Homework today is no child's play

Kelly Yang says if our children's mountain of homework does not improve test scores, as one study shows, then what's the point?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 12:22pm

I recently asked a roomful of eight-year-olds what time they go to bed. I was shocked when some said 10pm or even later. Why? Homework.

Studies show that the amount of homework given to students in the West has risen considerably over the past three decades. A University of Michigan study found students spent an average of 2 hours 38 minutes per week on homework in 1981; by 2007, the figure had risen to 6 hours 48 minutes for those in grades nine to 12, according to the National Centre for Education Statistics.

In Hong Kong, that doesn't seem like a lot. Most students I've known average much more. That could be because they are learning both English and Chinese. These, plus maths, history and science, add up to hours of revision, dictation and projects.

Any parent who has ever watched a child spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon cooped up inside, struggling to finish homework when they could be out riding their bike, can tell you just how much homework affects family life. Sure, there are some self-motivated children with excellent time-management skills who can do all their homework by themselves quickly and efficiently. But there are countless others, like my kids, who need constant reminding, persuading, and sometimes shrieking at, before it finally all gets done.

These days, homework is no longer a child's sole responsibility. The instructions on assignments now seem written for the parent. It's no wonder so many mothers sit with their child for hours after school poring over assignments until both are exhausted and near tears.

As it turns out, homework may not even be beneficial. A study in the Economics of Education Review suggests that homework in science, English and history actually has "little to no impact" on test scores. There is, however, a positive correlation for maths homework. If homework, for the most part, doesn't help improve test scores, why bother?

When I asked the eight-year-olds if they liked doing homework, unsurprisingly, everyone shook their head. However, they were also quick to say that, "You get used to it. And if you do it right and you do it quickly, it's not so bad." At eight, they had already developed their own coping mechanisms for a life involving mountains of paperwork.

Maybe that's the real point of homework. Maybe its just a way to get our children prepared for office life, where, for every fascinating project, there are countless other tedious tasks that have to be done.

One college admissions officer at a top US university told me recently: "One thing we can always be sure of when we accept kids from Hong Kong or China is that they're going to work hard. You have to hand it to these kids - they really know how to roll up their sleeves and get to work."

You also have to hand it to their mums, dads, grandparents, tutors, helpers and countless other support people in the background whose lives have been completely transformed - not always for the better - by this never-ending heap of homework.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.edu.hk