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Homework

As a teacher I have listened sympathetically and sometimes sceptically to students’ excuses for non-completion of homework. I’ve left it at home. There was a family occasion. The dog ate it. All these reasons have been proffered, and, as we moved into the digital age, my computer crashed or the printer ran out of ink provided further justification to winkle out of homework. As a parent, I cajoled, threatened and, I confess, bribed my daughters to complete assignments, read set texts or revise for their exams. Many decades earlier, my parents similarly supervised my nightly homework ritual and I am grateful for their support of my education.

You can lay odds that in any given year there will a debate in the media on the value of homework. So although I wasn’t surprised when the headline Leading Girl’s School to Scrap Homework Over Stress Fears appeared in a national newspaper recently, I was bemused that the school in question was the Cheltenham Ladies College in England. Apart from the fact that the school bears little resemblance to any in New Zealand, the majority of their students are boarders so they don’t ‘do’ homework- this is a misnomer. Instead students ‘do’ prep under the supervision of teaching staff. Surely then it is the school’s responsibility to ensure that this is ‘fit for purpose’?

Ever since the establishment of public schools, teachers have assigned homework and over the years, research has been undertaken to assess its effectiveness. However, no matter the outcomes of the findings, pupils continuing their learning on their own, after the teacher has stopped personal contact for the day, has been with us since Socrates and Plato. The 2013 CensusAtSchool found that three-quarters of New Zealand students aged 6-12 years spent nearly an hour on homework the night before they completed the survey.

Rereading, considering, reflecting and extending principles and knowledge first introduced in the classroom is a vital part of everyone’s education. It is often only when examining the content and ideas introduced after a day at school that the links to concepts and patterns become clear. This is the exciting part of learning. Re-examining those lines from Janet Frame and then comparing them to Sylvia Plath– as the teacher suggested you might when you had ‘time to do so on your own’ – can expand your knowledge and understanding of, for example, the description and meaning of human experience through the eyes of two writers tortured in different ways at different times. For younger students, reading your School Journal to Mum or practising basic facts reinforces skills and develops organisational habits necessary for independent learning.

Trite, fatuous worksheets are not what this extended learning is about. The use of digital media allow the understandings of the classroom to be reinforced and expanded out of school. In fact we are now approaching the time when learning is truly a 24/7/365 possibility. Today’s teachers often require students to prepare thoroughly before the next day’s lessons so that the class can work as a team, better understanding their coursework before embarking on its next stages.

Let’s dump the term homework and just keep talking about learning. Learning is a discipline, a challenge and to gain the rewards, just like the elite athlete, sacrifices of time and energy are part of the journey. Stress may be part of that, but the pleasure of learning should be paramount.