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Too Much Homework Creates a New Generation of Workaholics

10/01/2014 09:07 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:57 EDT
PhotoAlto/Laurence Mouton via Getty Images

Weekday evenings in our household can being idyllic, going for Popsicles with the kids at the corner store after dinner and then watching an old movie. On other nights, we're not so lucky, and tempers flare, doors slam and I'm left wondering why I rushed home from work. The usual trigger point: homework.

Let's be clear: No one likes homework. Children groan at the thought of more school work biting into their increasingly diminishing free time. I imagine teachers don't even like homework. For working parents, juggling supervision of a child's homework with other pressing needs in the evening, including their own work-related tasks, can be a disaster. The stress of this added load often degenerates into yelling and tears -- often my own.

So when a progressive public school in Quebec announced it was banning homework for elementary school children, I cheered. Maybe this is a sign that the concept of homework will be revisited.

The objective of this one-year pilot, according to the school's spokesperson, is not only to improve student performance -- some research suggests that less homework translates into better grades -- but also to ease the pressure on parents.

For the past two years, my son has been fortunate to have a teacher who assigned homework only sporadically. Reading remained a daily requirement, resulting in a delightful 30 minutes every evening.

Will I win the no-homework lottery again this year? So far it seems to be the case but if a certain teacher at a certain public school happens to be reading this column, here's my argument: Homework provides little value, has a negative impact on family life and will foster yet another generation of non-stop workers.

On the first point, a recent parliamentary inquiry in Australia found that homework has almost no academic benefits for elementary school children.

Countries like Finland, which consistently ranks high academically compared with other OECD countries, already frowns on homework.

It doesn't necessarily take extensive research to see the correlation between excess homework and stress, as any family can attest.

"Children are already stressed out by external pressures, including social ones, and additional homework won't improve aptitude," said Rizwan Alam, a Montreal-based data scientist and uncle to three nieces. He argued, like many others, that the curriculum should be planned to include homework at school, not when kids get home. "Doing homework after long school hours is unconscionable," he added.

Mr. Alam said his nieces already have a packed day, and with just 45 minutes for lunch, children are "already working like full-time employees."

If schools are presumably creating workers of the future, excessive homework sends the message that work is never done and must be attended to, day and night. This lack of work-life balance may start earlier than we think.

Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Education, co-wrote a study published earlier this year that showed that high school students in high-achieving communities were already tilting their work-life balance scale, choosing homework over family, friends and extracurricular pursuits.

This non-stop work ethic is only getting more pronounced. What most of us consider to be a 40-hour work week is actually 47 hours, according to a recent Gallup poll. Fifty-per cent of salaried employees in the United States say they work more than 40 hours, with almost four in 10 saying they work over 50 hours a week.

Not everyone is convinced that no-homework policies would spell better balance for children or adults.

"If my own kids were told they had no homework, they wouldn't rush to the library to borrow a stack of books waist-high, giddy with the prospect of hundreds of extra reading hours ahead. Poor fools, they would think they were suddenly granted their greatest wish -- unlimited screen time," said Karen Skinazi, a Canadian literary and cultural critic based in Birmingham.

Homework, Ms. Skinazi said, or the adult equivalent of work after hours, helps to seal in the lessons learned during the day and doesn't need to have a negative impact on life's other enjoyments.

"It's the same way that, as an academic, I go over my lectures in the evening, or a doctor might review a procedure, or a lawyer, her case. We don't want to be working round the clock -- but neither do we want to be so removed from our scholastic or professional lives on our 'off' time that each morning we have to relearn what we should already know," she said.

Maybe so, but I think we can all take a page out of that Quebec public school's new edict and create a little sanctuary at home in the evenings, at least once in a while.

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