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School Begins, Work Begins: The Place of Homework in Learning

By Dr. Arthur Lavin

This week our children begin to start the 2018-2019 school year, all across the nation.  In a few short weeks, all children will be back in school.

We know that school is critical to the future success of our children.  Two purposes to education are quite powerful and obvious:

  1. To increase the knowledge of our chlidren so that they can be effective members of their world, informed, able to learn all their lives, able to understand the issues of their day and how to have an impact.
  2. To make a living, to have skills and credentials that allow them to secure a job that will give them purpose and sufficient resource for a good life.

Ever since our nation agreed that all its children should have these two goals provided by universal public education, a consensus has been sustained that our kids should be educated.

But once those purposes have been agreed to, the way to meet them has created controversy, and of course still does today.

How should schools be built, how should teachers teach, how should classrooms be arranged, who should be in the classroom, to meet these important goals?

There are many theories, there are many types of schools, there are few agreements.

And one of the most controversial tools used by schools to teach and educate our children is homework.

Homework

Why should the notion of homework cause any concern to a doctor, a pediatrician?

The simple answer is that from mid-August through early July, families call our pediatric office with concerns about their child struggling in school nearly every day, and the #1 reason their child struggles is with homework.   Of course, there are a large number of other ways all sorts of children struggle in school- having trouble understanding the subject, having trouble sitting still, having trouble with disruptive behaviors.  All of these symptoms are very, very common, but none is more common than having trouble with homework.

The trouble comes in the several familiar forms including:

  1. Losing track of what homework is due.
  2. Losing track of when homeowork is due.
  3. Refusing to do the work.
  4. Taking forever to do the work.
  5. And, even if the child knows what is due, when it is due, gets it done, they still can forget to turn it in.

Surely there are many children whose trouble with homework is a symptom, that is, it indicates a real problem with learning.

But this post will be taking a brief look at another question, is homework a good tool to educate, to meet those great purposes we set out at the start of this essay?

The simple answer is that at any age earlier than middle school there is little convincing evidence that homework is a useful tool, certainly not the use of a large amount every day.

There are many studies and experiences that demonstrate that the outcome of an education is very similar if the child is given large quantities of homework starting in Kindergarten versus starting in 7th grade.

If that is so, why do so many of our excellent schools give children half to several hours of homework most school nights, even starting in Kindergarten?

I don’t know the answer to this but can suggest two possibilities:

  1. Most schools feel that homework is a very valuable educational tool, and to not give it would weaken a child’s eventual depth of education.   This is a very plausible theory, the only trouble is that experience and cross-comparisons show this concept may not be rock solid.
  1. Having worked with children for many years, and their families, and their schools, I have had the thought that homework reflects a society-level worry.  That worry is that our kids won’t be smart or educated enough after all their schooling to compete to get a job in the global marketplace where they have to compete for jobs with kids from India, China, everywhere.  These anxieties feed a sense of urgency about our kid’s education that I believe fuels the homework.  Worried about our kids?  Give them more homework!

This means that schools are not the source of so much homework, as much as parents and the community putting pressure on schools to deliver measurable performance.

The problem we see with the mounting piles of homework appearing in younger and younger grades, even Kindergarten, is that many children are too stressed by it all.  They begin to feel tormented by all the work being demanded to be done every night, work that pushes aside time for play and converts time off into intense time still at work.

We know that some of the best school systems in the world, including those in Finland, have no regular routines of homework even through high school.

So, as our children all begin to return to school now, it would be wise to have compassion on them for all the work ahead, particularly if they face a lot of daily homework.

BOTTOM LINES

  1. As we bring our kids back to school, it’s not a bad time to step back and reflect on just how important a good education is to our children, and therefore, to us.
  2. Every parent wants their child to succeed, and school is a huge part of being able to succeed.
  3. Although nearly all agree with these points, few agree on how best to achieve them.  And when it comes to homework, the range of ideas is quite wide.
  4. We see so many children really suffer from the burdens of current era of very intense levels of homework from Kindergarten onward.  Educational theorists and observations show that a child can be very, very well educated with even a touch less homework.

As our kids go back to school, let’s have a bit of compassion towards them for the very large numbers of our kids who will have a ton of homework very soon.

To your health,
Dr. Arthur Lavin

 

 

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