Thursday, March 08, 2007

Homework - too much and too little

(Continuing the Homework series - please see the previous post and its comments.)

My first school experience was in the Communist Poland of the 1970s. We started school at 6 or 7, and by the end of the first year we were expected to have mastered:
· reading a book with more than 1000 words of text,
· writing a page-long essay about topics such as what we did during the holidays,
· addition,
· subtraction,
· set theory.

Our homework in primary school began with about 1 hour in the first year, and increased by about 30 minutes every year, so that teenagers would often come home around 4pm and sit down to do homework which would easily take till 10pm by the time you hit year 10.

That’s clearly too much. And yet, when I left Poland at the age of 12, I could write a 3-page essay about the influence of the Renaissance on the art of the period, I could analyse a work of literature in terms of symbolism and foreshadowing, I knew my Greek mythology and non-binary systems of counting, I understood photosynthesis and could recite all the major rivers of Europe together with their tributaries.

In South Africa, I experienced a shock. Although my English was next to non-existent at the time, I couldn’t believe that the only homework we ever got was to learn a list of words for a spelling test or to colour in a map. The maths syllabus was about 3 years behind what I was used to... and all the tests were in the textbook, just begging the students to do them ahead of time in order to get better scores (that, however, would have been homework, so they didn’t do it).

When I challenged my parents about the discrepancy between the two education systems, I was told: “perhaps teachers in South Africa teach in such a way that no homework is ever necessary”. Well, I suppose in a way they were right. Teachers in South Africa taught a very minimalist curriculum compared to the Polish one.

So, what’s better, a good education or a carefree childhood? Is there an acceptable compromise?

We’ll look for the answer together next week.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to know what your child’s personal assessment says about their homework, please have a look at

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