Do we want wonderkids?

Last year, Sun Valley Primary School in Cape Town made the trailblazing decision to scrap homework from children’s schedules. The results? Happier, more engaged children and more valuable learning, according to principal Gavin Keller. We asked parents to weigh in on the debate. 

Mounting financial and work pressures are stressing out today’s families. Who wants to come home from a long day at the office and have to deal with the chore of your child’s homework?

Julie Venter from Port Elizabeth, whose daughters are in Grade three and five respectively, says too much is expected of children these days.

Do we want wonder-kids? Or do we want our kids to have the wonder of childhood? Balance is getting harder to find in and outside the classroom.

“My girls each do a sport, music classes and are in the choir. They’re in aftercare, which assists with the homework burden, but we still struggle to fit in the evening schedule. Each year, the homework demand grows and grows, and when you have two kids, it becomes a juggling act. I don’t like having to ‘do’ school again, but I don’t have a choice,” she says.

Lorren Volschenk from Durban agrees that her children are also overloaded. With two daughters, including one in high school, she’s limited their involvement in extra mural activities but still feels they’re overburdened.

“Micayla – in high school – wakes up before 5am every morning to study or complete her homework, attends school until 2:45pm, and is only finished with extra murals at 4:30pm. She comes home, grabs a snack, and is off to her room to do homework. Eventually at 9pm, I have to tell her it’s bedtime. Children no longer have the time to be children anymore,” she says.

According to Keller, many parents simply don’t have time to sit with their children in the evening to help with homework, and this affects learning. He says that children who get help in the evenings tend to manage, but those without that kind of support after hours are simply being left behind.

What the research says

Keller has told several news outlets that the school’s decision to replace uniform homework with reading, personal performance tasks and revision for the assessment week each term was informed by global research, including American scholar Bill Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014).

Deresiewicz’s research shows that it’s usually the brighter children who don’t do their work in class, and instead take it home where their parents can assist them. Because of this, many achievers at school tend to “fall apart” at first year varsity.

Sun Valley Primary’s new homework policy has taken years of extensive work to redesign the school’s curriculum using the Understanding by Design (UbD) methodology, as well as BrainSMART teaching strategies by Donna Wilson, and Brain-based Learning by Eric Jensen.

The result is a neuro-learning programme that involves REAL learning: R=Relevant, E=Engaging, A=Attention, and L=Lifelong learning. The move away from homework is underlined by these strategies.

Balance is key

Keller told Radio 702 listeners in an interview: “We asked ourselves, what is the purpose of homework when children are already spending seven hours at school and how are these kids going to have a balanced life?”

Cath Jenkin, a Durban-based writer, agrees that balance is key. “Parents need to be aware that while there are many extra murals on offer, your child does not have to participate in all of them. Our daughter only does three extra murals per term (one sport, one cultural activity, and one service), which frees up two afternoons each week to do homework, study for tests, and maybe throw in some play time.”

What about parental involvement?

In an op-ed about the school’s decision on eNCA in November 2015, writer Georgina Guedes argued that while everyone on the receiving end of homework isn’t crazy about it, “we are required to do many things in life that we don’t like, but which have value and help to improve our circumstances.”

For Guedes, the benefit of doing schoolwork at home is to ensure that “knowledge has been properly transferred and that children aren’t doing things in a hypnotic state when their teachers are in the room.

“I also think that there are many different learning and teaching styles, and something might click for a child when a parent is explaining it, after they’ve been struggling to understand what the teacher meant. And I think it’s important for parents to understand and be involved in what their children are learning,” writes Guedes.

Jenkin agrees: “While I fully support the scrapping of homework, it could mean less parental involvement in academics, which is already a problem. I think it'll be harder to get into a study routine for exams, if you haven't had a homework routine to stick to. So, in that way, I worry it'll be more difficult on the child come exam time.”

Inspiring accountability

Keller says Sun Valley’s approach is forcing children to use all their time in class to focus their attention on a given task.

"Now we are making them 100% accountable, and now we can see where they are battling immediately, and then we can plan accordingly,” he says, adding that children are doing better because they are being assessed in class, and receiving immediate feedback.

Inspiring teachers

According to Keller, the role of educators, ultimately, is to get through to students, and improve their growth. This is a task which becomes cumbersome when overloaded by homework. He says that teachers have a tendency to be so pressurised by curriculum overload that they go into “default teaching mode” and assign all unfinished work as homework.

Johannesburg-based writer and mother of twin seven-year-old boys, Shelley Hutton says that this idea was highlighted during parents’ evening at her sons’ school, recently. 

“We were told that the reinforcement of skills [is] necessary at this age to bed down concepts – sight words, reading fluency, doubling, halving – is not always possible by educators during class time; parental involvement is requisite, not an optional extra.”

Keller says the no homework policy has introduced a newer-based learning space to the school and that it has improved the climate of the classroom.

Do we want wonderkids?

“Our decision to replace conventional uniform homework with reading and other personal performance tasks has certainly caused a stir,” Keller writes on the school’s blog, adding that the move seems to have scratched a festering scab on the skin of many parents, countrywide. The story was covered by several news outlets, including SABC, eTV, Cape Talk and Forbes. In a survey on News24, 88.4% of respondents felt that all schools should do away with homework completely.

Hutton says:“I think the question is less about our schools and more about our society's expectations of where kids should be at socially, developmentally and academically. Do we want wonderkids? Or do we want our kids to have the wonder of childhood? Balance is getting harder to find in and outside the classroom.”