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Homework or not? The jury is out




“I rather would have more quality time with my kids and less fighting to do homework, which creates a very negative and stressful environment,” remarks Levin.

Homework used to be a pillar of school life, but many educators have begun to question if it does more harm than good. A Stanford University researcher recently found that learners in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework, experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance and even alienation from society.

The study indicates that more than two hours of homework a night may be counterproductive.

A 2006 study by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper, found evidence of a positive correlation between homework and learner achievement, meaning that learners who did homework performed better in school.

The correlation was stronger for older learners (grades 7 to matric) than for those in younger grades, for whom there was a weak relationship between homework and performance.

SA Jewish Report spoke to school principals, teachers, parents and learners at the forefront of this debate.

Shelley Nochumsohn Berman is a teacher with 35 years’ experience, currently teaching English to grades 7, 8 and 9 at a religious Jewish day school in Johannesburg. She feels strongly that “schools give far too much homework. The religious Jewish schools have a very long school day to make time for kodesh learning.

“Homework is a major cause of conflict in the home. Parents are so desperate to avoid these fights that they often land up doing the work for their children. This only encourages children to be dishonest as they then have to pretend that they have done it themselves.

“I do think a certain amount of homework is necessary to teach children responsibility.”

She believes if all schools reduced the homework load, children would be happier. “The number of children being medicated for anxiety and stress is absolutely frightening. We need to take some of the pressure off these kids,” she says.

Sinai Academy in Cape Town has done away with formal homework. “If a child needs extra assistance or practice with any specific skills, work can be sent home to do there, and incomplete work is also sent home,” says director Zeesy Deren. “Each child is treated individually.

“Children can’t learn under stress, so we felt homework became counterproductive,” says Deren. “It has also helped to bring back the creativity and imagination of the child, which has largely been lost in our environments due to external pressures.”

In doing away with homework at Sinai Academy, some challenges have arisen: “Class work can possibly be increased as more repetition or practice of a skill previously done as homework, now falls into class time. 

“Some parents believe they have lost a sense of where their child is academically, as they no longer see their work or progress.”

Sheva Messias, principal of King David Linksfield Primary and Pre-Primary, says that currently grade R is their only unit to receive homework. “Parents today do not always understand that by doing away with formal homework, the time should not be replaced by TV, iPads and screens.

“This time should still be used to spend with their child, but rather than completing stressful non-beneficial activities, fun and developmentally appropriate activities can now take place.

“Some parents have been resistant to this, feeling that no formal homework is an indication that the programme is not of the same high standard as when formal homework is given, despite the research showing this not to be the case.”

Herzlia High School Principal Marc Falconer comments: “A holistic and balanced education is what all the Herzlia schools are offering. This does mean that pupils are not loaded with homework, making play, sport and cultural and outreach activities impossible.

“Homework is balanced and thought through, and not overwhelming. There is a place for homework – which does not have to do with marks. We want pupils to be excited by their learning and to use the many educational opportunities they have available to develop their own learning pathways and to explore areas that are of particular interest to them.

“This is not necessarily home WORK, but it is designed for pupils to reflect on, develop and internalise learning for themselves – which may happen at home and after school hours.”

 Caryn Gootkin, a parent of two at Herzlia, says: “I don’t think scrapping homework is the answer – I enjoy knowing what my children are doing and can very quickly pick up where they are missing a concept.

“I wouldn’t know this if they didn’t do any work at home. It’s not fair to expect the teacher to have in-depth knowledge of each child’s ability at every point.”

However, she advises that homework should be more creative, which would lead to “some interest beyond simply getting it done to get the signature in the book. It’s often not productive or thought-provoking at all. They love doing project work and investigative work, but it’s very rare.”

Her son Sam (11), in grade 5, says: “I prefer working on projects rather than doing homework based on classwork. I find it boring doing repetitive studying. I like that I can finish my homework in class if I’ve completed the schoolwork. Homework should extend what we did in class, not just simply continue doing the same thing.”

Anton Krupenia, principal of Herzlia Weizmann Primary in Sea Point, comments: “We are aware of how busy our children are and are constantly evaluating what we give for homework and why.

“However, if we did away with homework we would struggle to consolidate certain elements of the curriculum in core learning areas, with the pace of the content being covered moving at a faster rate. This could result in some pupils being left behind.”

Herzlia Middle School in Cape Town faces particular challenges, as learners take a wide range of subjects in order to make subject choices for high school. 

To help reduce this workload, the school encourages the teachers to have cross-curricula projects, where learners will complete one assignment for two subjects or two subjects combined into one.

For example, life orientation is now part of the Jewish life curriculum and learners will visit a township as part of their history, geography and economics curricula. 

In addition, subject heads and school leadership carefully ensure that the workload is evenly spread across the term. The school also has homework periods, tutorials during school hours and free homework supervision after school.

At King David Victory Park Primary, “we have instituted a compulsory homework period at the end of the school day for grade 3-7,” says the headmaster, Rabbi Ricky Seeff. “This was done to give our learners some free time in the afternoons. However, we have not done away with homework.

“Any homework not completed, studies for tests and research projects, will still need to be done at home. Learners spend the homework period under the supervision of their teacher and are encouraged to get as much work done as possible. Learners without homework can bring a novel and read.”

He warns that “doing away with homework would hamper the ability of learners to master subjects like maths, and skills like literacy, which require consistent consolidation that cannot be accomplished in a school day.

“The rigour of our academic systems also does not allow for all work done to be completed at school, and homework is needed to assess different skills of our learners.

“Parents would also not be able to monitor their children’s progress nor play an active role in their academic lives if they didn’t know what they are learning at school. Homework time provides a meaningful window for parents into their children’s lives and an opportunity to get some nachas.

“We are trying to moderate the amount of homework to ensure that the homework is both necessary and not too taxing, ” says Seeff.

At Herzlia Constantia Primary, the teachers have an ongoing and open debate in the staffroom and with the parents about the value of homework, according to Principal Jos Horwitz.

“The majority of our children love their homework as it is time to show their parents the skills that they are learning at school.

“With children who have barriers to learning and parents who may struggle to make learning fun and interesting for their children, this is more complicated. We stress that the relationship with your child is the most important focus, and not to allow tensions with homework to interfere in this loving relationship,” she says.

“Our teachers run homework clubs every afternoon to assist children complete their tasks at school so that when they arrive home they can relax as a family. We also encouraged parents to introduce a homework tutor for an hour a few days a week if necessary.”

The debate rages on, but in the words of Herzlia High Principal Marc Falconer, “there is a better way and if the ‘People of the Book’, with their investment in education, don’t find it, I’m not sure who else will.”


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