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Homework Matters

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Over and over again have I had to send my own children, in spite of their own tears and remonstrances, to bed, long after the assigned tasks had ceased to have any educational value and had become a means of nervous exhaustion and agitation, highly prejudicial to body and to mind.

So wrote one American parent, Francis A Walker, about homework in the 1880s. For more than 100 years, belief in the benefits of homework has waxed and waned. In the early 1900s, there was concern that children weren't getting enough sunshine and fresh air. Leading anti-homework campaigner Edward Bok asserted that 'five hours of brainwork was the most we should ask of our children'. By 1930 a society for the Abolition of Homework was pressing for reform.

Workplace of the Young

Schools were then viewed as the workplace of the young, and homework was attacked as an 'illicit extension of the working day'. Homework was blamed for eyestrain, lack of sleep and even physical deformity.

Homework was seen as limiting the child's ability to develop certain skills and attitudes that could be learnt only when he or she was free to play.
- Etta Kralovee and John Buell in The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children and Limits Learning

Blame the Russians

The launch of Sputnik1 by the Russians in 1957, however, had a profound effect on attitudes towards education, particularly in the USA. Russian superiority in space was seen as a threat to Western democracy, and schools and parents were urged to do their bit to narrow the technological gap by keeping children's noses to the academic grindstone. In the late 1960s there was another pendulum swing. There was growing support for the idea that children, like any workers, should be free at night to engage in leisure activities. Mental health workers speculated that school pressure was a factor in youth suicide. The American Educational Research Association declared:

Whenever homework crowds out social experience, outdoor recreation and creative activities, and whenever it usurps time that should be devoted to sleep, it is not meeting the basic needs of children and adolescents.

And the National Education Association suggested that:

... if weekends and one evening a week are left free, the pupil has the opportunity to develop appreciation and skill in art and music and participate more fully in the social life of the family and community.

Blame the Japanese

Calls for a reduction in homework, however, fell on deaf ears because a new 'threat' was looming: Japanese economic power. By the 1990s, it was the global economy that had politicians calling to mandate more homework to create a more educated, competitive workforce. And the momentum for more homework is still growing. Recently, Britain introduced national homework guidelines. In New Zealand the government is committed to funding more after-school homework clinics. Just as workers have seen their working hours grow longer and longer, so children, too, are being obliged to work longer and harder.

Getting It Done

Having established that homework will not be disappearing from children's lives any day soon, we now turn our attention to some 'best practice' tips to get them to actually do the work.

  • It's generally a mistake to ask 'Have you got any homework?'. Unless an assignment is due in the next morning, the answer is likely to be no, regardless of the fact that a project is due by Wednesday and there's a test on Friday to study for.

  • With homework, habit is everything. Having a regular time set aside each evening for homework can reduce some resistance and increase family harmony.

    Instead of nagging, use an alarm in the afternoon to indicate that it's time to do homework. The alarm signals that 'the special hour is here'
    - Drs Cecil and Faith Clark of the US National Learning Laboratory in their book Hassle-Free Homework
  • Television can be a major obstacle. Either children are rushing to get through their assignments before their favourite programme starts or they don't want to start until it's over - by which time they may be too tired to concentrate. Cutting out TV altogether during the week may meet with some resistance, but it's surprising how quickly children can get used to the idea. 'Almost all children who we see with learning difficulty have a TV In their bedroom,' say Drs Clark.

  • Being organised helps a lot. Keep a stash of pens, pencils, felts, rubbers, white-out, rulers, etc. It's amazing how much time children can waste searching for a rubber or ruler. It's also useful to have good home reference material - dictionary, atlas, encyclopaedia, etc. If children have a long-term project to do, you need to help them organise the work into manageable chunks, otherwise it often won't be completed until the night before - usually by you.

  • How much to help children with their homework is a moot point. Heavy parental input into the presentation of work seems to have become the norm for projects. With ordinary homework, helping children by doing one or two examples is reasonable. But it's in no one's long-term interests for parents to complete a child's homework, since the teacher will assume that they understand the material and they will have learnt nothing.

  • Motivation, of course, is the real key.

    Often a child wants to do homework, but he doesn't want to do it just because 'it's good for you' or any other adult reasons. Any reason a child comes up with is the right reason. So the trick is to help him come up with some reason, no matter how ridiculous.
    - Hassle-Free Homework.
1Any of a series of Soviet satellites sent into Earth's orbit, especially the first, launched 4 October, 1957.

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