Is it time to do away with homework?

Is it time to do away with homework?

Posted: 18 May 2016

When Sun Valley Primary in Cape Town made a decision to ban homework last year it stirred up a heated debate, and the discussion has by no means settled.

To those of us who grew up in an era when nobody dared question the existence of homework it can seem somewhat shocking to consider doing away with it. The first questions that come up include:

  • How will children practise and reinforce their learning?
  • How will they learn responsibility if they don’t get the chance to work on their own?
  • How will they get through the syllabus?

But advocates of the no-homework approach make the point that learners are often overburdened with work and that the emphasis on good grades ignores other important dimensions of learning such as social and emotional skills.

The case for doing away with homework

The principal of Sun Valley Primary, Gavin Keller, explains that one of their reasons for looking at the homework question was the observation that the current system was creating stressed learners rather than well-balanced individuals. After 6 or 7 hours of school it was felt that there just wasn’t time to do more work and live a creative and balanced life. So they restructured their programme to make sure that existing school hours were used more effectively. This involved the introduction of reading, personal performance tasks and revision for the assessment weeks each term, effectively bringing homework-like activities into the classroom.

According to Keller, the move has resulted in increased grades and greater learner engagement, not to mention being a hit with parents.

The point has also been made that for homework to be of benefit, it needs to be supervised by a parent or caregiver who has the available time and the required knowledge. But how many families are in that position today? 21st Century parents are busier than ever so they often simply don’t have the time. And then in South Africa and some other developing countries we have situations where family structures are not at all conducive to homework and study. Think of how many South African learners are actually caregivers in their own homes and have a long list of domestic duties to get through each day.

Supporters of the no-homework movement also point out that for homework to be effective, all learners in a class need a similar level of resources. But how do you do that in a country where many learners don’t have access to computers, books, libraries or the internet? This ends up discouraging those learners who lack resources.

Problems with the no-homework solution

While the no-homework solution seems to appeal to many learners and parents, one shortcoming might be that it seems to depend on having well-trained teachers and an optimal teacher-learner ratio. And that, as we know, is a luxury in South Africa.

Ironically, doing away with homework might only work in those schools where students are best equipped to actually do homework and and are disciplined enough to self-study.

Another consideration is the question of what happens if a learner changes schools and goes from a non-homework school to a homework school. Will they be unprepared for the extra workload? This might be especially difficult if the learner goes from a non-homework primary school to a homework high school.

Are we asking the wrong question?

It’s tempting to adopt a fixed position on the question of homework and decide that one has to be either for or against it. But this leaves us in an impasse. Perhaps we should rather change the question and ask something more solution-focused, for instance: How might we encourage practice, reflection and self-directed study in a way that engages learners, builds confidence and leaves sufficient time for rest and play?

Sun Valley has found what seems like one workable option – but there must be others. So let’s hear from you – how do you feel about homework, and what would you like to change or keep the same?

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