No Homework, More Family Time for NZ Primary School Students

The cat ate my daughter's homework. Really. The little guy ripped it from her book, chewed it up and spat it out with a little measure of disdain. "There", he seemed to say, "grade that!"

It was a rather satisfying metaphor for the growing tide against the drudge of homework.

Perhaps he sensed the rebellion.

A recent survey found the majority of kids were stressed out by homework, sometimes to the point of making them ill.

Students, teachers and parents are starting to ask: Why? Why are kids putting in a six-hour stint of learning then coming home to do more?

Why are parents having to badger a child who has been in school most of the day, to keep at it? Why are teachers spending time setting and marking yet more work?

There are plenty of schools taking a less traditional approach to homework.  

Take Waitākiri Primary School. It sets what it calls 'Real Challenges', a concept adopted from the former principal and educationalist Neill O'Reilly. 

It encourages children to complete a number of tasks throughout the year, including making meals for their families, exploring the outdoors, camping and tramping, dance, visiting the elderly, being creative in the arts and environmental-based activities. Children are also encouraged to design their own challenges. 

"We said, what are the cool things you are doing and how can we acknowledge those rather than us telling you what to do? And it was entirely optional," says O'Reilly, who is now principal at Kowloon Junior School in Hong Kong.

His policy is strictly no homework. None. Zip.

There's still a myth that homework works despite a tide of research saying it doesn't, he says.

There's a feeling of 'keeping up with the Joneses', where parents fear their child will be left behind if they don't get them to knuckle down to their homework each night.

"That's why educators have an obligation and responsibility to educate families on the facts about the impact of homework. We know categorically it doesn't make the difference they think it does."

He is eternally surprised when he sees schools still assigning work.

"Internationally there's some pretty sound research now that shows, particularly in primary school, that homework has a neutral or negative impact, but there are large pockets of schools ignoring the research and the facts and trotting out homework."

There was some evidence that purposeful, meaningful learning experiences at home could have a benefit on academic outcomes at secondary school, he adds, but if you look across the board at the research, particularly at the Scandinavian countries where they don't give homework to their high school students, they are still achieving in the top five of the OECD ratings. 

"Finland was number one for some time and their stance is; start school later, fewer hours at school and no homework. They don't do tests and exams all the time either. It's a whole different mindset."

The list of negative impacts of homework is long, says O'Reilly, who also practises the no-homework policy at his current school: Stress on the family, robbing children of their time to play or do their other activities, irrelevant work assigned.

"The most important thing to consider is that our [kids] are doing 25 hours a week at school. What more do we want them to do?''

There's something to be said for letting children just be children rather than sitting them down to do meaningless homework, he says.

Like most educators, he promotes reading in the home. 

But daily spelling lists? They're a waste of space, he says. 

"Memorising how to spell words is not an effective way to become an effective writer. The best ways to kill the joy of writing is to constantly focus on the spelling and their grammar.

"Our fixation with homework is an easy default. There's a concept out there that kids don't write or spell as well as they did 20 or 30 years ago but it's a popular myth not grounded in any research."

When O'Reilly made a stance against handing out homework most parents were grateful, shaking his hand at the school gate and thanking him for giving them back their family time. There was the odd exception but the response was overwhelmingly positive, he says.

For most parents homework is a major stress; their children would leave it to the last minute or didn't do it at all because their teacher was inconsistent around marking it. 

So when the 'nonsense' of homework was dropped, there was utter delight in parents being advised instead to spend time with their kids, to take them to sports activities, to play games. That's all learning, he says. 

He believes the overarching message from schools needs to be to enjoy some reading with your child then do all the other things that build positive, happy families.

Boredom and play and rest time for the brain are critically important for our children, he says. "We need to give our children a break and say just go and be a child, just enjoy being."

Homework is a hotly contested area, says Professor John Hattie, a researcher in education, and many parents judge the effectiveness of schools by the presence or amount of homework.

Studies revealed that for primary pupils there was a correlation of near zero between time spent on homework and achievement.

Liz Heatley, principal of Sacred Heart Primary School in the Lower Hutt suburb of Petone, says her school follows Hattie's approach, viewing homework at primary level as ineffective.

Her school has adopted O'Reilly's home learning challenges, creating its own optional programme of activities including community, arts, extracurricular activities, and help around the home, for which they can receive badges and certificates at the end of the year.

About 30 out of the school's 165 pupils completed the optional activities last year.

Heatley observed that in the past, homework was always inconsistent, both with children completing it and teachers marking it. 

Parents would get cross if their child did the time but didn't get the mark. Teachers were keeping students in at lunchtime to slog it out with their unfinished homework. 

It didn't make any sense.

"It was stressing out children and certainly stressing out parents who were often helping their children with homework and sometimes even doing it for them."

But children aren't going home to complete freedom. In fact, there's quite a to-do list. Reading, spelling and basic facts are part of their home-learning tasks, as is 20 minutes a night on a maths online programme for year 4-8 students.

New entrants have reading and letter recognition homework every night. Kids are sent home with religious homework on holy days, of which there are many.

Whoa! Back up the school bus, this all smells like homework to me.

Heatley is adamant, though, that her school's approach is low key compared  with others'.

At Ponatahi Christian School in the Wairarapa town of Carterton, principal Peter Bertram takes an unapologetically traditional approach to homework.

All students at the school, which goes from new entrants to year 13, get nightly homework. Secondary school students are expected to do 1 to 1-1/2 hours of revision-based homework a night. 

"Students who think school stops at 3 o'clock are going to struggle. They are going to get mediocre results and we're certainly not going to see any merit points," he says.

"After school their time is their own time but if they want to do well and their homework is targeted, a lot of good can come of it.

"It's not a lot of time compared to [spending] 15 hours a week on social media, which is not uncommon with college kids."

Primary-level students are expected to do half an hour a night of reading,  maths and spelling with a parent.

"Teachers don't have time to do half an hour one-on-one with each student. If parents can, you get great results."

Bertram concedes that his approach is more formal than most schools but says it is not compared with many schools in other OECD countries.

"Our education system is on the back foot compared with other OECD countries because of our lax attitude to homework."

Parents of the 103 students were generally behind the idea of formal homework, he says.

Aside from reading to, or with your child, is there merit in no homework at all?

Scott Feisst has taught at primary level for 20 years and he's done with homework, consigned it to the naughty corner, never to be allowed out again.

A combination of research and a general lack of participation from students caused him to wonder what the point of it all was, so five years ago he pulled the plug.

He encourages children to read every night – stories, newspaper, comics, anything – but that's it. No basic facts, worksheets, revision or spelling.

Spelling lists are pointless, says the Selwyn Ridge Primary School teacher.

"The kids might get 10 out of 10 at the end of the week but they'll have forgotten the words they learned a month on.

"My kids have so much going on after school that if they come home and have to do homework they have no family time. It just puts stress on families and the kids aren't really learning anything.

"I encourage them to play board games, help in the kitchen, learn these social skills around the house rather than have them sit at the table, keep quiet and do their homework."

When his own seven-year-old gets homework Feisst tells him not to do it. Instead they play – Monopoly, Yahtzee and other mathematical games –  games where the learning comes naturally.

Forcing a child to do homework creates a negative perception of learning, he says.

"Adults come home and expect to be finished for the day and spend time with their families. Why should kids have to carry on with their schoolwork outside of school hours?"

"It's a kid's right to be free after a day of learning at school. Their brains need a break, they need a rest. They need to switch off, to spend time learning other skills – kicking a football around, riding a bike, going to friends' houses, spending time with mum and dad just talking, playing a board game, going for a walk.

"Research shows that kids who switch off and spend time outdoors being creative show more growth and improvement than the ones being forced to do homework.

"We want our children to grow up fit and healthy and that's not going to happen sitting at a table after school working when they have already been doing that for six hours," he says.

The reaction from parents has been most supportive, though there are the ones who say they are looking forward to a teacher who will assign homework to their little cherubs.

And the kids? Well, Feisst didn't make it to the finals of the Teacher of the Year Award in 2017 for nothing.

We can thank space exploration and the Cold War for our modern obsession with homework.

Sputnik, a 22-inch, 184-pound, manmade satellite, which the Soviet Union launched into space in 1957, has a lot to answer for on that front.

It marked a sea change in the concept of school work at home.

In Closing the Book on Homework: Enhancing Public Education and Freeing Family Time, John Buell says that event was a catalyst or excuse for major long-term changes in the educational landscape.

America flew into a panic that its children were not achieving at the same rate as Soviet kids.

Amid a growing paranoia that Soviet education was superior, students were suddenly inundated with homework assignments, bringing a 50-year trend in less homework to an abrupt and infuriating end. And the world followed suit.

But there's been a shift in attitude. 

It's time to question the worth of homework and the impact it has on students, parents, whānau and teachers, says Alison Kearney, associate professor at Massey University's Institute of Education.

In her research Homework Done? A study of New Zealand Students', Teachers' and Parents' Experiences and Perceptions of Homework, published last year, Kearney found more than a third of teachers and parents were increasingly doubting the value of homework.

Kearney approached every school principal in New Zealand to take part in her study. Fifty-six schools participated, involving 424 students, 755 parents and 193 teachers.

Students overwhelmingly agreed that homework made them "frustrated and tired" and didn't leave time for other activities after school.

But the results from the survey on children from year 0-13 were conflicting; while almost 80 per cent of students found it stressful, more than half believed it was important to get and complete homework.

"It's been so deeply ingrained into the culture of our society that it has gone unquestioned for so long," Kearney says. "Anecdotally there has been evidence that the impact of homework can be detrimental, especially those from low socio-economic backgrounds – those who might not have access to the things they need to be successful in their homework, like  [the] internet, a computer, time with someone to help them, a place where it might be quiet to work."

It's important we listen to what children have to say about homework because it affects them the most, she says.

"New Zealand has been severely criticised by the United Nations for not listening to the voice of children around policies that actually affect them so let's listen to what they are telling us about homework."

One student talked about staying up until 11pm doing a social studies project because their teacher only gave them a day to complete it.

"... Then I got up at 4am the next morning to complete it. My mum was horrified and it was stressful on me because I love achieving well, but also love my sleep," the student lamented.

Some of the comments from parents about homework were scathing of the practice.

"Young teenagers are tired all the time and after a full day at school they need to wind down and have a break. Homework adds up to an adult's full day at work. It can make for a stressful situation if they are not organised and don't get it done on time, " said one parent.

"My child has stopped her extracurricular activities to make more time for senseless computer based homework. We fight about when it gets done. Our family time gets interrupted with pointless work," another remarked.

Those in the positive camp thought revision homework was beneficial and gave students more confidence in the classroom.

So as the first term for 2018 begins, the thorny issue rears its head again for parents, teachers and students.

O'Reilly has some advice for parents and caregivers whose children are getting pressure to do homework: "Ask to see the research-based evidence that shows doing homework is going to benefit their child's learning, their wellbeing and their ability to be a self-regulating learner and they will struggle to find it."