Homework: burden or benefit?

From Nine To Noon, 11:27 am on 8 June 2017

Homework is the bane of many children's (and parents') lives – but for what ages and how much?

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Photo: Photo NZ

Children should be studying at home and the way to get them into it is to create a family culture of learning, says education consultant Joseph Driessen.

Wise parents associate homework with fun and engagement and keep kids close as they're doing it, he says.

"That whole dark, cold bedroom isolated from your family is quite counterproductive… Some families are much more enlightened than that. They sit at the kitchen table and one of the parents sits there and does their work. The child feels supported emotionally, it's warm, they're part of the family, and the whole family sends a big message to the child 'We're here to support you and your homework or your independent study is important to us'."

Families need to be authoritative as well as supportive, he says.

"It's really weird – we make the children go to school, we spend vast amounts of money on their school uniforms, and then when it comes to the crunch of doing independent work ... Would we allow the children to opt out of riding to school without a bike helmet?"

When independent learning starts early, it can become something like a game for the child, he says.

"And by the time those children are eight or nine, it's just second nature to them to sit down and do that work with the support of their family."

Research shows that children learn best at home when parents have reprioritised their own lives in order to support their children's study, he says.

"When the family thinks it's all going to happen at school and homework is a waste of time the child feels unsupported."

Children can also feel conflicted because they have to "do their own thing" in opposition to the unspoken messages from their family.

Driessen says children who are coached in mental self-management can gradually enter the adult world of self-determination while those who are given no autonomy can develop a conditioned response of anxiety and procrastination.

He also believes that it's a myth that children don't need to rote learn.

"When you're sitting in an exam, you can't google the facts you need to know."

"Rote learning is actually a really good thing to have readily in your mind so you can manipulate those facts immediately."

The growing belief in primary and increasingly secondary schooling that memorisation is poor teaching does not help students, he says. 

"I think it's quite hypocritical for people to say [not memorising] is fine … because the research shows it's not."

Driessen offers this formula for calculating how much homework is the right amount for your child.

In primary school, multiply their age by 2 minutes – "So 10 minutes of reading for a five year old and 20 minutes for a 10 year old."

In junior secondary school,multiply their age by 3 minutes – “That’s probably enough in Year 9, Year 10, if they do that most days of the week."

In senior secondary school, multiply their age it by 6 minutes – “So if you’re 17 you’re talking about 1.5 hours. If a student in senior secondary school does 1.5 hours a day they’re guaranteed to do really well."