TRADITIONAL VIEW: Homework improves thinking and memory and encourages children to manage their time wisely. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
TRADITIONAL VIEW: Homework improves thinking and memory and encourages children to manage their time wisely. Picture: Wikimedia Commons
NEW VIEW: Gavin Keller, Sun Valley Primary principal, was inspired and motivated by Bill Deresiewicz’s book The Excellent Sheep.
NEW VIEW: Gavin Keller, Sun Valley Primary principal, was inspired and motivated by Bill Deresiewicz’s book The Excellent Sheep.
Homework; it’s the bane of my parenting existence. I’m not exactly what you’d call a hands-on mother. Yes, I’m that mom sitting up after 8pm on a Sunday night trying to decipher my eight-year-old’s illegible handwriting, giving up after half an hour and calling his father for reinforcements.

Working mother of two Sam Williams agrees with me.

She says that her children are laden with homework every day – and it’s become a burden to her.

Deep down all of us parents believe homework is a kind of necessary evil.

It’s been an integral part of school life from back when we were children.

The repetition improves memory of the subject matter, should encourage the child to think about the work they’re learning and in the long run will teach them to manage their time wisely.

It also teaches them to take responsibility and pride in something that they’ve done independently of the classroom.

Williams acknowledges too that homework includes parents in their children’s learning and keeps them abreast of the curriculum. If any problems arise, they’ll be the first to pick up on it.

She says she feels it a “burden” and a stress and wonders if that attitude helps defeat the purpose.

“With homework being so overwhelming, there’s no time for play. Kids should be focused and learning in school, while learning through play at home.”

Carol Kriel, junior school principal at Christel House, an independent school in Cape Town, says that her Grade 7s for example do in fact get loads of homework, as do many of the children in top performing schools.

“Expectations are so high for learners, that teachers need to be considerate,” she says drawing a line in the sand.

“For maths the children may get an activity or two and with English we always encourage them to read and review their work”, she adds.

The school does however have procedures in place to make sure their pupils don’t become overwhelmed by the workload.

“We do have homework time on a Thursday called the student life programme where the children can choose to do their homework.”

Some schools are starting to become mindful of the heavy workload many pupils come home with and have devised ways to help their kids cope with it, like after-school homework clubs when pupils are allocated time outside of the academic hours to do their homework under supervision.

If seems that if homework is manageable it should be tolerable and therefore beneficial.

One school that’s taken a rather drastic and controversial turn on homework is Sun Valley Primary in Cape Town.

Principal Gavin Keller took the no-homework approach in 2015, but the move didn’t come lightly.

“I was deeply concerned about the level of anxiety facing 21st century children. The pressure our young people were under seemed ridiculous. We are currently educating children for a world that doesn’t exist, yet educators are so busy crushing them with unrealistic expectations, that you will find parents are demanding it, because ‘It will be good for them!’”

Bill Deresiewicz’s book The Excellent Sheep was a major motivator for Keller: “He showed that children were so overwhelmed with anxiety that by the time they achieved sufficient marks to be accepted at the best universities they were on the brink of mental breakdowns and eight percent seriously considered suicide.”

“I was not prepared to be part of a child’s journey where that was the outcome. I wanted to create successful, confident, creative, innovative entrepreneurs who could look at themselves in the mirror and say: ‘I am enough! I am good enough, smart enough, talented enough. I know how to struggle, How to fail, how to pick myself up and how to learn from my mistakes – and the adults in my life have created the boundaries and regulations that make me feel safe and secure – and above all – I feel valued’.”

Keller is also a fan of the work of Stanford University’s Professor Carol Dweck and US psychologist Angela Duckworth which looks at growth mindset and grit.

Duckworth says IQ isn’t the only thing separating successful students from those who struggle. During her 2013 discussion at TED Talks, she explained her theory of “grit” as a predictor of success.

This is the passion and perseverance for long term goals where failure is fine – as long as you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try again.

“In her book Mindset, Dweck provided us with guidelines on how to teach grit effectively. It’s about a growth mindset rather than a fixed one and for us South Africans it suggests we re-imagine teaching as we know it.”

In relation to these theories Keller revisited the topic of homework and decided that by restructuring their teaching programme – by taking a holistic approach that incorporated play, teaching and mostly fun into the school day – they could help children learn without making them anxious.

So how do the parents feel?

Keller says: “When children love school, when real learning is happening, when confidence, respect and passion is visible – parents just love it.

“We all want our children to feel good about themselves and know their gifts and talent. When a system produces that – everyone is a winner, everyone is happy and children run to school!”

“For me too much or too little homework, won’t make a winner – when I do sit down with my child to learn, I want to do so on my own terms and I want it to be fun.” 

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