Sitting on a long flight this week, I took the opportunity to read a section of Cathy Vatterott’s book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs.
Her book reminded me that the debate about homework has been going on now for more than one hundred years; that schools, in many parts of the world, have gone back and forth on this issue; that the issue has regularly been politicized; and that homework has often been seen as the remedy for perceived inadequacies in the “system”.
Her book also made me think that, when a prospective parent walks into any one of our schools for the first time, this one hundred-year debate is casting a long shadow in the admissions decision-making process that they are about to embark upon.
And the story begins well before families reach our doorstep.
Informally, parents are talking amongst themselves, at dinner parties, on blogs, and outside the school gate. One hundred years of debate is being churned up and reformulated into a set of assumptions on both sides about what after-school should be for.
In the red corner, homework stands for rigor, increased academic standards, taking responsibility and discipline. A good teacher is one that gives a lot of homework and good students do their homework.
In the blue corner, there is no question that students should have opportunities to learn beyond the classroom, but there should also be time to pursue other passions, play outside, eat dinner as a family and get enough sleep.
When the prospective parent walks into any one of our schools for the first time, you can be sure that they’ve had these dinner table conversations, read the blogs, and met up with other parents outside of the school gate.
And there is a good chance that they are still confused.
So when they ask us about our homework policy, it may be that what they are really asking is as follows:
There’s a story out there that, in order to fulfil my duties as a good parent, my child needs to do plenty of homework to get the grades that they need to get into a good university. And that, if they get into a good university, they will have opportunities to pursue their chosen career and become happy, successful and ethical members of society. So can you tell me about your homework policy?
The admissions task is to find a way to unpack this narrative, acknowledge the complexity of what we are dealing with here, and re-frame it in ways that are helpful and constructive for every member of the family.
And the more I think about it, the more I think it begins by listening; listening intently to the hopes, fears, expectations and concerns of parents who walk into our schools.
After all, in the end, I think if we listen closely enough, we may just discover that most of us want the same thing for our children and that it is not so much about homework per se. We just don’t want to fail as parents. No one ever taught us how to choose between the competing forces of “pressure” and “wellbeing”, so most of us are simply doing our best with the knowledge we have available to us.
The admissions task is to articulate these tensions with understanding, poise and give an opportunity for new narratives to emerge.
As I finish reading the book and my long flight enters its final descent, a young father a few seats across sits holding his 7-month-old baby. He is busy talking with a stranger next to him about the difficulties of being a new parent and already having to think about school.
‘There are lots of good schools in my neighbourhood’, he says, ‘but at the same time I’m not sure I want my boy to be stressed out taking tests from the age of two and spending every night doing hours of homework.’
The Great Homework Debate, I noted, is alive and well on flight 119.