Homework: Critical Learning Tool, or Busywork?

Very little time elapsed between the day my son entered first grade and his loss of interest in school. At the beginning of the year he was indeed enthusiastic about school and around Hanukkah, as though according to the Education Ministry instruction book, he learned to read. It was the homework that destroyed the pleasure, both for him and for me.

Doing homework became a source of daily friction between us. To tell the truth, we sometimes discovered the problem when it was too late, halfway to bedtime.

"Why do they give so much homework in first grade? Is she out of her mind?" I complained, expressing my opinion of the teacher, a smiling student who looked like a high-school kid herself. Not a very successful recipe for nurturing respect for the teacher in a new schoolboy.

In any case, one day he stopped doing homework. He didn't want to, and it didn't interest him to fill in the workbook. And the killer argument: "Mommy, the teacher doesn't check it anyway." It was hard to blame him. In view of the after-school program, the enrichment classes, a visit to a friend and a few television shows, there really wasn't time to take out his notebook. Nevertheless, I pondered: When I was little, I always did my homework, even though my mother wasn't interested in the state of my studies. Is it the case that since homework became the parents' problem, children are no longer doing it?

Many parents have mixed feelings about homework. Despite the load, they believe that homework is essential to learning but they don't always know how to translate their disquiet into demands. For example, that homework should be more interesting. Instead, there is the common phenomenon of doing homework together with your children, in the less bad case, or even in their stead. According to Rakefet Cabessa, a fifth-grade teacher in Jerusalem and the mother of three, "For many parents, a lot of homework is an indication of achievement orientation, seriousness and a good level of studies. I hear complaints along the line of 'they aren't teaching them anything. The notebooks are empty. They barely come home with any homework.' To my way of thinking, this is no measure at all of what is done in class."

Don't they need to play?

At the Education Ministry there is no clear policy on the issue of homework. The latest director general's bulletin that dealt with the issue, in 1996, is obsolete. There is some vague talk there about how parents should not be involved in the preparation of homework. About a decade ago, as part of innovative processes, a few schools began a policy of not assigning homework. However, at those schools the parents gradually became more and more demanding that the assigned tasks be restored.

"At parents' meetings they were really anxious. Each time they demanded more and more homework," relates Bini Noam of Tel Aviv, the mother of three children, two of whom have graduated and one of whom is in eighth grade. A year ago she decided to transfer her youngest son from the prestigious A.D. Gordon School in Tel Aviv to the Open School in Jaffa. "I felt that the social spirit had been sacrificed to an emphasis on achievement. What has happened? Don't children need to play? Most of the children had private tutors from first grade on so as to advance them more in their studies and so they could manage with the burden of homework and the competition from other children."

Presumably children exploit this perplexity on the part of their parents and teachers. Professor Amos Rolider, head of the Jezreel Valley College Institute for the Study and Prevention of Antisocial Behavior, says that every third child in the state of Israel does not do all his homework. Rolider is an expert on dealing with violence in schools. His philosophy is that the school has to develop in its students an attitude of personal responsibility, which is measured in part by promptness in coming to class, coming to school with the proper equipment and completed homework assignments. His teams that work in schools map them according to these parameters and thus he arrived at the problematic figure.

In the eternal debate as to whether homework assignments are necessary for successful learning, Rolider is a great believer in homework assignments in the classical format. "Memorization is tremendously important," he says. "At home it is necessary practice, to 'fix' the knowledge, so that it will not be an ephemeral episode. The acquisition of new knowledge is not measured only by understanding things but also by the accuracy and time of the understanding."

In his opinion, homework assignments are "one of the most wonderful ways to educate children to independence, planning, organizing themselves and the postponement of gratifications." The problem is that some of the homework assignments that children are given are "beyond their abilities." Rolider says: "This derives from a lack of adequate explanation in class and from the grim situation of a teacher thinking that parents need to help with homework. The school should see to it that children go home with assignments that they can carry out independently in balanced amounts (15 to 20 minutes in first grade, for example, with an increase in the amount every year).

"For their part, parents should see to it that children sit down to do their homework as soon as possible, in their room, not on the carpet, not when the television is on, before all the temptations and the enrichment classes," continues Rolider. According to a study carried out by two of his students at Jezreel Valley College about a year ago, it emerges that children who did their homework right after lunch had higher grades in Hebrew, English and arithmetic than those who did their homework later.

Practiced passivity

In practice, the Israeli family does not operate this way. "When a child comes home at 4:30, his mother is also coming home then, and she is too tired to sit and do homework with him," says Yael Halfon of Jerusalem, who is the mother of second-grader Noa, a high-school teacher and a diagnostician of elementary-school children. At about 6 o'clock, in the best case, they remember it's necessary to do homework. And then the struggle starts."

Clearly there is a certain problem inherent in this criticism. We wouldn't want to bring working mothers back home at one in the afternoon to sit with the child and do homework. The problem is that in the after-school programs homework is not taken seriously and time is not devoted to it.

And why are parents involved in homework at all? According to Rolider, it all stems from the fact that the Israeli parent today "outsources parenting" and is not at home with the child. "It starts when they stick the baby in front of the television and send the child to a self-awareness course. The child does not learn to play - he practices passivity. And there is a price paid for this."

For their part, parents are gripped by guilt feelings. "Parents today are feeling they have to serve and to please," says Rolider. "Parents are not educating children. They are providing service. And everyone knows that the client is always right."

Educational psychologist Sylvia Zilberman believes parents have lost confidence in children's natural ability to develop. It used to be they knew that if there are reasonable conditions, children will walk on time and will learn to read in first grade. Like everyone else. This knowledge has been lost. If you look at the number of developmental toys that exist in the market, you realize that nowadays it's not simply fun to play but rather it is necessary to practice and train, to make an effort in order to develop. The world has changed. Nowadays parents are under pressure. They feel that if they aren't there to make certain, the child will lag behind."