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All Work and No Play? Why Schools Around the World Are Cutting Back on Homework

An animated video of a ball hitting a book, indicating the shaky balance between work and play.
Many countries across the world are now restricting homework in a bid to reduce academic pressure. Illustration by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

Education

All Work and No Play? Why Schools Around the World Are Cutting Back on Homework

'I think the best way to learn something is to revise it.'

Jyoti Gupta, a single mom from Mysore, a city in southern India, believes that homework is simply a helpful study resource for her 13-year-old. The digital media professional prefers to use it as a tool to brush up on what her daughter has learned in class. “I have chosen a school where the overall development of the child matters and the child isn’t stressed about schoolwork,” Gupta told Re:Set. Her daughter’s school gives her enough leeway to finish her homework the next day in case she finds herself caught up with after-school activities. “As long as the child is learning and it is a revision [of what’s covered in school] as homework, I’m OK with it. I do not believe in stressing the child out, just not worth it.”  

“I do not believe in stressing the child out, just not worth it.”  

Homework can often feel overwhelming and present itself in different forms such as holiday assignments. This was the case with Delhi-based siblings, Vatsal and Aviral Mishra. Summer homework was often a task that wasn’t dealt with until the last minute with their mom pitching in. While they’re both in college now, a few years ago, their lives revolved around decoding math equations and solving puzzles after school. Their mom, Neeta Mishra, a psychologist, would often end up doing 80% of the work for them.

A photo of the Mishra family posing together for the camera with big smiles. In this picture, there are four people, standing close to each other. On either are two young men in black shirts and khaki slacks, and in between is a woman in a yellow sari and a man in a grey shirt. In the background, we see a shelf in the leftmost corner - there are wine glasses arranged on it. On the right hand side, there are some couches and a painting that is hanging on the wall.

For the Mishras, tackling homework as a family has been a learning experience. Photo courtesy: Sudhanshu Mishra

The family lives in Delhi, India, and is one of the many grappling with striking the right balance between work and play. For the Mishra kids, homework was a painful prospect especially during the summer. Their father, Sudhanshu Mishra, an IT professional was not a fan of holiday homework, but found it essential during the academic year. “It [sounds a little] old school…[but] I think the best way to learn something is to revise it,” he opined. 

In November last year, some schools in Dubai announced their decision to either reduce or eliminate homework to let students get more downtime. Across the world, countries such as Finland and South Korea have reduced their students’ homework hours. On the other hand, China is considered to have a significant amount of after-school work for its students, clocking at 14 hours every week. Finland, in comparison, only assigns homework that requires students to put in around three hours each week in a bid to offer kids a more balanced schedule. As per data from The National Education Association (NEA) in the United States, the recommended guidelines include assigning ten minutes of homework each night for the first grade with ten more minutes added for each grade after that. For example, a kid in the second grade may spend 20 minutes on homework, while an average high school student might be tackling 90-120 minutes of homework every evening.

“When there is too much homework…children do get stressed.”

In Neeta’s experience as a mental health professional, excessive homework can be detrimental to a child’s mental health. “When there is too much homework…children do get stressed,” she told Re:Set. “I feel that homework restricts them [and] it doesn’t provide them with enough freedom to realize their potential.” She favours homework in moderation. 

For Li Jianji, a sales professional from Henan Province, central China, getting his 15-year-old son, Li Haolin, to appreciate the importance of extra academic work has been difficult. “He does almost all his homework at school,” Jianji told Re:Set. Haolin’s classes end at 6 p.m. and he stays behind four more hours to finish homework. He begins his days early: at 6:10 a.m, to be precise. 

The teenager isn’t fond of studies. “There is nothing I can do to help him learn better except for homework,” Jianji opined. “He is so reluctant to learn. Sometimes, pushing him to learn is like squeezing [the last bit of] toothpaste.” For Jianji, encouraging his son to learn new concepts feels impossible. 


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Ironically, when asked whether homework should be retained in schools, Jianji said that it isn’t necessary to do that as long as students can retain what they’ve learned in class. However, he acknowledges that this is easier said than done. 

As per Aditi Nath, director of cognitive training at The Brain Workshop, a learning centre in Dubai, homework shouldn’t be placed on a pedestal. “The purpose of homework is to help children critically analyze the subject matter and retain information taught in class,” she told Re:Set. “Revision can be helpful; however, if the student cannot retain large amounts of theoretical information, alternative learning styles should be used instead of excessive rote revision.” Nath believes that students benefit from application-based learning. “[Practical learning] builds not only your cognitive profile but also enables long-term life and social skills,” she added.

“There is nothing I can do to help him learn better except for homework.”

For Haolin, being assigned too much schoolwork is a frustrating experience. “He feels stressed about the workload, [which may partially be because he just doesn’t know how to do it,” Jianji explained. “Although I want my child to have a less stressful life, I can’t afford to do so,” Jianji said. “In China, it is hard for your child to have a better future if he or she does not study hard. The competition is super fierce.”

A portrait of Mostafa Hassan's daughter in her school uniform, smiling as she tackles homework. She's holding a pencil, and behind her, we see her peers wearing a similar uniform, sitting at the desk with their books open.

Dubai-based Mackenzie and her sister have been taught to embrace homework in moderation. Photo courtesy: Mostafa Hassan

Mostafa Hassan, a teacher based in Dubai and a single dad to two girls, prefers homework in moderation. “If my kid is assigned a certain amount of schoolwork…[if they’re asked] to solve quizzes, I am OK with that,” Hassan said. “If you learn something in school and you don’t study when you come home…that is not enough…you need to learn more and more,” he added. 

For Gupta and her daughter, choosing a school that maintains a holistic approach towards academia has been beneficial and allowed their schedules to be flexible. Nath concurs that striking a fine balance can make a world of difference. “A good balance is essential for a healthy and holistic learning process. If a child only applies [themselves] in school, [they] would lose important life abilities such as strategy building, team understanding and self-autonomy,” she said. “Prioritizing activities in terms of proximity, interest and ease, with school work alongside healthy sleep and diet, would be the first way to provide some balance.”

Studies show that sleep plays a huge role in aiding learning. “Sometimes, parents forget that [students] are kids who need nurturing and [should] not just be pushed into scoring the highest [grades] and being a part of many extracurricular activities,” Gupta explained. “Kids also need to know how to unwind [and to] learn that it’s OK to make mistakes. We learn from our mistakes.”

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