Toronto mining company executive David Bryson can well understand why his three children often like to relax after a full day of classes before hitting their homework.
"My wife [Caron] and I try to give the kids some discretion to decide when they want to tackle the homework, because sometimes they feel they need a bit of time to unwind when they come home from school; I know I feel the same way when I get home from work," says Mr. Bryson. Their son Cian is a Grade 6 student at Royal St. George's College for boys, and daughters Daragh and Criona are in Grades 8 and 5, respectively, at The Linden School for girls.
The Brysons are among families giving more thoughtful consideration to homework demands, as questions mount over how much and what type should be assigned to students – if at all. It's a divisive topic among families and educators alike, and of particular importance to private schools, which are known for their rigorous academic, grade and extracurricular standards.
What fuels the debate is the fact that research findings on homework's merits are all over the map. Some studies conclude take-home assignments have educational value, and can hone time management and other skills important for postsecondary aspirations and reaching career goals. Other research indicates homework, especially in the early grades, can even negatively affect learning by placing added pressure on young people juggling school, after-class activities and spending time with family and friends.
Schools don't typically set homework guidelines for teachers, but the long-held guideline is to multiply each grade by 10 minutes to come up with a daily target.
"There's not a much better formula than that," says Hal Hannaford, headmaster at Selwyn House, a boys' school in Montreal for Grades 3 to 11. "So by Grade 6, a student is getting about an hour of homework a night, but remember really good students work hard, and do a lot of extra stuff at home on their own."
Cian Bryson estimates he gets 30 to 45 minutes of homework a day – although teachers may give some school time to work on it – and that total doesn't include practising piano and other instruments, something he happily does as he's aiming for a career in music.
Cian feels some of his homework helps him academically, but he echoes the thoughts of many students when he says: "I don't really see why students should be getting homework because we already do work at school."
It's not an unreasonable comment, given a handful of schools are adopting no-homework policies, and countries such as Finland – its students rank among world leaders in reading and math marks, for instance – don't emphasize after-class work.
While the debates over homework continue, there is a move toward assigning more meaningful, purposeful homework, as well as efforts to find ways to take the sting out of it.
At Toronto's Linden School, for girls from Grades 1 to 12, science teacher Beth Alexander listened last year when Sara Chiarotto O'Brien had a brainstorm during a Grade 7 class discussion on Ontario's proposed cap-and-trade emissions policy on climate change.
"A lot of the girls in our classes were telling me how overloaded they were in homework, and I thought, 'What if we could put a cap on it ... as a way to be able to control the amount of homework we get from each teacher?' " Sara, now 13, said recently as she prepared to enter Grade 8 this year.
After Ms. Alexander encouraged Sara to follow up on her cap-and-trade homework idea, Sara teamed with classmate Lia Silver this summer to develop a plan that is being tested in Grade 8 classes this school year. Essentially, teachers share with each other how much homework they're assigning to their students – so if one teacher asks students to spend an hour on after-school work one night, another teacher may reduce the amount of homework given to his or her class.
Measuring success of the project will depend on whether students find they're better able to handle their homework and feel less stressed about it, says Sara, adding it's hoped the cap-and-trade approach will expand to other grades. "I think it has a lot of potential and I hope other students see it as a good thing," says Lia, also 13.
Many schools emphasize easing students' overloaded schedules, which can have a negative impact on not just academics, but also personal growth and well-being.
But that's not to underestimate the important role homework can play in the lives of many students, stresses Mr. Hannaford.
"The reality is there is a work ethic that has to be kept in mind – we know that hard workers are going to do well," he says. "It would be hard getting into medical school if you're not doing a lot of homework. If you're not used to that, you won't get in.
"Still, we want homework to be meaningful, to have a value, and be constructive and helpful," he adds. "We always try to work a balance."
Lana Ignjatovic, in her sixth year at Selwyn House, where she teaches math to Grades 9 to 11, has been researching all angles of homework for years. She completed a project titled "Rethinking homework" for her master of art in teaching and learning studies, and has been surveying fellow teachers.
Ms. Ignjatovic believes in the value of homework, but says teacher collaboration (in the vein of Sara and Lia's cap-and-trade efforts) is important in keeping things manageable for students.
"I still give homework, since in senior school math, my research backs me up that this is helpful," she says. "But I also talk to students a lot more than I did before. I don't want them to struggle with homework and stress that they don't know how to do it."
Ms. Ignjatovic, who grew up and attended school in the former Yugoslavia, where homework was essentially non-existent, says she was shocked after moving in 1996 from Russia to Canada, where her two sons were born, about how quickly they were thrown into the homework fray.
"I was really surprised a child in the first grade could have any homework, in fact," says Ms. Ignjatovic, whose now-teenage sons went to the same public elementary school, and are attending separate private high schools in Montreal.
"But when I became a teacher myself, I saw another side of it," she adds. "As a teacher, I want my students to be good in their subjects and feel I have a responsibility to do the best I can.
"There are positive sides to homework, as long as there's deepening interest and understanding coming from it," she says. "And I personally see teachers paying attention to what they're asking kids to do after school. They aren't just giving them repetitive worksheets."
Linden's Ms. Alexander, for one, assigns only homework that is "focused," and if there's a good reason to do so.
"If a student comes in with a gap in math, for example, I might introduce homework to address that gap, but also in conjunction with extra help."
Homework has its fair share of proponents and opponents, owing in part to lack of research consensus. Here are the findings of just two recent large-scale studies – one backing each side of the argument:
An OECD report assessing Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores of 15-year-olds from 65 countries found students in higher-income families spent an average of 1.6 hours more weekly on homework than their peers in lower-income families in 2012, and doing more homework commonly resulted in better test scores. The report, released in 2014, also notes students across the board spent an average of about five hours a week on homework (down about an hour from 2003), about the Canadian average, with lows reported in South Korea and Finland, at two and three hours, respectively, and a high of 12 hours in Singapore.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Education in 2014 found 56 per cent of 4,317 students from 10 high-performing high schools in California (93 per cent of the students, who were from families with a median household income of more than $90,000 (U.S.), went on to postsecondary education) cited homework as a primary reason they were stressed. Stanford University researchers found too much homework (more than about two hours a night, as defined by previous research) can be counterproductive.
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