Homework should emphasize skills, knowledge

Homework has been a longtime staple of the school curriculum, but it has also been a source of contention for those who question its necessity and the benefits for kids.

TORONTO — Homework has been a longtime staple of the school curriculum, but it has also been a source of contention for those who question its necessity and the benefits for kids.

The recently publicized move by Calgary couple Tom and Shelli Milley to sign a no-homework contract with their kids’ school has reopened debate around the purpose of take-home exercises.

Shelli Milley began researching the pros and cons of homework two years ago and said there was little to support a link between home assignments and grades. She formed a committee at the primary school her children attend to examine the issue.

The Calgary Catholic School District board recently formalized a deal with the Milleys for a “differentiated homework plan” whereby Spencer, 11, and Brittany, 10, are graded solely on classroom work.

A British Columbia-based man who made headlines several years ago after issuing a call for the Great Canadian Homework Ban commended the Milleys.

In an email to The Canadian Press, Chris Corrigan said he had no intention of starting a movement with his idea, but that it was “my way of letting parents know they weren’t alone in feeling overwhelmed by the way their kids were being burdened with work.”

“I think the Milleys have chosen a very wise path in taking an active interest in being guardians of the child’s time and space,” he wrote. “That they have managed to reach a contract with their school is terrific and is a hopeful development.”

The findings of various studies exploring whether homework truly makes the grade in helping to enhance a child’s education have been mixed — much like opinions on homework itself.

The Canadian Education Association and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto have produced a summary of research findings, which is being distributed to parents in CEA member schools and districts.

In its summary on homework, they write “best current evidence is that homework seems to have a small positive influence on student achievement, though it may be that students with better grades just tend to do more homework.”

Ben Levin, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Education Leadership and Policy at OISE, said he doesn’t think homework is the issue, but whether the added work is actually helping them learn skills.

“You can give a kid lots of problems in adding fractions, but if the kids don’t know how to add fractions, spending two hours is not going to help them. Someone has to show them.”

Parents have also expressed mixed views around homework.

In its 2007 Survey of Canadian Attitudes toward Learning, the Canadian Council on Learning found that while more than 80 per cent of Canadians agreed that doing homework develops good work habits and enhances learning, 72 per cent of parents with kids aged five to 24 reported that homework was often a source of household stress.

“The conflict arises because parents want to do the best for their children,” said council president and CEO Paul Cappon. “Even if this means a sacrifice in terms of additional stress on the family, if they think that it will advance the interest of their children and their learning in particular, their educational outcomes, they’ll make that sacrifice.”

Teachers are already subject to what Cappon considers to be “cross-pressures” from parents about homework.

“On the one hand, there’s a considerable number of Canadians who equate the rigour of the school and the school system with the amount of homework their children are required to complete,” he said. “Then you have the other segment of the population … that find the amount and nature of the homework assigned to be unreasonable.”

“These are the cross-pressures that existed even before this case about homework. There’s no doubt these pressures will intensify with the attention this issue has received.”

Some school boards have been making moves to address homework concerns. The Calgary Catholic School District has a committee looking into homework, and an enhanced regulation is to be drafted next year.

Trustees at the Toronto District School Board endorsed a new homework policy last year which stipulated time limits for students based on grade level, no homework on school holidays and days of significance, and wherever possible, for homework to be assigned by teachers in blocks of time.

Cappon said there doesn’t need to be a blanket national policy on homework, but a recognition there are different ways of learning and schooling that are more effective for specific individuals.

“We’re no longer in an industrial age of education in which one size fits all,” he said. “We know the two genders learn in different ways and at different paces and in different kinds of interests, so it’s not surprising that two children in the same grade would have a different need for homework.”

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