Is homework detrimental to children's wellbeing?

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9 February
12:31
20 February
14:59

I won’t confront this question directly. After all, it is a trifle stark. I think homework could be damaging. It depends. And ‘well-being’ is a slippery and elusive idea. I won’t even try to define it. I’ll talk of things that are in children’s interests.

The value of homework has to be weighed against other ways of spending time outside school.

Sometimes, teachers set homework to be handed in the next day. In subsequent lessons they assume that everyone has finished reading ‘Animal Farm’. They continue teaching quadratic equations, pitched at a level to fit the pupils’ understanding as shown in the homework. Or the next lesson builds on the meaning of some grammatical terms set to be learned at home. If completing such homework depends either on adequate home conditions, parental support of certain kinds, or both, then it is certainly open to question. School planning would actually embrace the possibility that certain pupils were unable to gain fully from their education.

The value of homework has to be weighed against other ways of spending time outside school. So, is there a causal link with academic achievement? Relevant empirical investigations face several challenges. Research does not provide clear verdicts. We need to be sure of securing a random sample of students so that their performances can be compared with other students not in receipt of relevant homework. The trouble is that, for example, extra homework might be set for slower learners to ‘catch up’. Or again, high fliers might be given more homework than others so that they gain the highest examination scores (Elliot and Tymms 2013).

Often enough there is conflict over whether and when the homework should be done. Time and emotional energy may well be expended over this, when it would be much better devoted to constructive ways of sharing experiences.

Evidently, much will depend on exactly what tasks are set and why. An American commentator remarks: ‘We've decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on we'll figure out what to make them do’ (Kohn, 2006 p. 13). Moreover, Elliot and Tymms note the persisting belief that homework set from a young age produces helpful habits of working, despite the limited research evidence for this.

When parents support homework, they often decide to become extensions of school authority. At home, their children continue indirectly to be subject to their teachers. This can threaten the integrity of parent-child interactions. Suissa (2009) describes a pupil who is asked to produce a pamphlet explaining why it is important to control his anger. The parent wants to discuss whether it is actually appropriate to control anger, but the child is impatient, asserting that such a question is not involved in the homework.

Often enough there is conflict over whether and when the homework should be done. Time and emotional energy may well be expended over this, when it would be much better devoted to constructive ways of sharing experiences.

Suissa criticises viewing parents as ‘managing’ their offspring, rather than crediting parents with the opportunity or even the right to live with their children and develop a shared social life. Do parents have any rights here? Admittedly, they might like the homework tasks. And yet..

Are certain kinds of ‘playful’ activities at the heart of human flourishing, both for children and adults? If so, shouldn’t parents have the right to share these activities with their children? Shouldn’t children have the chance to engage in these activities outside school, and the right to choose whether to share them with their parents?

We need not be talking here about anything profound, cultural or intellectual, though of course we might be. Families may want to share anything from friends and relations, sporting activities, cooking and meals through to stories, music and other arts. Homework, especially for younger children can threaten these possibilities. It can devour private time. Hence it has at least the potential to undermine children’s well-being, or so I believe.

References

  • Elliott, J. G., & Tymms, P. B. (2013). What is the pedagogical value of homework? In S. Suggate & E. Reese (eds.), Contemporary debates on child development and education. Routledge.
  • Kohn, A. (2006) Abusing Research: The Study of Homework and Other Examples. The Phi Delta Kappan, 88 (1), 8-22.
  • Suissa, J. (2009) Constructions of Parents and Languages of Parenting. Philosophy of Education Archive, 117-125.
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