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18 Aug, Thursday
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Montreal Families

Does homework improve students’ marks?

For many young kids, just the mention of the word homework is likely to instigate whines and vehement words of disdain. However, children aren’t the only ones with an aversion to dictee words and practice questions; many parents also find helping kids with after-school work a huge headache.

Still, most teachers and parents reassure themselves that homework is a necessary component in facilitating a child’s learning because conventional wisdom has conditioned us to believe homework and academic success are synonymous.

So there was some shock and apprehension when the principal of Collège Saint-Ambroise, an elementary school in the Saguenay area, announced in 2014 that there would be a near complete ban on all homework for an entire year as part of a pilot project.

“From what we’ve observed following our students, homework at the primary level is shown to have little to no impact on academic achievement,” says Édith Aubut, the school’s principal.

Aubut explains that the idea for the ban came out of a desire to maximize learning and student engagement during class time. She says she believes that eliminating homework removes an element of conflict and stress at home, resulting in more attentive students who are at ease during the day.

“The teachers were happy with the results,” Aubut says. “They saw students coming to class in the morning happier and more eager to learn because they weren’t overburdened with the stress of unfinished homework from the previous night. Many of these students are away from home all day because they’re in daycares from 7 a.m. until sometimes 6 p.m. at night. By the time they get home, eat supper, and wash up, homework eliminates pretty much any free time that’s left to decompress. For a young, susceptible child, it can be very hard to process that stress.”

Though this non-conventional approach may seem counterintuitive, the notion that homework hampers, rather than helps, a student’s ability to perform well in school is not as foreign as some may think.

The Prince of Wales Elementary School in Barrie, Ont. imposed a similar ban in 2008; after the trial year was done, grades actually went up.

In 2012, the French president raised many an eyebrow when he floated around the proposition of banning homework altogether from elementary and middle schools and, in the same year, a high school in Germany started a two-year ban on all homework.

In 2010, the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation, an advisory committee whose job it is to propose guidelines and draw up recommendations for the Minister of education in Quebec, released a study that looked at the impact of homework and assignments in the province’s primary schools.

The study said that no research has ever proven a causal link between homework and academic outcomes at the elementary level, and that while other countries, such as Australia and the United States, have certain social groups actively lobbying to abolish it, in Quebec there has been little push back or questioning given in terms of the time-honoured tradition.

In the report, the Conseil touches on how the family institution has undergone some dramatic changes over past decades, citing the influx of parents into the workforce and sharp increases in after-school daycare services, divorce, and single parent households. All of this has compounded to create an environment at home in which the completion of homework for most families is a challenge. Moreover, it says homework becomes that much more unfeasible if a child has any form of learning disability, or if parents aren’t fluent in the language of instruction.

“In these cases, homework can become a source of household stress and often contributes to a negative attitude toward learning, which in turn has a direct impact on student retention. When it comes to homework, it would appear that all students are not created ‘equal’: they simply don’t all share the same conditions for them to enjoy the benefits of homework,” the report states.

The study concluded that the decision of whether or not to assign homework should ultimately come down to the teacher, and that he or she “should be primarily focused on the relevance of homework within the unique context of those families and students served by the school.”

Aubut says there were some parents who were initially apprehensive or worried their child might fall through the cracks. “But after we explained it, pretty much everyone was on board; it was only a small minority who insisted on there being homework and, in those cases, we sat down with the parents and went through how we might work out a home learning plan.”

Aubut explains that while there was a ban on homework, it by no means meant a vacation for the students, who were still held accountable for assigned work not finished during class time. Also, kids were required to do some reading at home throughout the year.

After looking back at the year and analyzing the benefits of the ban, Aubut and her staff have decided to extend it for another year. She says grades stayed the same, with any change being marginal; students who normally excelled continued to excel, while those with more difficulty continued to need extra attention.

The real difference was in the general mood and happier disposition of the children. Those students with learning difficulties or behavioural problems showed more classroom decorum and seemed to benefit greatly from the project.

Aubut says that all schools should consider implementing similar bans, but only if they have a team of teachers who are committed to making it work. “I think it takes a close knit group of teachers to function; we had to all go over the lesson plans together and come up with new ways to approach learning during class time,” she said. You have to be open-minded and look at things like time management. You really become responsible for making sure students are making full use of their time in class.”

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