How much homework is too much?

The NY Times ‘Quotation of the day’ is from a parent who asks this question, and that has got me thinking about how much homework children should be getting, and what it should be like.

Here’s the link the NY Times site, in case you are interested:

http://www.nytimes.com/indexes/2011/06/16/todaysheadlines/index.html

As a parent of two children, aged 8 and 11, I’ve had quite a bit of experience from the parents’ side of homework. When my daughter was 6 years old, I stayed up till 10.30pm, helping her to finish a project on dogs. At the time she wasn’t doing brilliantly in school, but the opportunity to do a report on a subject of her choice really inspired her. Although I kept telling her that she had done enough and should go to bed, she was determined to incorporate all the information and photos of different dog breeds that she’d printed out from the web. Her ‘book’ had a table of contents, index, blurb on the back, and even a bar code! She was very proud of it (rightly so) and even now, five years later, she will sometimes take it out of her special box to have a look at it.

But we’ve also had our share of very boring homework. As an educational publisher, I’m dismayed by the number of uninspiring, fill-in-the-blank worksheets (photocopied from published resources), given as homework. How is giving children page upon page of random sums that aren’t linked to their level or what they are studying in school going to help them? And just because something is ‘teacher-made’ doesn’t necessarily make it any more targeted to the child’s needs, or any more inspiring. When my son was 5 he was given a maths homework booklet that the school had produced. He could have finished it all in one sitting, but was told, no, he had to do just one page a week.

I hasten to add that just because a sheet has been photocopied, it doesn’t mean that it’s bad. I’ve seen some photocopied homework sheets with excellent, open-ended activities that have really engaged and challenged my children. Here are Brilliant Publications we try hard to make activities enjoyable, as we believe children learn best when they’re engaged. We don’t get it right all the time –when I’m in a critical mood I can flick back through some books and find sheets where I wish that we’d tried harder to think of a more creative way of presenting the activity. I am particularly proud of our Creative Homework Tasks books, written by a teacher (Giles Hughes) who got fed up with hearing the old ‘homework left on the bus/chewed by the dog’ excuses.

In addition to being a publisher, I also teach children Hebrew at my local synagogue, so I see homework from the teacher perspective as well. We only meet fortnightly, which isn’t an ideal way of trying to teach a language (but that’s the subject of another blog!), so I do give my pupils homework. They moan that they already get enough homework from school, and I have lots of sympathy with this argument. On the other hand, if they don’t think about Hebrew from one lesson to the next, they’ll never progress, so I try to think of fun activities they can do that will help their learning, eg songs, games etc. Pupils still don’t all do their homework all the time, but my success rate is getting better. Pupils are coming to lessons in the right mood to learn, remembering more, and are progressing much quicker than before.

Another bugbear of mine is that children need feedback, on all work, not just homework. It doesn’t have to be written; oral feedback is sometimes better. But they need to feel that their work is valued, know how they’ve done and what they need to do to improve. To return to my daughter’s ‘Dog project’, whenever she gets it out to look at, she always reads her teacher’s comments out loud – they still inspire her – even five years down the line.

So, in summary, I think good homework is:

•            Engaging for children

•            Targeted at the right level for the child

•            Open-ended

•            Linked to what is being learned in school, so it reinforces learning

•            Marked by teachers and feedback is given.

Do you agree? Let me know what you think.

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4 Comments

Filed under Key Stage, Key Stage 1, Key Stage 2, Key Stage 3

4 responses to “How much homework is too much?

  1. As a highschooler taking mostly advanced classes homework consumes my life. In my math class we would get about 20 problems a night out of the book, sometimes more, but the thing was it was graded on completion. That right there changes your whole attitude toward the homework. It makes me want to try to do the homework without the pressure of getting every single one right. Then in my chemistry class ,every single night unless it was a test day we would be assigned about 20 problems of what ever we were learning, but question 8-12 we pretty much understood what was going it, so a lot seemed repetitive.
    So while im doing work for those TWO classes i still have pages to read in some book for English, and reading and notes to be taken in AP world history. And of course i don’t get home from school till 5 because i play basketball, so homework takes me till 11p.m-1a.m to be completed. More if i have a test to study for.
    Though teachers claim we are not given to much work, maybe, maybe not.

    • I think you make a valid point about extra-curricular activities (in your case basketball). When it comes to applying to universities, it’s important to have done extra-curricular activities, and schools ought to recognize and acknowledge the time that these activities take up.

  2. I think part of the problem with having tons of mindless work is that every teacher will think he’s not giving that much work (ie. “Oh, 20 minutes isn’t so bad”) but when students are taking eight to ten classes, it really does add up, and the amount of time a teacher estimates it will take to do the work generally doesn’t correlate to the amount of time it actually takes. From middle school onward, I would regularly put in at least five hours of homework a night.

    In college, when I studied abroad in Russia, there was a bit of a different system. Our profs talked with each other before giving major assignments so everything wouldn’t pile up at once, and they told us that if we spent more than three hours on homework per night that we were free to stop there and go to bed, because they had given us too much. That system worked way better for me, and on most nights I was able to get all of my work done in that time frame. It was the first time in my life that I was able to sleep regularly instead of staying up extra late doing homework, and I learned a lot more from it. I think that a similar system would be very beneficial to students in the US in grade school and high school. There’s a point where homework is very helpful, but if you cross that line it turns into busywork and you don’t have the time to do any of it well.

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