Gerald Haigh questions the value of these spurious tasks and extols the virtue of allowing children to get bored in the evening
It isn't just children and parents who are pressured by homework. The head of the Birmingham secondary school where I once taught would daily read out in assembly the names of three children randomly chosen to show him their homework.
We all knew why he did it - and it wasn't to check up on the children. He was after the slacking teachers who hadn't bothered to set homework according to the timetable. The entirely predictable result was that teachers, forced to find something capable of being done unaided at home, would dream up all manner of spurious tasks, sometimes thinking furiously on their feet in the dying moments of the lesson. (Or even beyond: "Come back. Come back. I've just remembered it's your homework night.") Why do we do it? We know perfectly well, after all, how unfair homework is.
To say that some children have superb home study facilities and others have worse than none is so obvious that it's almost embarrassing to repeat it.
We keep dreaming up the tasks, though, and Alfie Kohn is simply stating the obvious when he writes: "Homework isn't limited to those times when it seems appropriate and important. Rather the point of departure seems to be, 'We've decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). Later on we'll figure out what to make them do'."
Add the numerous pieces of research quoted by the author, a US educationist, which find that there's no appreciable relationship between homework and educational attainment, and the inescapable conclusion is that it's all to do more with discipline than with the nature of the work itself.
What's truly remarkable about this is the level of uncritical acceptance, even among those who should know better, that homework is somehow good for its own sake.
Kohn quotes examples where critics first cast doubt on homework's effectiveness but then go on to say, in effect, "But of course that doesn't mean we should abolish it."
Why don't we? He thinks it's because we just don't trust children to learn.
If so, maybe we need bolder and more sceptical parents, like the one quoted in the book, whose vision of a homework-free home includes this: "My kids might even occasionally enjoy the opportunity to be bored. You remember boredom, don't you? That state where the imagination is forced to take over and create entertainment?"
The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much Of A Bad Thing
By Alfie Kohn
Da Capo Press (published March 1, 2007) pound;14.50