 9/10), and even then the homework was not overwhelming or consuming. It was often a week-long project that you could do when you found the time (we usually did it on a weekend), rather than a nightly assignment which may cause stress and anxiety and which cuts into their evening play time. I thought this seemed to be the right age to introduce project-based homework assignments, and Easton generally enjoyed them.

Living in Asia
April 1, 2016

Wow, Ben above wrote a long one. haha ok try living in Asia, the attitude and culture is totally different. Days are much longer and children are always studying and/or doing some activity. I guess that’s where “Tiger Mom” comes from lol. I lean on loving homework, maybe it doesn’t help them, but think it needs to be there and done. We don’t nag and it’s not my responsibility. We have our children take it out of their bags and sort it out themselves. Oh and I love waking up at 5am and having them off to school at 730am. Our most productive part of the day in the morning. Their school day starts before 8:30am and home at 5pm sometimes!!

Vanessa in Scotland
April 1, 2016

It’s sounds like you’ve set really good routines in your house and your kids have a long day but they seem to cope really well with it. I guess it’s what we all get used to. xx

Living in Asia
April 2, 2016

Yes, there’s just so many thoughts and opinions on this. Do like what UK NHS says all the time….do what’s right for you! There is no right or wrong answer. As long as it works for you 🙂

April 1, 2016

I’m soooo glad we live in the Netherlands. We don’t have homework yet (my children are 5, 7 and 9) and days are long enough (and music practice is stressful enough) without adding homework to the mix.

Both my 9 and 7 year old have projects during the year (presentations on certain themes or craft projects), but these are only occasional and are manageable, as Courtney says, at the weekends (although my 9 year old would _always_ rather being playing tennis or hockey).

We are just back from Asia and there my oldest did have homework. It was a constant struggle and I didn’t feel that it improved my relationship/partnership with his teachers – homework which should have taken 10 min stretched to over 30 (but stopping at 10 min was not OK). My son is a reasonably bright child but someone who is easily distracted if he is not really engaged – going over things he has learnt already is a recipe for disaster (HCR I feel your pain). He’s actually doing better in class in his Dutch school than in China where we lived.

My conclusion is that homework is fine for some (I loved it when I was little), but for us it didn’t work and Dutch schools don’t seem to suffer from not giving it (they’re ranked 9th in the OECD 2015 survey – the UK is 20th and the US 29th).

April 1, 2016

Why has homework become the new chore?

I think school is very important for academic learning (maths, science etc) and social development amongst friends, but home time should be for whatever that child and their family want to do, right?

Whether that be a creative activity (which most schools seem to dismiss), play dates, baking or outdoor fun… Basically just letting children, be children. There is so much time as adults, when work commitments and household tasks come in to action, that being a child is such a precious time to learn, explore the world around you!

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think typical homework activities such as reading, creative storybook writing and times tables questions in the car, are extremely useful to children; but it seems schools like to overload kids with the whole homework situation, that it ultimately drains the fun out of learning and it becomes a chore.

Maybe it is just the style of homework that children get set and the quantity of it? I don’t think homework is necessarily “bad”, it just could be better…

Great post!

Fiona Napthine
April 2, 2016

I am a parent and a teacher and I feel homework is not beneficial for the child except for nightly reading and I think most parents do this with their children on a nightly basis anyway. I think children work very hard at school and learn what they need to learn and need that down time after school to play and be creative. I love the idea from one school mentioned above where homework is optional. I may suggest that in my school on Monday! I give the children in my class project based homework from art projects to history projects to just been extra active for a week to random acts of kindness as homework for a week! I try to keep it relevant and exciting but even as a teacher it can be difficult. As a teacher I find marking the homework the next day very time consuming and takes away from valuable teaching time that could be used more beneficially for the child. Homework for my daughter is a boring, tiresome chore after a long day at school for her (thankfully here in Ireland our school day is shorter than the UK) and I think she should just be playing with her brother and having fun! Great topic for discussion – thanks!

Esther in Amsterdam
April 4, 2016

Great post Vanessa!!
Indeed here in the NLs children don’t get homework until they are in secondary school. Also, children don’t learn to read or write until they are in group 3 (generally the school year in which they turn 7). I think here, we postpone the academic teaching in general — compared to for example the UK… x

April 5, 2016

My two boys (8 and almost 11) go to an highly academic private (boys) school in London. I have struggled for years with my oldest son with homework, and loathed the daily chore which should take 15-20 min, but sometimes ended up taking an hour or more. We have had long discussions about this,BUT we have never done his homework for him or even corrected their homework, I am there to answer questions in case needed.
Our oldest has now learned it is better to get it over with and actually even now in y6 he has max 30-45 min homework, some days none and barely any in the weekend. My youngest 8 and is a whole different story -when he comes home from school – he rarely has to be told to do his homework (just spelling and some math, always reading), just does it as he already has concluded this way he has more time to play. Talking to teachers in our highly academic school, they think homework is unnessary, but it is there on the request of parents!!!

The one thing I would add over having to do homework in little amounts with our kids since the age of 5/6 is that they do understand by now – nothing comes for free – you work hard, without forgetting playtime (it does not have to be one or the other as long as the balance is right, which will differ per child) – I would also comment that homework & schooling is very very different between boys and girls.

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