Cut some slack, give homework a rest

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 31, 2013

THE mid-year holidays ended in June. But far from being well-rested, some students I know were worn out - from their holiday homework.

They reckoned - privately to me, of course - that they might have been better off just having extended terms, given that those days came with lighter workloads than so-called holiday time.

To be sure, holiday homework is a good way to ensure that the last few months' learning is not forgotten during the breaks of four weeks mid-year and about six weeks year-end. Homework also teaches students responsibility and self-discipline.

But like a tipper truck, there is such a thing as piling on the vacation assignments too high and tipping kids into overwork.

One 16-year-old from the Express stream sitting her O levels this year had to go back to school for five hours of lessons daily for a fortnight during the school holidays. That's almost a regular school day.

And she had another 20 practice examination papers to complete.

That's 120 hours of classes and homework over four weeks, or 30 hours a week. In other words, about three-quarters the load of an adult working full time.

At least adults get paid. Students just get exhausted.

Another student, 15, in Secondary 3, was given assignments in every subject, including having to finish every essay question listed in her biology 10-year-series book.

Is it time for schools here to revise their homework policy?

China is having second thoughts about its cramming culture. Earlier this month, it banned holiday homework for all first- and second-graders. It also ordered schools to limit the amount of homework for all other grades up to middle school, across China.

The pendulum has often swung between the pro- and the anti-homework camps.

At the end of the 19th century in the United States for example, school days were filled with rote learning, memorisation and reciting long passages in class. Homework then involved a child preparing many hours at home the night before to recall these passages. If parents did not want their child to do the homework - or preferred that they help with chores or agriculture work instead - they took the child out of school.

In the early 1900s, doctors began suggesting that homework hurt children's health. A Society for the Abolition of Homework was formed in the US in 1930.

But after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik 1 rocket in 1957, a fear of losing out intellectually to other countries gave greater impetus to those who favoured homework.

The crux of the issue lies in defining how much homework is enough.

The United States' National Education Association recommends 10 minutes per grade per day; so a student in secondary school here, equal to seventh to 10th grades, should expect to work for between 70 and 100 minutes daily.

This guideline is similar to the one to two hours a night for students in middle to high school (aged about 12 to 18) proposed last August by the Toronto District School Board in Canada. The Board also said homework should not be given before a holiday.

In Finland, which is often lauded for its education system, there is even less homework assigned. Students usually only start doing homework when they are in their early teens, in middle school. High school students - roughly 15 to 18 years old - do only half an hour per night.

In comparison, the two students I know seem to have got the short end of the stick. I meet many students in my role as deputy editor at The Straits Times' Schools team that publishes weekly papers for students. I don't think that students overloaded with holiday homework here are exceptions.

Schools need to look at the type of homework handed out: Is it for practice, preparation or extension of learning?

Or is it simply "busy work" to keep students occupied?

Are the assignments relevant or meaningful? Do teachers mark them and return them with comments on how to improve? If not, then the child's effort has been wasted.

Studies show that while homework is beneficial, assigning too much of it is counterproductive.

Duke University researchers looking at 60 research studies between 1987 and 2003 found that after about two hours of homework a day, more homework did not equate to higher achievement.

Most of all, quality should be valued over quantity.

Instead of a mad rush to try to complete the assignments, fewer assignments may encourage students to take the time to do the assignments well.

This way, it is more likely they will absorb the underlying principles of what they are supposed to learn. It would also reduce the likelihood that students simply copy answers from one another, so that they have something to hand in.

Lighter holiday homework loads will also allow students to slacken a little.

They can take in a movie with friends, read for fun, or explore a new outdoor space they have never been to. Alternatively, they could meet new people at a barbecue, catch up on sleep, or go on holiday with their families without niggling homework anxieties.

These things are not trivial pursuits. They can give our kids the chance to develop soft skills, including how to communicate, build strong, lasting friendships, appreciate nature or take care of their health.

And most of all, they will give our hardworking students what they need most - a break. After all, that's what a holiday is intended to be.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on July 31, 2013

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