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The Column icon The Column: Issue 56

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The Column is a monthly feature that explores the world of creativity and aesthetics.

The Tyranny of Homework
Mike de Sousa, Director, AbleStable

The volume of homework for children has steadily increased over the last fifty years and is now assumed by many as a requirement of an effective educational experience. In this column I argue that homework is a powerful negative force that discourages curiosity, creativity, and self-reliance.

From 1983 to 2003 I led music workshops in a wide range of educational contexts, from pre-school to university level. I understand the demands of teaching from both a practitioner's point of view, and from that of a parent who is proud of the ongoing achievements of my son. As a musician I also appreciate the importance of self discipline and practice in attaining excellence.

Homework and Creativity

Homework is assigned to students by teachers as an extension of classroom work and takes the form of practice, preparation, or elaboration. Homework is however a subservient model of learning for both students and parents, and is used politically to show spurious levels of institutional achievement.

At the heart of creativity lies the freedom to explore. Creativity is a dish best served daily and without restriction. Homework sucks the energy from the student and leaves them needful of mindless occupation and far from the shores of the imagination.

The Musician's Temperament

Before I voice my full position about homework, I want to turn to the art of practice and define what I call the musician's temperament. The accomplished musician requires not just talent, but also must have a strong urge to complete a challenge.

Completion in many activities is only achieved through dogged determination, by practicing over and over, by the ability to stick with a task until the task is done well, no matter how frustrating the journey might be.

Learning to play an instrument is at times a physically uncomfortable and stressful experience. Most who start give up, not because of their lack of talent, but because they do not have the quality that sets the musician apart: persistent effort. Although practice should be encouraged in the budding musician, it should also be voluntary. To make practice compulsory stifles the commitment, enthusiasm, and joy a student experiences in the subject.

To become a good musician one must also be free to make the choice to practice. Practice makes perfect, but practice should not be imposed on students as it may not be the best period in a student's life to learn by repetition. To achieve excellence it is important for the activity to compliment the student's nature and circumstance. Understanding an individual's temperament, abilities, and environment is the best path to fulfilling their potential, perhaps along a different but equally rewarding avenue.

The Reality of Homework

The vaulted purpose of homework is to help children and young people develop the skills and attitudes they will need for successful lifelong learning. In practice, homework is used as a political tool to impose a task-centred approach to education which is used at an institutional level to "prove" educational goals, often through a system of reports and league tables.

Homework is also used by educators to compensate for the excesses of ill considered curriculum demands upon their students. The enforcement of penalties, if homework is not completed to the teacher's satisfaction, imposes a culture of subordinate inflexibility.

Some of the more enlightened educational establishments place limits on the volume of homework set. A school may for example ask their students work twenty minutes a week at home rather than demanding they achieve specific tasks. This is a fairer approach as it focuses on effort rather than the ability of the student and the level of support their home environment offers. Unfortunately the more usual task-centred approach is counter productive as it deters those students who need to expend greater effort to reach the same goal. In a task-centred approach to homework the level of attainment is regarded and recognized, rather than the effort made.

Parent Power

Homework is often promoted by the school as an opportunity for the parent and child to share "quality time" and to bring home and school closer together. In reality, homework is often a source of family tension and rarely contributes to greater communication between parents and the educational establishment.

Homework broadens the divide between rich and poor and solidifies the dominance of the well off in society. Children whose parents are able to best support them as a result of their educational and economic background and success have a significant advantage in completing homework in a way which satisfies the teacher. Parents are encouraged to support their children in their homework, but when you are a single parent in a low paid job who has to work long hours to make ends meet, there is little chance you'll have the time, skills, or confidence to assist your child.

Those parents who do assist sometimes go that extra mile and help beyond the bounds of fairness. Rather than an opportunity to take part in their children's education, homework becomes an exercise in cheating and the child becomes an unwitting participant in the fraud.

The True Test of Educational Achievement

Different departments within an educational organization each make their demands on the student without consideration of the student's overall burden of work. Moreover, there is little or no thought about how homework is balanced with other areas of life like family and play - play being as important to adults as it is to children.

The major flaw in our educational systems is their emphasis on marking achievement. A system of tests and exams seek to give employers clear indications of a student's worth in the marketplace. Students mistakenly believe they are bright or stupid according to the marks they achieve in school. The child's and parent's aspirations are heavily influenced by the grades attained, even at a very early stage. Educators have tried to soften the blow by emphasizing course work, however it is the exam mark that defines success of both the student and school.

A check box approach to educational achievement is practiced across the spectrum, from pre-school to university level, and includes the assessment of educational establishments as well as the level of student attainment. The problem with this approach is that it fails to recognize what I view are the most important qualities that must be encouraged and supported in the student.

In many countries children attend school for a significant proportion of their waking lives and it is crucial that kindness, honesty, integrity, and tolerance are at the core of the school's culture. Homework simply does not touch on these areas of personal development, and instead educational demands are reduced to a series of a to b tasks that do little to encourage exploration and invention, and even less to instill the essential qualities that support social cohesion and personal responsibility.

Home and Work

Government advice in the UK would have us believe children should work at home according to the following guidelines. I can think of no other prescription that is certain to de-motivate students from learning:

Age Suggested Workload
5-6 1 hour per week
7-8 1½ hours per week
9-10 30 minutes a day
11-12 45-90 minutes a day
13-14 1 to 2 hours per day
15-16 1½ to 2½ hours per day

Home and work should be separate. To conjoin them in a single word is indicative of the ever growing influence of the marketplace. Home is at best an environment offering affection, security, freedom, and support. It should not be a place where day work has to be done. There is increasing concern about how work invades home life and yet there is little thought that society closes the door of communication between parents and children because of the demands of homework.

Homework can be valuable for some students as an intellectual discipline, for establishing study habits, and easing the time constraints on the amount of curricular material that can be covered in class by supplementing and reinforcing work done in school. However homework in my view should not be compulsory. On balance it has a negative affect on our attitudes and experience of learning. Guidance is good, however we need freedom and happiness to learn effectively, for only when we are free can each and every individual truly explore their tremendous potential.


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Authors background
Mike de Sousa is the Director of AbleStable®. Mike has been commissioned as an artist, music composer, photographer, print and web site designer, and author. Mike is also the Creative Director of 2BrightSparks, a software company.

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