Decades of global research, shows that homework in primary schools is unnecessary and unproductive.

Johannesburg - Before the teachers at De La Salle Holy Cross College Junior School assign homework, headmaster Neil Berndsen asks them to consider one key question: Is the extra work at home worth eating into the already limited time the school’s young pupils have at home?

“If they feel it is worth it, then they must go for it,” he says. “But they mustn’t just give homework for the sake of it.”

There are other “golden rules” for the teachers at the Catholic primary school in Victory Park, north of Joburg. Homework can only be assigned on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays - Wednesdays are strictly family nights. And it mustn’t exceed 15 minutes for young children and 30 minutes for children in the higher grades.

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Homework must incorporate sufficient reading, skills-based exercises and activities, as opposed to content-driven tasks.

Berndsen is part of a small but growing movement of educators in South Africa who are redefining their approach to homework - or scrapping it.

Decades of global research, they argue, is on their side, showing that homework in primary schools is unnecessary and unproductive.

“A lot of schools know this is what they should do, but it’s about having the courage to do it,” he says. “It’s going against something that has been done for so many years.”

That’s what Gavin Keller’s primary school did in 2015, when it made headlines for dropping homework. Instead, the school now encourages more innovative play and reading time. The bold move gave Sun Valley Primary, on the scenic slopes of the Silvermine Nature Reserve in Cape Town, something of a celebrity status, he says. “We have so many schools sending teachers to visit us and who phone us for advice. It’s created a movement because there’s no research to show homework has any benefit.”

For Keller, the switch happened in 2014 while he was at a conference in the US. “We saw the quantity of cortisol - the stress hormone - in primary school children. You’re supposed to have that pumping when the sabre-toothed tiger appears in the bush but now we have sabre-toothed tigers in the classroom, in our homes, in our taxis. Our children are so flooded with cortisol, it’s actually making them ill.”

For Keller, the no-homework policy helps teachers complete work in a given time with the focus on developing innovation and creativity for “21st century neurological learning.

“Ninety-percent of homework is because teachers haven’t been able to finish their work in class Everything that is now done in class is filed away in our children’s brains for their long-term memory.

“We’ve seen our academic results improve hugely and parents are reporting that home has become a better place to be because there are fewer fights.

“Our current cohort of parents - whether they’re from disadvantaged backgrounds or are wealthy - are so busy and children just don’t have the support to do homework.

“The focus is not on regurgitating data they’re going to forget. It’s about learning skills that are the scaffolding from primary school to high school so they can master whatever skills they need as adults.”

His goal is to produce competent adults “who are not overconfident, but who can have a toolbox to draw from in life”.

Children read for at least 20 minutes a day at home. “We can’t keep up with the number of books our kids are reading, nor can the local libraries,” he laughs.

De La Salle’s Berndsen tells how alarm bells starting ringing at his previous job as headmaster of Cowan House Preparatory school in Hilton in KwaZulu-Natal.

“It was a school with high academic standards because we fed through to St Ann’s and Michaelhouse and there was a lot of pressure on children.

“We started to see how they were becoming more stressed, more anxious and more reluctant to come to school. More children at younger ages were on medication for anxiety and depression.

“Families were not having supper together, children were going to bed later, arriving at school tired and demotivated because they may not have finished something. It was starting to affect their academic standards.

“So, where some teachers were thinking the more homework you get it raises the academic standards, in fact, it has the opposite effect, and research is showing us that.

Decades of global research, shows that homework in primary schools is unnecessary and unproductive.

“By removing some of those commitments, children were able to spend more time with their families and go to bed at a reasonable hour. They were coming to school with a spring in their step, ready to face the day.”

At De La Salle, he explains to parents that the revision of homework is a decision not taken lightly but informed by “many fruitful discussions, debates and investigative research”.

Teachers, too, he says, had to take a good, long look at themselves. “While we understand that high school and tertiary expectations are considerable, we believe primary school homework needs to be founded on the premise of discipline, curiosity exploration and personal gratification.”

Academic standards won’t be lowered. “If anything, research suggests that our decision should have the opposite effect, and promote skills pertinent for success in life.”

For homework to be effective, it has to be individually tailored. “One child will spend 15 minutes doing homework, another an hour and a half The fight that happens in class over homework is a continuation of the fight that happens at home.”

Llewllyn Bragin, deputy headmaster at a well-known government primary school in Joburg, tells how it too has cut out written homework entirely this year.

“We do a lot of audiovisual homework, especially for our core subjects. What we’re trying to achieve is that our boys can still be boys, have fun on the field and not have to go home and scribe for hours.

“So, a lot of our learning is cognitive thinking approaches, with actual mapping skills on whiteboards. Schools around the world have gone cognitive and we need to follow suit our children are asking a lot more pertinent questions now about the world in which they live.”

The school is aligned to Thinking Schools SA, which “encourages critical thinking in students”.

“Some parents come and say ‘my child is not getting homework, what’s wrong?’ We say would you rather spend quality time with your child, not fighting about doing homework at supper time, knowing we achieved more academically in the school day than before.”

In the workplace, he says, there’s a demand for youngsters with entrepreneurial skills, “not kids who can regurgitate a textbook and achieve nine distinctions”.

One of the school’s teachers tells how she fought constant battles with her son to complete homework.

“Most parents work today. In many homes, there are only single parents and they get home late.

“What’s the point about fighting over homework? Rather, our homework is about carefully structured incidental learning.”

The playing field is not always level, says Berndsen. “With giving more work for children to complete at home, we’re also assuming they’re going to be doing homework under the same conditions, perhaps at a desk with someone assisting them at a reasonable hour.

“But the environment children are being raised in now, even if it is a stable home, is very different to what it was 10 years ago. Schools needs to ask themselves, have they changed according to the change in family dynamics? I don’t think they have.”

Children thrive when they learn intrinsically, he says, gesturing to a stack of recipe books in his office. “I gave a holiday challenge to the Grade 3s to 7s, it wasn’t holiday homework as it wasn’t compulsory and there is no reward.

“I asked them to design their own recipe books with three starters, mains and desserts. You can’t believe the number I’ve received, the most beautiful books. For me, that’s lifelong learning.”

Homework must be meaningful to kids

HOMEWORK doesn’t need to be written down to be effective, says educational linguist Elizabeth Henning.

“It slows down thinking,” quips the founding director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Practice Research, on the Soweto campus.

She explains how in rural areas in southern Malawi, where children walk long distances to and from school, their maths homework is based on observations on their daily journeys, performed in short plays the following day.

Homework can only be effective if it's well-planned. Picture: Reuters

“Now, that’s homework. If kids travel to school by taxi, my goodness there’s so much maths and that can be homework.”

Homework has to be meaningful for children. “If we argue that homework is good because we train young children, the main question is, what are we training them in? If we are training them to spell correctly, follow procedures in maths and learn the facts of science, then that is not wrong.

“But the real homework that is worthwhile is if they learn to identify problems and suggest to teachers, ‘we’d like to know more about the moon, why Cape Town is without water and why people in Protea, Soweto, are fighting with each other’.”

Teachers are under huge pressure to finish the curriculum.

“They give homework because what’s done in class couldn’t be completed. There’s no time. Tomorrow they must pack in another topic.

“If homework is related to schoolwork, then school days should be made longer. The truth is our parents don’t have time, whether they’re privileged or not.”

Professor Tintswalo Manyike, the acting chair of the department of language education, arts and culture at Unisa’s College of Education, says for homework to be effective, schools need to have homework policies that don’t overwhelm children.

“Homework can only be effective if it’s well planned, wherein all foundation phase teachers agree on the dates in which various subject teachers provide homework to learners.

“I strongly believe that the essential of homework is that parents become actively involved in the education of their children. In this way the importance of reading and writing is inculcated at a very young age.

“Various scholars are not in agreement as to the effectiveness of homework during the foundation phase, as some argue that it does not improve learners’ academic performance.

“Other researchers are of the opinion that homework does improve learner performance if it is well-planned.

“An important question with regard to homework provision should be what the teachers hope to achieve through the given homework.” 

The Saturday Star