Children are so tired of homework that they only want to eat and sleep. Why is such education ineffective?

And what do scientists suggest?
Denis Sobur | 01 January 2021
Children are so tired of homework that they only want to eat and sleep. Why is such education ineffective?

Russian teenagers spend 48 hours a week studying. This is more than the length of a working week for adults: 40 hours. Due to this regime, children do not have time and energy to walk outside, enjoy their hobbies, or talk with their friends and family. They only want to eat and sleep. At the same time, children who are overloaded with homework do not always learn successfully. Denis Sobur, a father of four daughters, explains why this happens and how much time children should spend on their homework.

Trade unions fought for an eight-hour working day a long time ago. The rule they invented was as follows: “Eight hours are for labor. The other eight hours are for rest. And the last eight hours are for sleeping”.

Developed countries have gradually enshrined this rule in their legislations. And not only because they were afraid of the world revolution (although, it was also a reason). It is just that long-term work reduces efficiency. The longer a person works, the more useless it is. As a result, it is more profitable to work less.

Yes, you can work on weekends and on vacation, and take your work home. But it will not do much good. Remember the story about Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. When Rutherford saw his graduate student in the lab late at night, he reprimanded him. “When do you think?”, asked Rutherford. If a person is constantly working, they simply do not have time to process what is happening around them.

Unfortunately, achievements of trade unions do not apply to Russian education. Even a formal ban on homework for first graders does not stop parents and teachers.

Many believe that the more a child studies, the more they will know by the end of the school. However, this is not the case.

They study more, but they do not know better

Do large homework assignments help children learn better?

Scientists have been investigating this issue for many years. One of these studies was conducted as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). It was aimed at testing the knowledge of 15-year-old school students all over the world. In 2012, students were asked how much time a week they devote to homework. Russian schoolchildren won over schoolchildren from other countries in this competition.

Our children spend an average of 9.7 hours a week on homework, followed by Italians (8.7 hours). In other countries, students do significantly less homework. For example, young Englishmen devote 4.9 hours a week to homework, German children – 4.7, and Finnish children – 2.8.

However, the Shanghai teenagers beat even our Russian children. They do their homework for an average of 14 hours a week. Yet, the study was not conducted in all of China, so Shanghai was out of the ranking.

It might be assumed that Russian students are twice as good at applying the knowledge gained at school as the European ones. But this is not true.

Our level of education turned out to be rather average. We got in the top ten in regards to the ability to apply mathematics in life, somewhere between Spain and Slovakia. At the same time, Finnish schoolchildren are consistently in the top ten of the PISA ranking, although they are practically not given homework.

The average number of hours that students spend on homework is practically not related to the effectiveness of education, as the authors of the study concluded. The overall organization of the school system and the quality of teaching have a much stronger impact. Its low level cannot be balanced by increasing the amount of homework.

The total duration of schooling was analyzed at the next PISA test in 2015. In total, students have 80 hours a week: five weekdays, each with minus eight hours for sleep. How much time do schoolchildren spend on their studies?

The leaders here were schoolchildren from the United Arab Emirates, Tunisia, Thailand, and major cities of China (all of China did not participate again). They spend 70% of the available time or about 55 hours a week studying. Russian children are not far behind them and they devote almost 50 hours a week to their studies.

At the other end of the list, we see children from Finland, Germany, and Switzerland. They study less than 40 hours a week. Studying takes a little less than half of their available time, and they manage to balance between studies and life. Children from these countries consistently show high results. At the same time, schoolchildren from Singapore or China need to study more to achieve the same results.

The countries in the study were divided into several groups. There are those who study a lot and achieve high results. These are mostly schoolchildren from Asian countries.

There are countries where the results are just as good, but teenagers study significantly less. Finland, Germany, and other European countries are leaders in efficient use of school time.

The saddest thing is that there is a group in which students study a lot, but their results are below average. The absolute leader here is the United Arab Emirates where children study even more than in China and the results are worse than in Chile. Russia is also in this group, surrounded by Spain, Greece, and USA.

Our teenagers spend 48 hours a week studying. By the way, this is more than the length of a working week for adults.

The Labor code limits it to 40 hours.

Many children around the world spend too much time studying after school. This does not improve their results. However, it makes it impossible to have a balanced lifestyle. They do not have time for walks, hobbies, and socializing with their friends.

The 10-minute rule for homework

Scientists have been debating the issue of homework for decades. The results obtained in a particular study depend on how the experiment was constructed. That is why different authors may come to conflicting conclusions.

Nevertheless, we can distinguish the results that are common to all among this variety. Cathy Vatterott, an American teacher, did this (Cathy Vatterott. Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs. ASCD, 2018):

1. Homework is useful. Students who received homework showed better results than those who did not receive it at all. It is not essential to get rid of homework.

2. Homework does not affect academic performance in elementary school. Even in middle school, it has a weak impact on academic performance (the correlation coefficient was 0.07 with a maximum of 1.00). Homework gives a significant effect only for high school students (the correlation coefficient is 0.25).

3. If you take into account other factors (students’ motivation, the quality of the teacher’s explanations, the course’s elaboration), the homework almost ceases to affect the result. For example, motivated students learn better and do their homework better. Their best performance is related to motivation and not homework. Homework almost does not affect the result in groups with equal motivation.

4. Each class has an optimal volume of homework assignments. In middle school, one hour of homework a day slightly improves a student’s performance. The second hour can even make it a little better. But it is useless to do homework for more than two hours a day. It will not improve academic performance. There is no point in studying at home for more than two hours a day even for high school students. The brain needs to have time not only to study, but also to rest. Further activities become unproductive and results do not get better, and sometimes they get even worse.

Cathy Vatterott combines all these conclusions in the “10-minute rules”. The National Association of Education in the United States and other pedagogical world associations follow them.

The 10-minute rule is very simple: the duration of homework per day should not exceed 10 minutes multiplied by the class grade.

10 minutes will be enough for a first grader, and an hour will be enough for a sixth grader. This is the amount of work that a student can do on their own and commit it to memory at the same time. Larger loads of homework do not result in better performance. This is shown both by the data of scientific works and the results of the international PISA study.

Unfortunately, education systems around the world are sluggish and slow to respond to research data. Russia is no exception. Health regulations limit homework for second graders to an hour and a half a day instead of the effective 20 minutes. Sixth graders are allowed to study 2.5 hours instead of an effective hour. And our schools do not observe even these inflated standards.

The struggle with homework

I have four daughters. And I do not know what to do about homework given in school.

The first grade is easy to pass: homework and grades are prohibited by law. Even if teachers give homework, children are free not to do it. But when the second grade starts, we face endless assignments.

My eldest daughter and I were not ready for such academic load. We thought that children went to school to study as in old days. It turned out that the school simply checks how children are taught at home.

We did not realize that it was necessary to know English by the beginning of the second grade. I would come home from work and at 9pm relieve my tired wife from the struggle with homework. After all, it is so “simple” to learn eight letters, their pronunciation, and words that start with these letters in a week.

In the second grade, we spent an hour twice a week learning how to write words for the spelling quiz. With the amount of time we spent on this, it would be possible to teach the child to speak English fluently by the end of school. Yet, we spent time and energy on a skill that became obsolete after the introduction of automatic spell checkers. Besides, we spent them pointlessly because students forget the learned words soon after the quiz.

But if I still study with a child for an hour twice a week, why do they need to attend English lessons? So that they develop the fear of getting an F instead of an interest in the language?

We started preparing for the second grade and learning English words with the second daughter in advance. However, even this knowledge was not enough to withstand the academic load.

My third daughter is in the second grade now. Again, she knows most of the school curriculum. Yet, this is not enough for the student to cope with the academic load. The whole day of the family is focused on studying and keeping track of homework. And again, this happens with girls who are well prepared and know the school program.

We spent 1.5-2 hours a day doing their homework. And I am talking about us, parents, and not children. Yet, simple arithmetic shows that children study about the same amount of time at school. In a best-case scenario, they study for only 15-20 minutes during the lesson. In total, it sums up to an hour of studying Russian, Mathematics, and English. We do it 2 or 3 times as much at home.

I did not come up with a solution to how to solve this problem for a regular school. After all, I cannot come to the school and demand to give me a report on the volume of homework in accordance with scientific data. On the other hand, if all the studying is done at home, why should a child sit at school for half a day? This takes time and effort but does not greatly affect the received level of education.

Why did we transfer our children to homeschooling?

We transferred our daughters to homeschooling in the middle of the second grade. They already went to school, so they have experienced it in their lives. They have their own class, their first teacher, and classmates. They can socialize with other children in clubs. They do not need a live teacher to check tests, spelling, and arithmetic. Robots can also do this.

Today, you can even ask remote specialized schools to check homework. School teachers will check the homework and give grades: just like in a normal school. You simply do not need to go anywhere and urgently finish your homework for tomorrow. All assignments for the term are already scheduled and you can do them at a convenient time for parents and children.

When we transferred our children to homeschooling, everyone asked where we find so much time to work with children. However, we spend even less time on studying than in a normal school. We do not need to force knowledge into the heads of tired children every night. You can study at your own pace. Infographics easily explain most of the rules. For the rest, there are video lectures. Getting knowledge today is not a problem.

The main problem of homeschooling is not that there is a lot of studying. The school program for the grade can be mastered in two to three months. The problem is the opposite: children have a lot of free time, which they used to do nothing before. When a child is not busy from dawn until nightfall every day, they have more energy, and you need to direct it to intellectual, physical, and social development.

When children are overloaded with studying, they only have simple human desires: to eat and sleep. They have no energy to do anything else.

I do not encourage everyone to transfer their children to homeschooling. This approach does not work for everyone. Yet, I am sad to see our teenagers in Sunday school. They are constantly tired, and they need to do their homework every day.

I could accept it if there is a point in such an education. If a large academic load bears fruit. If the children spend energy, nerves, and health, but receive an excellent education. But even that does not happen.

They spend their energy on this, but it does not give good results. “One can do the absent activity”, as Vyacheslav Butusov sang.

Translated by Julia Frolova

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