Patti Bacchus: I give homework a failing grade—and you should give it a pass

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      I’m nostalgic about when my now-grown kids were heading back to school with new backpacks and school supplies, fresh haircuts, and new shoes. I miss their excitement over finding out who their new teachers were, and which friends were in their classes.

      What I don’t miss is their homework and the stress it inflicted on our home life.

      School days are long for little ones—and, for that matter, a lot of bigger ones. By the end of the day, my kids were tired and often cranky, and their parents sometimes were too. The kids often played with friends after school or went to organized activities—soccer practise, baseball, swimming, dance class, or squash lessons. We’d try to sit down to eat dinner together, clean up, and then get going on homework.

      It often didn’t go well and was invariably a struggle. I don’t think you could pick a worse time of day to get kids to focus on schoolwork than the early evening.

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      Some years they didn’t get much homework at all, which was great. Others, they got more, which was not.

      Much of it required our help. More often than not, it became an exercise in just getting it done, and most of the time it seemed the only thing that was learned was that school work is an irritating task that needs to be dispatched with as quickly as possible.

      Over the years, I got good at colouring in maps of Canada (really, what is the point of that assignment?) and I made a pretty impressive Tin Man once. Maybe I set a bad example for my kids by not forcing them to colour their own maps and do their own projects, and I’m sure there are kids out there who did all that and derived some benefit from it, but it wasn’t happening at our place.

      As a parent, I learned to choose my battles. Colouring in maps and making little book characters didn’t make the cut for me. It was easier to do those myself when the kids were both weary and teary and just needed a break.

      Does homework even help?

      There isn’t much research showing any benefit to giving elementary kids homework, and I’m not convinced it does much good in high school either. I’m pretty sure it does harm, though, at least for some kids. I know it did for mine.

      As a parent and, later, as a school trustee, I met many parents who wanted their kids to have lots of homework and who were convinced that more hours of work equalled more learning, despite a dearth of evidence to prove that.

      Some argue homework reinforces what’s learned at school and teaches self-discipline and good work habits. In my experience, if kids understand what’s taught in class, homework is pretty easy (but also redundant). If they don’t, homework is hell and just adds to the frustration they feel at school.

      If you don’t understand the math concept in class, struggling over the same material at home after dinner isn’t likely to improve the situation. It’s not only a waste of time that could be better spent on something useful, it can worsen negative attitudes toward school and learning and fray parent-child relationships.

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      What worked better for my kids—and, I suspect, for most others—was having time to do the work in class, where teachers could observe and support them and be able to guide them to do the work correctly. Most teachers I know prefer this approach but often get pressured by parents to send work home.

      Homework is unfair

      We were able to clear off the kitchen table, turn off the TV, keep a basket of school supplies handy, and create the best conditions possible for our kids to do homework. We had up-to-date computers and Internet access when they needed it, and we even hired a tutor to help with math homework.

      That’s not the case for many families, especially in cities like Vancouver, where families are often forced to live in cramped and crowded conditions, due to the high cost of housing. Not all parents can be home in the evening, and some need to hold down more than one job in order to be able to afford rent and food for their kids. They may not have Internet access or computers, or the money to hire tutors.

      Many parents may not have the English skills to help their kids with homework, and goodness knows a lot are bewildered by today’s high school math and science.

      Public education is supposed to level life’s uneven playing field and ensure that all kids have access to educational opportunities that allow them to meet their full potential. Having a lot of homework exacerbates the inequities that still lead to significant gaps in outcomes that correlate with family income and parents’ education levels.

      Kids with learning disabilities can be at even more of a disadvantage if they have weak processing skills that slow them down. Although some kids can whiz through their work, forcing a kid who struggles through the day in class to continue to do so at home is both cruel and an effective way to turn them off school.

      Here’s a better way for your kids to spend their evenings

      Parents will be going to “meet the teacher” nights soon, and that’s a great time to ask teachers about their homework policies. I’ve been to lots of those over the years and sympathized with teachers who faced a roomful of parents with conflicting ideas about what they wanted for their kids.

      If you get a chance, consider suggesting your family’s evenings are better spent doing things like reading together for pleasure, playing board games or cards, going for walks around the neighbourhood, cooking a meal together or baking some muffins, doing simple home repairs and projects together (learning how to change lightbulbs can be a useful life skill), or watching a movie together. If you can’t do things together—and many families can’t—letting kids spend their time reading, drawing, or whatever they enjoy works too.

      We all benefit from downtime, and our brains work better when we’ve had some rest and relaxation. With anxiety rates for children and youth at all-time highs and busy families pressed for time, it’s time to give homework a pass and enjoy the moments you get to spend with your kids.

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