But I don’t have any homework!

The inconsistency of homework assignments makes it difficult for many children to learn.

Back to School (photo credit: Wikicommons)
Back to School
(photo credit: Wikicommons)
Do Israeli teachers give too much homework? That was the question I was recently asked. To answer, I had to find out how much homework Israeli teachers give, and whether children and parents find it excessive.
The interesting thing about homework is that it is one of a few topics in education that has the ability to put a wedge and cause conflict between students and teachers, students and parents and teachers and parents. Given the amount of energy that some parents, children and teachers spend arguing over homework, this is a question that needs answering.
I began my quest for the answer by asking a variety of people what they thought. I asked children of different school ages, parents, teachers, professors of education and one mayor.
Their answers did not surprise me, although the similarity of the answers did. All said that some teachers do give too much homework and some don’t.
Oded Revivi, the mayor of Efrat, said he couldn’t answer the question as the mayor, but as the father of six children he felt that some, but not all of his children had much too much homework.
Elizabeth Karvonen, a colleague of mine at David Yellin College, said, “It’s a muddle. There’s no organization.
Sometimes they get nothing for a week and sometimes five subjects in a day.
When I was in school in England there was a homework timetable and recommendations to parents about how long it should take (e.g. half an hour of history on Mondays and 20 minutes French on Tuesdays and Thursdays) I tried suggesting we do this in the school I worked in Israel and everybody just scoffed.”
Dr. Karvonen raised a problem mentioned by many of those that offered their thoughts. While each teacher might believe they give an appropriate amount of homework, they don’t often consider that other teachers give homework, too. The total thus sometimes becomes a load far for too great for many students.
Is homework even necessary? In a special report, “Special Topic / The Case For and Against Homework,” Robert J. Marzano and Debra J. Pickering describe a new book that questions the value of homework.
“[I]n The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It, [the] authors criticized both the quantity and quality of homework. They provided evidence that too much homework harms students’ health and family time, and they asserted that teachers are not well trained in how to assign homework.
“The authors suggested that individuals and parent groups should insist that teachers reduce the amount of homework, design more valuable assignments, and avoid homework altogether over breaks and holidays.”
Abigail Moskovits, an Israeli high school and middle school teacher and parent of school-age children, offers a slightly different view.
“Here is my double standard: I expect all of my students to do their work, even if it is hard for them. As a teacher, I see homework as a way to fill in the academic gaps. So, if it is hard for them, it is that much more important that they do it.
“As a parent, if the homework is too hard, I tell my children to give it their best shot but not to sweat it because I want their leaning experience to be a stress-free, fun one. I want them to enjoy going to school and not see it as a place where they are being beaten down.
“Now, as a teacher I would never want my students to have negative associations with school or with what I am teaching, but I also expect a certain amount of effort on their part and that effort is evidenced only through classwork and homework.”
My conclusion is that the inconsistency of homework assignments makes it difficult for many children to learn. Here are some things teachers should do to make homework more consistent and useful. If your child’s teachers give too much homework, suggest to them the following:
1. Homework should always include choices. Choice is the most important motivator for students to learn from any assignment. The first choice is what days homework will be given. I recommend three nights of homework for any subject as a maximum, and the students as a class get to pick which nights.
The second choice is which questions to answer. Whatever the number of questions a teacher assigns, it can be cut by a third or half by letting the students decide which they want to answer. If there are five questions, let each student pick any three, if there are 10 questions let each student pick five.
The benefit of this is that each student must review all questions anyway in order decide which to answer, the teacher has less to correct, and motivation is highly increased.
2. Make the homework interesting.
Worksheets, repetitions and drill type questions should be minimal. Ask questions that require thought, creativity and challenge.
3. Make sure that all teachers work together to be sure that the total load for each night is reasonable.
4. If a parent tells you that her child is getting too much, listen to her.
Never, never say something like, “Well, that’s what I give all my students and they have never complained.” Parents only care about their child, and they know best about whether their children are struggling or not.
If a child is struggling with his amount of homework, reduce the choice by one question, i.e. choose any four to choose any three.
If most teachers in Israel follow these critical suggestions, the battle over homework will be greatly reduced, the arguments will cease and children will learn.
Next month: How parents can make their homes homework havens where children have the greatest chance for finishing their homework.
The author is the director of the graduate program in behavior disorders at David Yellin College in Jerusalem and the author of Discipline with Dignity.