Homework is one of those hot-button subjects for students, parents, and educators alike. Some people feel that homework is critical to the development of independent learning skills and strong study habits. Others feel that classwork should stay in the classroom so kids can spend their evenings playing outdoors, participating in extracurriculars, or spending time with family. And kids? Well, we’ll go out on a limb and say most of them would be happy to see homework disappear forever!
While “forever” may be a stretch, there is a valid argument for limiting homework—particularly at a young age and definitely during a pandemic. Dr. Beyhan Farhadi, a secondary school teacher and postdoctoral visitor at York University’s Faculty of Education, feels that homework should be given to elementary school students only when necessary, then introduced incrementally in high school.
“That comes from the understanding that once students leave the classroom, their ability to receive support with their work is entirely dependent on their privilege,” Farhadi explains. She notes that homework often requires parental support, which may be absent in homes where parents are working shifts, learning English, or facing other barriers or challenges.
Do we need to worry about learning loss and helping kids “catch up?”
The pandemic has brought many inequities to light. It’s also blurred the lines between school and home—something many work-from-home parents will relate to and empathize with.
“Is it really homework if you’re working at home all day?” Farhadi asks.
Now in the third school year impacted by the pandemic, many parents are worried about learning loss and focused on helping their kids “catch up” after so much time at home. Some have hired tutors or are considering additional educational resources for their children, while others are worried their kids will be at a disadvantage.
Asked about these concerns, Farhadi notes that while some kids had successful virtual learning experiences, more often they struggled. “The struggle was not just academic, but also social, spiritual and emotional,” she says. “As much as we like to think we understand the process of learning, it’s more complex than what the phrase ‘learning loss’ captures.”
School is crucial, but parents shouldn’t feel guilty about play
“We can’t learn if we’re distressed, so parents and teachers should focus first on ensuring the learning environment encourages learning, before we fixate on the learning itself.” Farhadi notes that this is one of the reasons adequately funding public education is so important—so all students can access the tools and learning environment they need.
School isn’t just about developing book smarts, and parents shouldn’t feel guilty about letting their kids play at the park after dinner instead of practicing their timetables. Choosing physical and/or social activities over studying isn’t a bad thing—in fact, parents should be encouraged to create balance and tend to all aspects of their children’s needs and growth.
“We are in an era hyper-focused on academics and often forget that the purpose of public education is to encourage the development of the whole child,” Farhadi says. “This means encouraging healthy interpersonal relationships, realizing our interdependency with our family and communities, and attending to the emotional, social, and spiritual parts of our being.”
So how does homework factor into the big picture?
“The goal is developing the whole child, and homework has to be considered in that context,” says Farhadi. “Does it help or harm the student by placing them under the continued stress of schooling when they’re at home? Is this the relationship we want them to develop to learning? That should be top of mind.”
The pandemic isn’t over yet and as we strive to make the school year as normal and healthy as possible for our kids, “catching up” isn’t necessarily the right focus.
“Kids right now need routine and consistency, and an educational environment that makes students feel as safe as possible so they can learn,” Farhadi says. “There is a famous saying ‘Maslow before Bloom,’ which refers to a hierarchy of needs: We need to attend to our psychological and safety needs, love and belonging, before we can learn.”
Farhadi also cites Dr. Cindy Blackstock’s comments [PDF] on the influence of First Nations relational worldview principles on Maslow’s theory—specifically, the importance of creating strong, multi-generational community bonds. “Community is most important to the education and well-being of the child, and school is part of not separate from that community,” she says.
It takes a village
Creating a village around your kids and being a part of other families’ villages is essential to creating a healthy, secure environment where children can thrive. Taking an evening walk through the neighbourhood can be a great way to build community connection while moving your body and bonding as a family. Kick around a soccer ball, get creative with chalk with your neighbours, cook food as a family, or volunteer in the community. This all contributes to a foundation that encourages learning, both in school and through everyday life situations. (It sounds like a recipe for happiness too.)
Simply put, growth comes in many shapes and forms
“Education is not just academic and we should encourage opportunities for students to build relationships with friends and connect with their families and broader community, which is fundamental to their well-being,” Farhadi says.
The word “homework” may conjure up images of endless math sheets and book reports, but it’s not always that way. Homework can be subtle, engaging and even fun. Farhadi encourages parents to review their school board’s official homework policy, and advocate for their kids as necessary.
“My children attend the Toronto District School Board and [the board] explains that homework for earlier grades should be limited to reading, playing games, and interacting with their families. Though I don’t think this should be framed as homework, I agree with its spirit.”
That neighbourhood scavenger hunt, dip in the pool with friends, or community soccer game at the park? Sounds like the right kind of homework to us.