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Geoff Johnson: Homework can lead to repetition of mistakes, take a toll on family life

For the majority of kids, there is life after school that need not always involve more schoolwork.
Homework adds extra pressure and can cause tension in families, especially when a parent feels that he or she should be taking on the role of teacher and “helping” with homework, writes Geoff Johnson. POLINA TANKILEVITCH VIA PEXELS

As one who has never been a fan of assigning homework at either the elementary or secondary levels, it is interesting to see that the homework debate, both pro and con, is alive and well.

Possibly it was the COVID pandemic, with some students logging into classes from home, that has had something to do with the resurrection of the homework debate.

Essentially all schoolwork, in effect, became homework during the pandemic shutdowns.

With schools in session, let’s not lose sight of the fact that for the majority of kids, there is life after school that need not always — should not always — involve more schoolwork.

According to Anne Guevremont, a researcher with the Health Information and Research Division at Statistics Canada, the majority of children and youth (86%) participate in at least one extracurricular activity. Girls are more likely than boys to be involved in non-sport developmental activities like clubs or community groups.

In other words, school and schoolwork are not the be-all and end-all of the growth and maturation in the lives of a significant number of Canadian kids.

In fact, the same report found evidence that children’s participation in organized extracurricular activities has been associated with positive short- and long-term outcomes, such as academic achievement and prosocial behaviours, and with reduced negative outcomes, such as dropping out of school and emotional and behavioural disorders.

More pen and paper schoolwork after class does not accomplish this.

If it sounds as if I am lining up for an anti-homework rant, I’m not, but I’ve always questioned the wisdom of sending kids home with work where, without the assistance of a teacher, they are likely to consolidate the same mistakes and misunderstandings that could have been corrected in the classroom.

Of course, any class work a child does independently at home must be checked by the teacher the next day and the corrections discussed with the child if the homework is to have any educational value at all. Presumably that happens, one child at a time, while the rest of the class is left with “busy work.”

Proponents of homework argue that it is common sense that for students to retain what they are learning in class, they need to practise it, that repetition is a good thing as consolidation for new learning.

No argument there, but again, supervised classroom practice ensures that students are practising the right way to solve a problem in, say, math, not practising the wrong way. Misplaced repetition of the wrong way only leads to frustration.

There are other considerations, including the negative effects of homework on family life. Homework adds extra pressure and can cause tension in families, especially when a parent feels that he or she should be taking on the role of teacher and “helping” with homework. That alone takes away from normal family relationships and causes more stress on children and parents.

And yes, there are arguments that homework helps supplement and reinforce what’s being taught in class, and that it helps teach fundamental skills such as time management, organization and task completion, as well as responsibility. Of course, for high-school-age kids, that after-school part-time job can do a better job of teaching those fundamental skills.

The school’s timetable could create a significant problem for high-school-age kids. On a linear year-long timetable, students take seven or eight courses and could be meeting seven or eight teachers per cycle.

If each of those teachers assigns homework, unaware of what kind and volume of homework their colleagues are assigning, the homework load could become counter-productive. The same applies, albeit to a lesser extent, when students are meeting four to five teachers during each of two semester cycles.

The Journal of Educational Psychology conducted a study that demonstrated that when students in middle to senior grades were assigned more than 90 to 100 minutes of daily homework, their math and science test scores actually began to decline.

To make matters worse, according to a study conducted by Lee Bartel, a University of Toronto professor, homework is useless for students who know the topic thoroughly and anxiety-provoking for students who still don’t understand the topic. This anxiety can lead to breakdowns and a dislike for school, and even begin to damage a family’s well-being.

Homework is not always a “more is better” adjunct to learning. “Homework may be the greatest extinguisher of children’s curiosity. It creates an incentive to see learning as work, rather than learning that is engaging,” says American educational author Alfie Kohn, who wrote The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.

Geoff Johnson is a former superintendent of schools.