Sunday, September 29, 2013

The great homework debate continues

I finally had the opportunity to meet with the Little Man's teacher to talk about my concerns regarding homework.

We had a really productive conversation and yet I wasn't completely on board with the end result. Ultimately, his teacher indicated that the work sent home, the things beyond reading and spelling, was "just review", to use her exact words. It wasn't graded or evaluated and was meant to be practice for the children. If Jake didn't do it, that was perfectly okay with her.

It seems obvious that my follow-up question to this explanation would be, "Why send it home at all?" Sadly, she had no response other than to reiterate that the purpose of sending it all home on Monday to be due back on Thursday (rather then sending bits home everyday) was to allow parents and children to work through it at their own pace, keeping a flexible schedule that could (theoretically) work around family time and extra-curriculars. We all know how well that's working in our family.

Here's where her thinking breaks down for me. Research (Kralovec and Buell, Bennett and Kalish, Kohn) indicates that there is no achievable benefit to homework beyond daily reading and that it can even be detrimental to a child's academic success.

If this is true then even those children who may be working below their grade level are not benefitting from these "review-based" worksheets and additional practice.

I understand that the work is not evaluated, though I've heard from some teacher friends that the primary reason for this is that teachers are unable to determine how much parental help a child may have received when completing the homework and therefore cannot evaluate what the child does and doesn't know.

All of this just brings me back full circle. What's the point? Children who are falling behind need one on one assistance with the particular areas they're struggling with - not a generic worksheet given to the entire class. They need tutoring (not the same as homework), smaller class sizes and perhaps an individualized education plan. They may need alternatives to traditional teaching methods and parents need the educated guidance of professionals within the school system to help pull all this together into something that works for their child. This is true whether the child is having difficulty with one subject or ten.

Basically the Little Man's teacher is telling me that beyond reading the work she is sending home, the rest is "unnecessary". Here's what that unnecessary work is doing to our family:
  • Jake is becoming increasingly anxious in the evenings, worrying about how to complete his homework and still have time for the play time he craves;
  • He's rushing through the work without any thought to quality and/or actual memory retention of the work he's doing;
  • He's beating himself up because he can't seem to finish it quickly enough, using labels such as "stupid" and "dumb";
  • We're rushing through dinner and table conversation so we have enough time for this busy-work;
  • We're skipping out on evening walks, trips to the park, board games and yes, even a little TV time in favour of spending time on the "unnecessary" work;
  • Jake's anxiety in the morning is ramping up as he remembers that we pulled him away from his work at or before the 20 minute mark and he's therefore bringing "unfinished" work back to school. He's fearful that despite his teacher's assurances to the contrary he'll be punished for the incomplete assignments;
  • Bedtime is rushed with little or no time for stories, both ones about our days and those in book form;
  • Weekends too are full of stress as the Little Man attempts to cram in as much play time and family time as he can. Sunday evenings are a nightmare of seemingly "out of nowhere" tears and temper tantrums - I'm realizing that he's dreading the return of the work week.
We're personally spending a lot of time reassuring Jake that he is smart, he is doing well in school and that he doesn't need homework to prove that. We're making an effort to spend more time learning through play and encouraging the tangents he takes when reading aloud to us from the books he's bringing home from school. Personally I'm trying to make a conscious effort to stop rushing in general and as a family we're redefining the term "homework". Heck, we're not redefining it - we're removing it from our vocabulary altogether.

Here's what Finland is doing about it (click the link for more information and a larger graphic) . . .


What are you doing about homework?


  1. And...if she is telling you that he doesn't need to do it, but sends it home anyway, then how are you supposed to know what work needs to be done and what doesn't?

  2. Sounds like an interesting meeting. As for the other children in his class, I get why she didn't respond. I am sure that there are probably children in the class who really need the review and she is trying to evaluate where all of them stand. Just playing "devil's advocate" here, not criticizing. It is good to know that Jake doesn't have to do the worksheets, but, maybe, if there is time in a day, or he needs some "busy" work . . . . . At least now you can stop worrying about that type of homework.

  3. Because practice is very important for some children .... We cannot grade anything that goes home because there is no evidence on who did it and a lot of parents want extra work to be sent home for practice

    1. I'm not sure I agree. When it comes to homework (for children in Jk-Grade 6), research shows that anything beyond daily reading and spelling review has no discernible benefit to a child's ability to learn or remember information. If that's the case, and recent, multiple studies have shown this to be true, one could argue that the practice is doing no good and may even be harmful.

      The research took into account all children, those working at, above or below their grade level. In every circumstance the added homework showed no improvement in a child's ability to improve, maintain or exceed their grade level expectations.

      If a child needs additional practice with something, I don't believe a worksheet sent home to the entire class as homework is the answer. More one on one in school, tutoring (not the same as homework), varied learning approaches, etc. are what's needed. I'm not suggested that teachers should be the only person providing the above, but a child who needs help is beyond a worksheet.

      Parents feel, because the work is being sent home, that it's required work. So we all buckle down and try to get our tired kids to plough through it, pulling out hair as we go. Family time, time for extra-curriculars, physical activities, time for free play and down time take a back seat to the perceived expectation the homework brings to our lives.

      More and more children are growing up with serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression as uninformed parents and educators are pushed to improve province-wide test scores and the like. Finland has a highly-lauded educational system where teachers are treated with the same respect we would give a doctor here in Canada. There is no homework in Finland and class sizes are smaller, teachers are well-paid and graduation rates and university attendance are higher.

      I agree that some parents are asking for work at home - it does give us an eye into what's being done at school - but this can be accomplished in so many other ways. If my son's teacher won't stop sending home busy-work and so-called worksheets for "review" when I ask her not to, why should she continue sending it home just because another parent does?

      Parents and educators alike to need become better informed about what homework does to and for a child, based on the research.

  4. I don't send a lot of homework and when I do it is not usually mindless worksheets... I will get them do research, reading, etc ..... I do think what I send is beneficial and have many parents who feel the same, I also from the very beginning take the stance that family life and activities are there and I understand usually the students have a week to complete anything. I can tell a huge difference academically between those who do work regularly at home and those who do not.

    I have done my research and also know that reading is the most beneficial thing for then to be doing. I try my best to send home homework specific to students as often as I can and encourage my parents to let me know if there is something in particular they want more of. A lot of the research shows that in order for homework to be effective they need feedback on it and an explanation of how to do certain things.

    1. "In order for homework to be effective they need feedback on it and an explanation of how to do certain things."

      I'm not sure I completely understand what you mean, Tara, but the gist seems to be that homework geared to a specific child's needs (area of struggle, style of learning, etc.) and with the involvement of the child's parent will be effective. Am I getting that right? If so, it sounds as though we're saying something very similar.

      It's the busy-work that I object to. The work that I know and the teacher knows my child is achieving at or above grade level. The work that his teacher has admitted is "unnecessary" in the grand scheme of things.

      We still work at home, for at least 20 minutes a day (I say at least because some days the conversation related to the reading or oral presentation or special project goes off on an interesting and worthy tangent) and I believe whole-heartedly in the value of that on so many levels.

  5. I'm right with you, Carly. My kid's school sends homework home in at least 2 subjects EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Drives me crazy. I get that they want them to practice outside of class, but if they did everything that the teachers "suggest" they do (latin flashcards, multiplication flash cards, review of spelling daily, etc. etc. etc.) we would basically do nothing but school work from sun up to sun down. What kind of childhood is that?

  6. I don't understand what the point is of work that isn't evaluated or corrected and doesn't 'have to be done'. Isn't that sending mixed messages? Not to mention wasted paper! I really don't envy teachers - I know they have a lot on their plate and that they're in the tough position of meeting ministry requirements *and* parent expectations. Still and all, with all these advanced theories of how children learn and how best to teach them, why does it seem they leave school knowing less and less?

    1. Just because it isn't evaluated doesn't mean that the students aren't getting valuable feedback based on the work that they do. I do agree that some of the rote learning and flashcards are not the best use of time; however I have to disagree that appropriate homework is very valuable and has a lot of research to support it being that way.

    2. Tara, I think one way schools have gone wrong in recent years with their chasing of the latest and greatest theories of education is in abandoning rote work. Memorization is an important skill. One of the developmental stages in learning is the ability to commit large amounts to memory. So let's stuff as much good stuff into their little heads while it comes easily to them and they think it's fun. You just have to talk to a youngster about dinosaurs or the characters in Star Wars to realize they are walking encyclopaedias of terminology and lists. (Call me old fashioned, I don't mind at all!)

    3. I never said I abandoned rote work all together just pick times wisely as to when to use it. I think it was relied too heavily in the past. I use it much more in the early grades especially for things like sight words and math facts. I do love all of their knowledge some of them know all of the pokemon characters it blows me away and proof that when motivated can memorize a lot of information.

  7. So, what r u going to do when he gets into higher grades and university. Tell his teacher not to send homework home? My kids went through that and they all benefited from it learning how to use their time wisely. They learnt how to do homework and put the time into it and gained a lot of benefits from it. Kaden graduated with a 90 average , from the benefit of learning he can achieve anything with hard work, whether it was a review or or just a sheet he was to just complete. Shay is sitting in the same situation. They r not only teaching the child the work of homework but putting them or preparing them in future situations!!

  8. Because this form of communication is prone to misunderstood tone or intent, I'll preface by saying that I don't intend to be argumentative and I'm not attacking anyone or their opinions. I concede the benefits of appropriate homework, and that the younger grades are in part preparation for the older grades - each year leads into the next with commensurate increases in complexity and workload. However, the second grade is not meant to mimic high school. A student can learn the benefits of time management and the virtue of a strong work ethic without spending an hour or more with what is essentially busy work at the age of 7. A parent's involvement in their child's school work in the early primary grades should be very different from that of a high school student. I think Carly is doing what any concerned parent should do... address those concerns with the appropriate person.

  9. I will also say that I agree with what Carly did .....discussing with the teacher is the best thing you can do if you have any concerns. I think its great you are continuing to read and keeping family time as important!

  10. I don't believe that all homework is bad. But I have read the research (links to the studies I'm referring to on my blog) and I do know that work for the sake of work has little or no achievable benefits for children in JK through to Grade 4. The benefits for children in Grade 4-6 are extremely minimal.

    Homework is not the only way that children can learn self discipline and time management. Jake still does work. He reads every day, and we talk about what he's reading to ensure comprehension. He practices his spelling and works on oral presentations and lots of special projects that are assigned. In addition, any work that he doesn't complete at school is finished at home.

    I am challenging the pervasive thought, however, that all homework is beneficial and helpful. However, when Jake's teacher tells me that some of the work she's sending home is unnecessary (her word, not mine), then I will question the reasoning behind it.

    Finland, highly regarded for their education system and a country that is leading the world in terms of grade point averages, high school and university graduation rates and standardized testing results, doesn't give homework in elementary school at all and in very minimal amounts in high school.

    I can't stress enough how much I believe in the value of reading (fiction and non-fiction for all age groups), spelling, etc. It's the "mindless" worksheets that even the teachers are placing little or no value in - otherwise why would they be labelling them as "unnecessary"?

  11. Hi Carly!! I wanted to say that I'm enjoying your posts about homework ... But I'm sure you are not enjoying writing them!! (Or at least would rather be writing about another topic!!) I have loved everything you have written - and agree with everything you have written. Your points are valid and it speaks to a bigger issue of sound pedagogy in the classroom. I love how you have approached it all - respectfully, informed, with understanding, and with the goal of not eradicating homework, but rather looking for a solution that is beneficial to everyone (what do the children need??)

    Would you mind if I shared your blog with someone who works at our board office? She is the coordinator of Early Years for our board. She has been working with teachers on looking at their pedagogy and reflecting on whether their teaching strategies are good for all children in the class. For example: doing "letter of the week" in grade one or kindergarten. Why would you spend a week on one letter of the alphabet when they need all the letters to read and write? (And you get to "z" at the end of the year) Or when 18 out of 20 children already know everything there is to know about that letter?

    The same is true with homework, and that is the point you made ... If Jake doesn't need it, then how many others don't need it?? Why waste time and resources when they can be spent in a much more effective and efficient way? By sharing your blog with her, I hope that she would be able to bring this issue to "the table" in their department. I think it speaks to a bigger issue... Not just homework.

    Keep at it!! This is a fight worth fighting ... And I know you're not alone in your thinking!

  12. I have to agree discussion like this is great and I agree with Carly .... Reading at home is so important !!!!!

  13. I have to weigh in here to say what a wonderful exchange this is. Everyone is so calm, informed and kind. If we rant the world, people, things would be GOOD!

    When I was a teacher I didn't see much use in HW. The studies I saw didn't point to much value and I was privileged enough to teach in schools where you didn't need to ask parents to read with their children - it was a given.

    Now, as a parent, I value HW time. My daughter has just started school and her KG sends home a worksheet every night M-Th. I get to see how she works and encourage her to do her best - she tends to do the least amount necessary! But, I'm glad there isn't a great deal of busy work - that would be so trying!!!

  14. I agree that receiving homework does give me, as a parent, a great glimpse into both what my child is doing at school and insight into his work habits.

    In JK and SK the only work that ever came home were completed assignments. No homework except for show and tell preparation. I would have liked to have seen a little more, in part because I was suddenly missing out on a huge part of Jake's life while he was in school.

    I have to say now, between the valuable work that does come home, the numerous newsletters and other parent-teacher communication (agendas, etc.) and the time I spend volunteering at school I feel like I have a decent grasp of my son's strengths and weaknesses (related to school work) and enough knowledge of the day to day learning taking place.

    I'm over the worksheets - or at least these particular ones.

  15. Great writing Carly, esteem, and confidence will do more for him than a grade in life.

  16. I like how you are trying to snowplow your child's path and defend the path you have chosen for your child to walk upon. Unfortunately, life isn't that way. Isn't the goal to teach children how to navigate life successfully with all the 'unnecessary' demands and requests life can throw? Teach them (over the course of your parental years) how to balance their self needs (play-time) with the other life demands that aren't always that fulfilling but a necessary evil (i.e. work, mow grass, laundry, balance checkbook, etc.) While that specific homework is said to be unnecessary by the teacher, there's a bigger lesson at work in doing it.

    1. Absolutely! The goal is to teach children how to successfully navigate life! Research has shown, however, that the part of a child's brain needed to balance their self needs (play-time) with the rest of life's demands doesn't develop until they're around 10-12 years of age. So asking a child to plan out a schedule for themselves whereby they spend some time working on homework and some time playing is literally asking them the impossible.

      And I'm not advocating no homework. My son still does homework every night, even when there's nothing "due" the following day. He reads, spells, does math assignments, french, gives oral reports on the books he's reading, works on special projects, etc. etc. Much of that is assigned by his teacher, some of them are things I know he needs to work on.

      What IS the bigger lesson here? My son spends a fair bit of his day doing things that aren't necessarily fulfilling for him but are a "necessary evil". In his world it's things like a morning routine to get out the door to school on time, learning things at school he's not necessarily interested in but will serve him well over the years, doing his assigned chores around the house and helping out with his little brother.

      I'm trying to balance that part of his life with his need for play. Once again, I go back to the research. Play is a child's job. It's their primary means of learning and shouldn't be devalued.

      Research has proven time and again that some of the homework required of children in Kindergarten through Grade 6 isn't helping in any way (including teaching this "bigger lesson", because the research looked at that too) and may actually be harmful.


    This is what I'm trying to get it . . .