The Low Down on Homework: Is There Too Much Today?

Too Much Homework: is homework wrecking family life?

Every Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. Here’s one on the phenomenon of too much homework–are we asking too much of parents today? See what you think!

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 behavior 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 Canadian 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?

Don’t miss a Reality Check! Sign up to receive it free in your inbox every week.

Not Your Grandmother's Math

'emmett' photo (c) 2011, susanrm8 - license: Friday my syndicated column appears in a bunch of newspapers in southeastern Ontario and Saskatchewan. And–gasp!–sometimes I actually write about stuff other than sex. Lately I’ve been preoccupied with The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, but here’s this week’s column for something different. If you have children in elementary school, and you’ve tried to help them with math lately, you may be able to relate:

When I was in grade two, I distinctly remember breaking out in a cold sweat when my teacher divided us into pairs to drill our subtraction facts. I could not for the life of me remember what 13-7 was. Nevertheless, I ended that year being able to recite all my math facts backwards and forwards, because that’s how we were taught.

Maclean’s magazine ran an interesting article recently detailing how math drills are passé. Not just that, but public schools often don’t teach long division anymore, or reinforce the other algorithms we grew up with (like add up the column and carry the 1). Today they do something more visual and more complicated.

A few years ago, our family went on a trip to a Kenyan orphanage, and our local Board of education graciously donated a complete set of grade 3 textbooks to ship over. When we showed the principal of the school those textbooks, he smiled sheepishly and said, “no, thanks.” I asked him to elaborate. Uncomfortably, he finally admitted, “They don’t teach things systematically. They spend too much time teaching about calculators. And they don’t teach the proper addition and subtraction techniques.”

As I flipped through the book to see what he was talking about, I recalled a story my nephew had told me about scoring 0 on a question on a math test. The question asked, “what is 6 times 6? Explain your answer three ways.” All he wrote was 36. That wasn’t good enough, apparently.

According to our education superiors in the government ministries, we face a math crisis because children were taught the “facts” but not the reason behind them. So today they use math manipulatives, like base 10 blocks. They use different algorithms to add things up, instead of memorizing and perfecting just one. They have lattices and grids and paper strips instead of just columns of numbers.

Through these methods, we’re supposed to produce children who can think creatively, rather than children who can just recite their times tables. And the benefit of North American education over Kenyan education, supposedly, is that our children will excel in this kind of creative thinking.

I understand. But the vast majority of our students will not be software developers or engineers. They will be interior designers, who have to calculate the surface area of a room to know how much paint to order. They will be cashiers who have to make change. Or they will install flooring, and need to know how many boards to order. That’s why I would prefer we educate people to actually know what 6 x 7 is.

In Kenya, kids who had missed out on years of formal education, and who were using scratch pads with broken pencils, sitting two to a desk, could do math in grade 5 that we in Canada don’t do until grade 8. And they don’t use calculators, either.

Look, I can drive a car. I can sit in the driver’s seat, turn the key, and steer the wheel. I don’t understand why a car works, but I can get from point A to point B.

Similarly, by teaching and reinforcing the basics, at least kids could use math, and with that practice often came understanding. Now we’re trying to teach them to understand it first, but they’re not able to use it. We’re attempting to teach kids how to build an engine, but they still don’t know how to steer a car. And how well, ultimately, will someone do if they haven’t mastered the fundamentals? Perhaps it’s time to get back to basics. That’s what our grandparents did, and they knew how to make change.

Don’t miss a Reality Check! Sign up to receive it FREE in your inbox every week!

Stressing Out our Children


Photo by openpad

I have a dear 17-year-old friend named Rachel. She is a delight; intelligent, articulate, motivated, kind, funny. We can have conversations about literature, morality, God, and just plain life. She’s in the youth program that I run at church.

But right now Rachel is completely stressed, and it’s all because of a magazine.

You see, in her senior philosophy class, she has an assignment whereby she has to create a 20-page magazine using a computer software no one has taught them how to use. The magazine must portray a philosophical theme. It must contain a table of contents, several advertisements, and several different types of articles (how-to, interview, essay, fiction).

That may not sound like much, but she showed me the prototype yesterday in church and I just gulped. They want it to look like a magazine–complete with graphics, photographs, appropriate fonts, etc. etc. And it’s 20 freaking pages.

Here’s my question: what is the educational value of this assignment? It’s a philosophy class. I can understand the teacher wanting to see if they can carry a theme over into different types of articles and ads, but then ask them to just write the articles, and do some sample ads. Why set it up as a magazine? It is not, after all, an art class or a computer graphics class.

Rachel is trying to keep her average in the mid-90s to get scholarships to universities next year. So she is putting a ton of work into this magazine, so much so that it is all she has talked about in over a month, despite the fact that she has other work. Think about real magazine editors; they work full-time to create such a magazine. Rachel is supposed to do one for homework over the course of a month.

How is she supposed to get it done? And done to her standards (she never does things halfway).

It reminds me of the time that my oldest daughter took a grade 9 French class online through our Board of Education (we homeschool, so it was her first exposure to public schooling). One of her first assignments was to create a poster, complete with graphics, that explained ten things about her. She had to write sentences (like I have one sister, or I do not have any pets), but then she needed to put pictures with the sentences and make it interesting to look at.

She spent hours on this assignment, getting the right graphics and creating a poster. But what did searching out graphics on the internet have to do with a French class? She wrote the sentences in 5 minutes flat. She didn’t learn any extra French using Flickr Creative Commons to find the right pictures. It was a make work project.

I think often teachers assign these sorts of things because they think it will make them more interesting, but all it does is add hours to homework assignments for little benefit. I have no problem with creating nice graphics, by the way–but those were not the learning objectives for the course. And in Rachel’s case, the learning objectives included understanding basic tenets of philosophy, not spending a ton of time understanding how to use the professional version of Adobe Publisher, or whatever it’s called.

The high school students I know seem to fall into two camps: the ones who do the minimum amount of work, and still pull off 75-80, and the ones who are up until 2 every morning trying to finish their entire assignment, and pull off 92s and 93s. The amount of work you have to put in to get a 93 instead of an 80 is insane. And it doesn’t teach you anything more about the subject matter.

It doesn’t begin in high school, either. I have spoken to kids in middle school and below who also had ridiculous assignments, involving copious amounts of glue and magazines and scissors and other things that did nothing to teach you the subject matter. I remember one child who had to present the multiplication tables in a 12-page booklet, teaching them 12 different ways. I have no problem with that; so far so good. But they also had to use 12 different art mediums, and they had to use different fonts and different looks for each page.

Why not just spend a few hours forcing the children to actually memorize their times tables (this child didn’t know them by heart, and this exercise wasn’t helping). We spent far less time on multiplication than this child did, but my kids can rattle off 32 * 64 or 78 * 12 pretty easily, because they learned the basics first and can do it in their heads easily. And they didn’t learn it by creating booklets with glue. They learned it through tons of timed drills.

And so I repeat: what is the point of all of this homework? If it has an educational value, with a learning outcome attached, I am fine with it. But so much of it seems like a make work project to keep the kids busy, rather than actually showing that they have mastered something significant.

I have no problem with art, by the way; what I do have a problem with is insisting that children create something visually appealing in a class that has nothing to do with that.

Our kids have too much homework, in the sense that they have too many ridiculous assignments. If they were bringing home book reports and essays and creative writing assignments and history timelines and maps to fill in, I’d be okay with it. But too much of what they do doesn’t teach the content area anyway; it just keeps them busy and–most importantly–it steals family time.

My friend Rachel has other things she’d like to do this year. She wants to work more to earn money for university, but she doesn’t have time. She’d like to socialize a bit more (she hardly has any time for that). She’d like to make it out to youth group more. She’d like to be on the rugby team, or some other sports teams. But there simply is no time.

Why are we stealing the life of 17-year-old kids with ridiculous assignments? High school should not be only about work; it should be about preparing kids for life, which includes having an active volunteer life at church, earning money, saving money, negotiating and navigating relationships, getting exercise, and spending time with family.

I hope that her teacher reads this and apologizes, because she could really use an apology right now.

Always Check Your Child's Homework

This is going around the web, and it is too funny. I just had to post it.

And here’s the note the mom wrote to the teacher the next day:

Dear Mrs. Jones,

I wish to clarify that I am not now, nor have I ever been, an exotic dancer.

I work at Home Depot and I told my daughter how hectic it was last week before the blizzard hit. I told her we sold out every single shovel we had, and then I found one more in the back room, and that several people were fighting over who would get it. Her picture doesn’t show me dancing around a pole. It’s supposed to depict me selling the last snow shovel we had at Home Depot.

From now on I will remember to check her homework more thoroughly before she turns it in.

Mrs. Smith

Isn’t that awesome? Kids can get you in a lot of trouble…

h/t NYC Educator, who h/t Schoolgal