Is Homework for Primary-Aged Children Beneficial?

Now that the school term is truly underway, parents once again face the issue of homework – assisting or coercing their children into completing their after-school tasks.

There has been much discourse recently in the media regarding the topic of homework. Educators, childhood experts and parents appear to have strong opinions on either side of the debate regarding its benefit. Proponents argue that homework assists in reinforcing classroom learning, strengthens parental involvement in their child’s learning and school curriculum and develops important life skills such as time-management and discipline. They do however emphasise for primary-aged children homework be limited to half an hour each week day, with weekends free of homework. They also encourage parents to promote a lifestyle for their children with adequate family time, rest, exercise and intellectual stimulation. One of the United States’ leading homework researchers, Harris Cooper states, "research on the effects of homework suggests that it is beneficial as long as teachers use their knowledge of developmental levels to guide policies and expectations" (Cooper, 2001).

On the other side of the fence, exponents assert that no study has ever demonstrated that homework in primary school leads to academic achievement. Alfie Kohn, an American author, lecturer and advocate for progressive education asserts that in his research, "there was no consistent linear or curvilinear relation between the amount of time spent on homework and the child's level of academic achievement" (Kohn, 2006). Exponents point to successful educational systems, such as that in Finland, where homework is minimal, and play and discovery time, considered the best form of learning for primary-aged children, is maximised. Exponents argue that often the schools’ motivation for homework can be driven by their desire to achieve higher ranking through standardised testing. Therefore, homework is set for the purpose of preparing their students for these tests through route learning, which has limited value in overall intellectual development. Advocates for a reduction in homework state that it could have the reverse effect of diminishing an interest in learning as well as a child’s sense of autonomy. Additionally, the impact that homework could have on quality family time, as well as contributing to strain on parent-child relationships, needs to be considered.

One thing both camps agree on with regards to homework, is that reading in after-school hours is highly beneficial – this can be a joyous, bonding time between parents and children, and provides both an opportunity for a child to practice their reading skills, listening and comprehension skills.

Whichever view you adopt in the homework debate, there is bound to be some measure of homework during each school week. So how can parents best assist their children in navigating the homework path? Education experts encourage parents to be a coach to their children, rather than the doers of their homework. Providing guidance rather than completing children’s homework for them, provides them the opportunity to experience both success and failure through their own efforts. This is turn builds both confidence in their abilities, as well as problem-solving skills and resilience by overcoming difficulties. Parents are also encouraged to examine the quality and significance of their children’s homework and speak up as necessary to teachers, the principal or school if they conclude that the meaningfulness or amount of homework given is questionable or unnecessary. Conversations with other parents in your child’s grade can also provide solidarity and leverage if it is necessary to addresses the issue with the school.

So whichever way the majority in this debate next swings, keep in mind that the important tasks as parents is to ensure that your children have a balanced lifestyle with adequate rest, play, exercise, learning and time with family; as well as asking the right questions regarding their homework and education and addressing concerns with their educators as necessary.

- Miriam Oh

Further reading:

• The Homework Myth (2007) by Alfie Kohn
• Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs (2009) by Cathy Vatterott
• Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of the Research 1987–2003, the Review of Educational Research (2006) by Harris Cooper.
• The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents (2001) by Harris Cooper.