Class Action: quality homework should be balanced with downtime

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 February, 2013, 4:06pm

My son is only seven and gets several lots of homework a week. I understand that he has to practise Chinese, but he is performing well in the other subjects and the activities he brings home seem mindless repetition of things he can already do. There is little time left for him to read for pleasureand follow his own interests. Are these large amounts of homework really necessary and beneficial for a child so young?

Some educational research indicates that homework makes little difference to a child's ability in most areas of the curriculum and, in the worst case scenario, can actually turn students off learning. However, schools in Hong Kong are under almost constant pressure from many parents to give large amounts of homework. Academic expectations are high and parents like to feel that their children are "usefully occupied" after school.

It is natural for children as young as your son to want to play or follow their own interests after a long day at school. But many well-meaning parents don't realise the importance of creative and social play for a child's development. Research also shows downtime can increase performance and concentration when at school. Making time for physical exercise can also be undervalued by parents.

I am sad to hear that your son's reading time is being compromised. In my opinion, time for reading should be a priority at this age and should be considered not just "homework" but a valued and enjoyable family activity. This is the time when children develop key reading and comprehension skills and, most importantly, build a lifelong love of reading - the cornerstone to academic success.

If you think your son's homework is excessive or irrelevant, voice your views so that the school can respond appropriately. Schools generally have a homework policy with clear guidelines and objectives. While there are schools that have rigid requirements, others design their homework timetable to give flexibility for different family situations, allowing work to be completed during the week or at weekends.

I frequently hear from parents that homework has a negative effect on family life. Some parents hire tutors to help because their children simply will not listen to them.

This can be counterproductive. Children who generally complete their homework independently and manage their own time with little interference from parents tend to be more successful in the long run. This does not mean that parents should not be available to help if the child gets stuck or needs advice.

Homework, if set at all, should focus on reinforcing and consolidating what has been learned in class. However, there can be a fine line between that and mindless practice of something that is too easy and therefore pointless. Teachers often see homework as a tool for instilling a work ethic in order to develop independence and time-management skills.

When teachers have the opportunity to review homework assignments promptly they can assess its value to individual students and double check that concepts have been understood (although this can be unclear if parents/tutors have helped). It can also be valuable in helping parents understand what their children are learning in school.

There are strategies that can help students complete homework quickly with as little pain as possible. These include putting off fun activities until homework is completed and making sure that children have a comfortable, uncluttered workspace free of distractions such as television or siblings. Controlled access to the internet and general access to the computer should be restricted. Some children are self-disciplined and well organised; but every child has a different level of commitment and concentration. Some prefer to get homework over and done with while others need downtime after a busy day.

Getting a work-life balance is important for everyone. It is impossible for schools to please all parents where homework is concerned. Schools need to think carefully about what and how much homework is being set and the pedagogy behind it. They can also benefit from regular feedback from parents. In the end, it is the quality of homework that is much more important than the quantity.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school