Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Editorial: Homework key link for parents

It seems increasingly fashionable to condemn homework for primary school children as a waste of time. Dunedin psychologist Nigel Latta has added his voice to the disapproval, and in Australia a new Government junior school has been declared a homework-free zone. The theory is that the school's pupils will spend more recreational time with their families, rather than being forced to do work that makes them resent learning. As with rather too much modern theorising, it fails to place its subject in anything like a proper perspective.

Homework can, of course, be of dubious value. But only if it is set with no specific purpose in mind, is devoid of clear instructions, is not tailored to the pupil's ability, or fails to enhance relevant knowledge or skills. One or any combination of such shortcomings could alienate a child from learning, and provide parents with a justifiable grievance. But their complaint should be with the teacher setting the exercises, not the concept of homework.

Homework, if assigned correctly, is an important learning device. Equally important, it is a means of connecting parents to their children's education. It may not, as critics suggest, be linked to academic performance at the primary school level, but it imposes study practices and disciplines that stand children in good stead in the higher realms of education. At those levels, research suggests pupils who complete more homework perform, on average, to a higher academic standard.

Getting into the habit of doing, say, 30 minutes' homework at an early stage is, therefore, clearly beneficial. Self-discipline, organisation and personal responsibility are encouraged, as can be a love of learning if the assignment is stimulating and its successful completion draws constructive feedback from the teacher. This is also the time when parents can stress the importance of education, and become, in effect, a partner to the school.

For some parents, it may be the only link with their child's learning. For any of a number of reasons, they may, unfortunately, have little contact with the school. Sometimes this may relate to their own circumstances and lack of success at school. But what they do in terms of encouraging a love of learning is more important to their child's prospects than the size of their own bank balance or whether they, themselves, studied to a high level.

The subject matter at primary school means parents can usually offer help and encouragement. Some assignments, indeed, can be set with the expectation that the family will play a role. Those involving parents and children reading together are an obvious example. If parents show a keen interest, it can spark enthusiasm in a child. And the parents, for their part, may be encouraged to become more interested in, and involved with, the school. At the very least, they gain an insight into what their children are learning, and how they are faring.

In some instances, of course, pupils do not return home to a suitable study environment, or to supportive parents. In such cases, there may be little prospect that they will complete their homework successfully, let alone be encouraged to value education. That can mean, as critics suggest, that homework creates a resentment of learning. But that, again, suggests not so much a fault in the concept as a failed home environment.

Given the obvious pluses attached to homework, the fad for criticising it seems astonishing. The critics would not, presumably, dispute the notion that families play a crucial role in education.

Homework is an important part of that equation. The more so when parents have the chance to make their mark.


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