Homework: can we learn a lesson from the Poles?

26th June 2009 at 01:00

My wife has been nagging me for a while now. Not about the run-of-the-mill daily chores. She's been talking about homework - or the lack of it in Wales.

This won't be popular, but she believes that children in our primary schools simply do not have enough homework. She also makes the point that if children had more homework to keep themselves busy in the evenings, it would keep them off the streets.

My wife is Polish and they do things differently there. In Poland, she tells me, children from the age of seven are given lots to do after school hours. Homework is an important part of a Polish pupil's education.

She mocks the amount of homework I give the children in my class.

"If children in Poland can cope with lots of homework, why can't British children?" she asks me.

I must admit it has made me think. Maybe, if we did give more homework to our children to do in the evenings, it would stop them from hanging about on the streets. It would also limit the time they spent staring at screens, either attached to the computer or the television.

We all know how true it is that the brain is a muscle: that the more it is used, the bigger and more effective it gets. Perhaps homework is the answer.

In Poland, homework is given daily. Rather than marking each individual piece of homework, the teacher does a quick spot test, based on the work already given. Teachers ask pupils in the class a question at random, and at the end of the month a grade is given for the child's performance.

It is this daily pressure that motivates pupils to do their homework, because they fear humiliation if they get quizzed the next day in school.

But not everyone from Poland agrees with my wife. Polish friends of mine have told me that their son gets extremely frustrated with all his homework and finds the extra work too much.

Then it is the parents who must step in to go over the maths or English again with their child, to help him or her learn. And all this homework could put a child off learning for good.

There is another problem with giving so much homework. There is so much here that that my friends wonder what the teachers are doing in school. Otherwise, why should a child, after supposedly learning all day, have to go home and do even more work?

It certainly makes you wonder what the solution is. To start with, we'd have to change the current mindset and culture and make daily homework normal for schools everywhere. And we would need to make it consistent.

Next problem: what type of homework should be given? Well, what about some kind of project work? I'm not talking about lots of written work, but an interesting challenge, where the children have to build or create something each week. It could be measuring elements to cover maths work. Something that is useful and practical. Each night, the child has to work on the next part of the project to get it done for Friday, when they are assessed.

It would also be a chance for children to work with their parents or guardians on tasks every night, which would get the family more involved with the child's learning.

When my own school set a homework task for our Eisteddfod by asking people to create a dragon, the finished product was absolutely amazing. A teacher commented that it was probably done by the parent.

So chuffing what!

Even if the parent did do it, I bet the child watched them put it together, or helped out in some way. It's a perfect chance for a family to work together for an educational purpose.

Wouldn't it be great if primary children got used to doing a task each day when they got home from school? If we created a culture of learning that required children to complete more tasks out of school, it would lessen the time they have to get bored.

To return to my earlier point, is homework the answer? As teachers, have we become slack when it comes to giving children work to do out of school?

If teachers gave out more homework, it could be the answer to building brain power. It could even encourage children and parents to see that learning and education doesn't just stop at 3.15pm, and emphasise that it doesn't just happen in school.

I know some people might say that children are children and should be having fun when they are not at school. But if that fun is sitting on their backsides watching DVDs, or playing their PlayStations for hours, wouldn't it benefit them to get their brains thinking about something constructive, and then having to communicate with their parents to get it done?

Make daily homework compulsory, I say. But let's make sure it is challenging and fun.

Rob Jefferies Teacher at Blaencaerau Junior School near Maesteg, Bridgend.

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