Homework works given the right dosage
In recent months, the very word ‘homework’ can evoke many very negative connotations. Whether homework, work done by students on their own after school, should be administered has been a perennial topic of debate in education or rather in society. Hong Kong is not alone in this debate. A tremendous amount of research on homework, some spanning over decades, has been done in the United Kingdom and the United States, but no definitive conclusions have been arrived at.
As someone who has been in the field for close to 50 years and is still very much active, I have to say all students need to do homework for the purpose of complementing their learning at school but not merely being kept busy after school. Schools should develop and regularly review their homework policy regarding not just the quantity but also the quality and this has to be made known to parents.
These days, most Hong Kong students, except for kindergarten pupils, are already spending close to 8 hours at school, so it seems heartless to still insist on burdening them with more work after school! However, there are obvious benefits of doing the right kind of homework as an extension of what they have learnt at school for the day or to prepare them for new lessons, or for them to integrate and apply various skills or knowledge learnt to a new task. For younger pupils, homework time is for parents to get involved in what their young children are doing at school. Of course, doing homework prepares students for various assessments. And for all students, homework provides valuable opportunities to develop good study habits such as discipline, time-management and responsibility.
Certainly, opponents of this homework debate can come up with an array of harm caused by students having to do homework. Students have to be given time to relax and refresh their tired minds and bodies so as to grow healthily both mentally and physically. They need time with their family and friends as is the case of teenage students. Without such contact time, relationships might be jeopardized, resulting in social chaos. When the load of homework is overwhelming, students are simply put off and do not do it or just copy it from those conscientious classmates who have finished the tasks.
Sound as they may seem, these arguments are built upon the premise that loads of meaningless homework are given to students only to keep them occupied after school, so the crux of the issue is not whether homework should be abandoned or not but that the right kind and amount of homework is to be given. In fact, studies abound with strong evidence that homework, when administered appropriately, does bring about improvement in student performance.
In order for this to happen, schools should develop, implement, monitor and evaluate homework policy which is made known and explained to not only teachers and students but also parents, especially those of primary school students who tend to be much involved in their children’s affairs.
The matter can be boiled down to who, why, what and how much! Who or which grade level is doing the homework? That is the prime concern. Why is the homework done or for what objective? What kind of homework is it? How much time is needed to have the homework done? Schools are to lay down clear guidelines covering these aspects and have the matter monitored and coordinated by a committee headed by experienced teachers or curriculum leaders. Schools could also make reference to Education Bureau circulars on this issue.
There is also an interesting recommendation regarding homework time as suggested by American researchers in the past decade - the "10-minute rule" - with an additional 10 minutes each night as students progress from grade to grade. In Hong Kong context, that would mean 10 minutes homework time for kindergarten year 1 and 20 minutes for kindergarten year 2. Simple arithmetic tells us that this would end up with primary 6 students doing 80 minutes of homework and secondary 6 students doing 140 minutes of homework. This does sound sensible.
If this takes care of the “how much”, then there is the “what” which is very much related to “why” to be decided on. Teachers have to assign tasks that are specific to the age, skill and interest of the students with the “plus 1” expectation of their performance. The assumption is that these are to be completed on their own with parents merely encouraging and not actually doing them for their children.
Homework, when properly administered, is conducive to learning but can bring havoc when it is casually dumped on students.