Literacy · Teaching Reflections · Topics for Parents and Students

Should we follow Finland’s lead and abolish homework?

Homework Hell

It’s 7:32pm, and I’m ready to pull my hair out. My husband has been out most of the night helping my Dad, and I’ve been on homework duty. Sigh. Double duty: school and piano homework.

My homework battle started at 4:30pm with a peace offering: when do my adversaries want to do homework – before or after dinner? They choose after, enjoying their freedom until the inevitable dinning room table showdown.

5:30pm: the clinking of empty dishes signals the end of dinner and the pre-battle ritual begins. “Ok, guys, homework time.” Cue the excuses: “I think I forgot my zippy” chimes one kid; “I have to go to the bathroom first”pipes in the other one. Ugh. Here we go.

5:45pm: with excuses run dry, we settle in at the table. Since my children are 5 and 7, school homework isn’t something they can do on their own, so I try to work with one child while giving the other one a small task to do on their own. Today, this leads to one kid fooling around or talking incessantly to me while I try to work with the other one.  At the end of the school day, they both have the attention span of ants, so something as simple as reading a 10 page book with two words on each page takes about 10 minutes. I’d rather listen to nails dragging on a chalkboard; it is painstakingly frustrating.

6:30pm: after bouncing back and forth between both kids, we’ve finished school homework: books read, vocabulary words read and written, math calendar/learning calendar activities done, zippy’s checked and pizza forms signed. On paper, their homework should take a third of this time, but when you factor in the attention span issue previously discussed, socializing with each other and vying for my attention, as well as their general lack of interest it progresses at the rate of paint drying.

6:30-6:45 break time for everyone to prepare for battle #2. I spend this time meditating with my favourite phone app., Calm and praying that my husband comes home soon to keep one kid out of the study while I sludge through piano homework with the other one.

On to stage 2: piano homework. The little guy is first as he listens better and puts up less of a fight (I like to win a small battle and gather energy for my more challenging war that I know will drain my very last bit of energy). Since we’re at the end of piano practice week (lessons are tomorrow), he does well and we’re done in 15 minutes. On to my final mission.

7:00pm: I’m fading fast but feel like I can push through the final showdown – my 7 year old’s piano practice. Tonight is actually a better night than usual – no tears or extensive yelling/threats from me to stay on task “or else”. She has 3 pieces to play 3 times each, as well as scales, sight lines and her composition (a piece of her own that she is writing). 3o minutes later, we both breathe a sigh of relief: the homework battle is done…….for now…..

What the Research Says

The experts really haven’t nailed this one down. A very well researched article on the Centre for Public Education website notes that homework has flipped between being ‘in fashion’ and ‘out of fashion’ consistently since the late 1800’s. A variety of factors have caused its popularity fluctuation, from world issues (wars) to societal change (parenting styles).What I found interesting reading this timeline, is that parent complaint (at both ends of the spectrum) is what seems to have driven the pendulum from one end to the other, not teaching practices. In short: it’s parents, not professional educators, that seem to be the determining factor regarding whether or not homework is ‘in style’ or not.

This is not to say that education academics haven’t completed any research on the topic. Many have tried a hand at this, but no clear conclusions have been found. The most detailed homework study to date was preformed by a Dr. Cooper of Duke University, and published in 2006. In the abstract of this work, the researchers admit that although they gathered and analyzed data since 1987, “on the basis of these results and others, the authors suggest future research.” Not very reassuring….

The Globe and Mail has also published many articles on the homework debate in the past couple years, that I perused in my study of this subject, including the following: Homework: how much is too much?, What Canada’s school boards say about kids and homework, What the research says about kids and homework. All three articles are worth reading , but I thought a couple of key quotes stood out and really told the story of current research regarding homework:

“There’s little evidence to show that homework is effective among primary-school-aged children – except for those who are performing below their peers.”

“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.”

“Many homework experts live by the “10-minute rule”: Kids shouldn’t do more than 10 minutes of homework for each grade they’re in.”

To say the least, the research on homework is inconclusive. Based on these findings it seems that most arguments point to very little homework assigned in elementary school, but increasing amounts to be assigned at the secondary level to ensure preparation for post-secondary aspirations.

The amount and type of homework seems to vary drastically within school boards and schools themselves, which compounds the problem. Because everyone seems to have a different take on the issue, there is no consistency. Case in point: my daughter had a teacher who was a homework fanatic last year and she had more than 30 minutes of homework at least once a week (in grade 1), but this year her teacher is more moderate and it’s decreased quite a bit to about 15-20 minutes a day.  Similarly, I don’t assign nightly homework, but I regularly have parents who ask me why I don’t due to the fact that their kids have “always” had English homework. They seem to believe that my lack of homework is a problem.

Despite inconsistencies here in Canada, the homework game isn’t sold on other educational systems…most notably Finland (current God of education trends).

Why is there little to no homework in Finland?

Disclaimer: I’m going to take a quick sec  here to say I’m a little biased when speaking about Finland….because I’m Finn. Finnish people are pretty patriotic! When you’re raised as a Finn, you are told that everything to do with ‘Finland’ is the best (much like other cultures, I’m sure). So I’m a bit ahead of the game in thinking Finland’s education system is superior to ours, since I’ve been told that my entire life (whether it was true at the time or not).

Ok, back to focus: what do the Finn’s have to say about homework? I thought this clip from a recent Micheal Moore film says it all:  Finland schools clip.

“Your brain has to relax how and then, if all you do is work, work, then you stop learning, there is no use in doing that for a long period of time” (Where to Invade Next)

How are Finn students learning more while spending less time at school and doing little to no homework?  It seems to be the way they approach the delivery of education. As discussed in the education article, How Finland broke every rule – and created a top school system , Finns seem to have turned the delivery of education on its head compared to their North American counterparts. Instead of a top-down delivery style that we experience here in Canada as well in the neighbouring U.S.A. , Finn teachers are given free rein in their classroom to create innovative learning experiences for their students, while being given time to collaborate meaningfully with their colleagues. Finn teachers are also trusted and respected by not only the public at large but their employers. They are considered the ‘experts’ in their classrooms, and are not forced to adhere to ‘Ministry of Education’ initiatives that change bi-yearly which are pushed down their throats by school board officials.

Due to this paradigm shift in education delivery, teachers are encouraged to constantly evolve and collaborate as professionals, which in turn creates an educational environment that is more engaging and productive for students. This concept, combined with the belief that students need time to ‘be kids’ and to value of ‘family time’, has allowed for Finn students to flourish. Hence,  no need for homework! Students are learning what is necessary during the school day – and based on the results, it’s working.

Where do we go from here?

Unfortunately, I’m not too optimistic that our education system is ready for a paradigm shift that gives teachers the power to learn, innovate and control all aspects of learning in our classrooms. After all, as discussed in a previous blogs (What if God were one of us? Become an ‘Undercover Boss’ in your classroom ; Why Teacher PD Should be Genius Time ) teachers in Ontario are constantly fighting a battle for independence and professional respect.

What we can do is take an honest look at the research and decide what is best for our schools, classrooms and dinning room tables.

Many schools in Ontario do employ the “10 minutes/grade” rule. The problem here is that although teachers assume the homework they assign should take a student a certain amount of time, for many it takes much longer. Younger students also often can’t complete homework independently. This creates a massive disadvantage to students whose parents have evening work schedules, are dealing with outside stressors or simply aren’t organized enough to sit down with their kids and get their homework out. If I died tomorrow, my kids would most likely never do homework again until they had the initiative and drive to do so on their own. This is simply due to the fact that my husband isn’t the best at time management. This inequity alone points to the idea that homework should be put aside until students are capable of complete independence in completing the task.

Similarly, classroom teachers need to gauge their students in assigning homework. Based on your knowledge of their socioeconomic situations, amount of after school activities, access to technology at home and necessity – is there equity and purpose in assigning homework? Although I teach secondary students, I rarely to never assign homework, but many of my students choose to work at home on various classroom assignments, or studying for final assessments. What I do in exchange, is leave the final 30 minutes of each class for student work and conferencing time. If students use this time daily, they would rarely to never bring anything home to complete. However, because many of my students prefer to socialize in class or conference with me regarding questions and examples, they usually end up doing some work at home, but the amount would rarely to never exceed 30 minutes.

At my house, our homework hell only occurs on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Wednesdays we have piano, Fridays and Saturdays are hockey and Sunday we focus on family time. These choices work for our family, and although it drives me nuts, I like that our kids ‘nightly’ homework is focused on the 3 R’s: reading, writing and math. I feel like this is a fair trade-off to the homework battle, although I will admit that as we advance in the elementary system I am worried about how increasing homework assignments may affect our family balance after school hours.

At the end of the day, I think that we need to pay attention to what is working in the world of education and try to learn from others who’ve had success where we have faultered. If Finland’s concept of allowing children’s minds time to relax and play is benefiting them in the long run, them why not give it a try here in Canada?

What do you think about the homework question? Should we follow Finland’s lead and abolish it or continue to practice moderate home work guidelines? Leave your comments below!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s