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Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column was more local in nature, so I thought I’d rerun this one from 2006.

Homework CrunchFor seven years, this was the reigning column—the one that received the most comments and feedback, only to be surpassed by Brat Is Not a Learning Disability. I didn’t think this column was anything special when I wrote it, but I obviously hit a nerve.

I’ve been conducting an informal poll with all the thirtysomethings I run into lately, asking, “when you were in elementary school, did your parents help you with homework?” I have yet to hear anyone answer in the affirmative. I don’t remember even having homework before high school, except for special projects. We were expected to get our work done in class.

And yet, every person I talk to today says that homework takes up a ton of everyone’s time. Now, I’m not the best one to weigh in on this because we homeschool. But I do know what my friends and family tell me. My sister-in-law’s biggest complaint is that the kids aren’t taught the material before it arrives home. Recently her second grade daughter was given a project on buoyancy, but the teacher hadn’t spent time going over what makes things float, nor had she given the kids any clue how they were supposed to do this experiment. That was for the parents to figure out.

In other words, the expectation is that children will not do their homework alone. That’s a far cry from what happened when I was eight.

Another friend had a horrible time last year when her daughter was in grade 6 and struggling through her math homework. My friend sat down with her, and taught her the best she could how to do it, and the child did eventually arrive at the right answers. The next time my friend visited the school, though, the teacher took her aside and reprimanded her. “You’re teaching her wrong,” she was told. “You have to let me teach her.” My friend let fly a few well-chosen words about how if the teacher had been teaching her in the first place such a thing wouldn’t have happened, but I don’t think her experience is unique. Many kids simply aren’t learning in school.

Part of this certainly must be because family life has become more chaotic so that kids aren’t as well behaved. It’s very hard to teach even a small class of 21 if you have two or three behaviour problem kids in it. Another reason is that they’re cramming stuff in the school day that was never there when I was a kid. We weren’t taught conflict resolution or health and safety or touchy-feely things. We were just taught math and spelling. And we learned it, too. Maybe today there’s just not enough time.

Or is it computers? When we were in high school we handed in everything hand-written. Now that computers are commonplace, there’s pressure on even third and fourth-graders to hand in reports typed, with a pretty cover page. That means Mom does the typing, and so the homework falls on her.

Yet what effect does this homework push have on children? Studies seem to show that homework doesn’t have an appreciable effect on their grades in the elementary years, and excessive homework may even poison the school experience for many kids. But other studies show that kids have less homework today than they did a decade ago. So I truly can’t figure out what’s going on, except to look at the families around me and realize that for them, this surely is getting out of control.

I truly don’t understand all the factors, but I am curious, because the whole thing seems to me like a big waste of time. Why should kids have to go to school for seven hours a day, and then do homework for an hour a night while they’re still so young? When are you supposed to have family time? When do kids just play? And what good is it doing society if all over the country tonight, hundreds of thousands of fourth grade parents are honing up on ancient Egyptian funeral rites, or learning that a Kleenex box will float but a ball of silly putty won’t? Don’t we have better things to do, like playing Monopoly together or taking a spring hike? After all, if our kids aren’t learning in school, then what is school for?

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