I've edited my original post, in which I confessed to doing an assignment for a seven-year-old 2nd grader, I help from time to time with homework. The assignment was to draw a skeleton. Being given no other information, I assumed this to be a human skeleton. In my thirty plus years of teaching biology, I never attempted to draw a human skeleton, nor did I ask my students up to and including 6th formers to do so. Individual bones, yes. A whole skeleton, no. Drawings and charts of skeletons, seen from different angles sufficed to understand the working of the skeleton. To my shame, I drew one, so the child would get a grade.
However, it turned out that the homework was not to draw a skeleton but to make a model of a skeleton. Experimenting with a ping-pong ball and some straws, I realised that the child could cut the straws, and staple them at the joints and to the rest of the skeleton, so they can move.
I gave 'drawing a skeleton' as an example unmanageable assignments which are given every day. Why did I condone cheating, which is what it is? The assignment was non-negotiable. Teacher set it and it had to be done. The teacher had set it because skeleton is on the syllabus for grade 2 term 1, specifically, the student should draw or make a model of bones… using the material provided. Fortunately, in this case, the assignment was not unmanageable and I was able to provide materials from which the child could make the model. I have also learnt that assignments can be negotiable.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that homework shouldn’t be given. I think it’s important for parents to be involved with children’s school work, and for them to supervise homework is one of the ways this can be achieved. Appropriate homework for parents to supervise include
• committing to memory such things as spellings, definitions, and multiplication tables.
• Doing practice exercises to consolidate what has been taught in the classroom.
• Listening to the child reading.
• Age-appropriate research.
All of these can be supervised by a parent or caregiver who has little or no knowledge of the subject matter. What is important is the interest they show and the attention they give to the child. The homework routine is an opportunity to teach self-discipline. Ideally, homework should be done at the same time every day, in a quiet place, free of distractions. (Certainly no TV on). There is a danger of homework becoming a battleground, so it may be necessary to offer some incentive, such as allowing the child to watch some TV programmes when the homework is satisfactorily completed.
The length of time children spend on homework is another bone of contention. Recommended times are
20 minutes for grades 1and 2;
30 minutes for grades 3 and 4;
a maximum of one hour for grades 5 and 6.
Of course these times will vary, as some children work more quickly than others. The top homework scholar in the U.S.A., Harris Cooper of Duke University, concluded that homework does not measurably improve academic achievement for children in grades 1 to 5. He also found that children in grades 6-8 who do up to 90 minutes, and from 9-11 who do up to 2 hours do better on standardized tests than those who do more.
I put out a call for teachers to give manageable homework assignments, with clear, unambiguous instructions. When somebody other than the child does the homework, it’s sending the wrong message, i.e. that it’s okay to cheat. We have to remember also that unmanageable homework penalizes the many children who are already at a disadvantage because they have nobody to help them.