Is homework necessary for young children, or is it burdensome? This debate is not new to America, but in recent years it has gained new momentum. News sources from PBS to The Washington Post have discussed the issue, searching for the balance that would educate children at all socio-economic levels without overloading them. Some innovative schools have begun to work at eliminating the kind of monotonous busy-work that kills a child's incentive to learn and keeps them from their families for extended periods in the evenings.
But could all homework be bad for children? Homework proponents insist that some subjects cannot be mastered without repetitive rote memorization. Even homework critics allow for the fact that well thought-out assignments can certainly contribute to a child's love of learning, especially when it requires the full engagement of an inquiring mind. However, many educators believe that the over-application of monotonous rote learning often has the opposite affect.
In addition, some teachers find that when children are left on their own to complete homework, their misunderstandings about certain tasks can become entrenched. Unfortunately, fewer families than ever are intact, and single parents may find themselves working long hours with less time and energy to spend helping children complete assignments.
Even if they do find time to help children through their homework, that may be the only time parents and children share between the end of the workday and bedtime.
So, homework or no homework? Which is best way for parents to help children learn?
John Holt, educator and author of the two profound classics How Children Fail and How Children Learn, made some perceptive observations as early as the mid-sixties. "It is before they get to school that children are likely to do their best learning," he noted, reasoning that this is because children begin life wanting to learn. Because they have an innate excitement for exploration and discovery, the way they learn before school may be the most effective method by which they will be ever be taught.
"Vivid, vital, pleasurable experiences are the easiest to remember," Holt points out, adding that "memory works best when unforced." In contrast, we think and learn badly when we're afraid or anxious.
Unfortunately, Holt insisted, most schools are less concerned with excitement, exploration or discovery—which are pleasurable experiences to a child—and more concerned with fragmentary and industrialized forms of learning.
As a result, he says, "[children] are bored because the things they are given and told to do in school are so trivial, so dull, and make such limited and narrow demands on the wide spectrum of their intelligence, capabilities and talents."
This accusation could be made against some kinds of homework as well, which might suggest that parents could be better off spending their meagre time with their children in more productive ways.
In fact, if parents were able to consistently spend leisure time with their children at home, perhaps some of the behavioral problems that interfere with classroom learning would begin to dissipate. As a result, teachers might find themselves with more time to teach, and under less pressure to meet testing standards.
It should not be surprising that engaged parenting is the pivotal factor leading to the creation of any such upward spiral. Homework or no homework, parents will always have an important role to play in nurturing a child's love of learning. In fact, it may be that positive family relationships have much more to do with a child's educational success than any other consideration worthy of debate.