Managing the Homework Load

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I heard this loud thump in the middle of the night last night.  Really late – like 2:30 a.m.  Turned on the light, heard it again, and went upstairs to see if my daughter’s bed had fallen apart or something!  It was nothing like that – she was just throwing text books onto the floor next to her bed.  Normal, right?  Except that it was at TWO-THIRTY IN THE MORNING!  Homework in high school has gotten out of hand.  Grace is up in the wee hours pretty regularly finishing up her nightly tasks – assignments given by her high school teachers, with the expectation that they will be completed, and in some cases graded, for the next class.  She might have (if you believe her) 6, 7, even 8 hours of homework on any given evening.  That’s too much, if you ask me.

I don’t remember having this much homework in high school, so I called a friend of mine who is an administrator at a nearby high school to see what light she could shed.  Is this a recent trend?  Are our kids getting a better education than we did?  Are our schools tearing a page out of the Tiger Mother’s hand book?  Her answers, as always, were thoughtful and balanced, and in the end, comforting.  Basically, she said what wise people say all the time:  “The truth is somewhere in the middle.”

In my friend’s experience, high-school aged kids are unreliable self-reporters.  As a gross generalization, girls will exaggerate how much time and effort they have put into something, and boys will barely acknowledge that they are aware the assignment was made.  So, when asked about how long they studied for a test, a typical girl might tell you “I was up until 3 in the morning cramming for that test!” and her male counterpart might reply “Do we have a test today?”  They probably think they are being truthful, but their reporting likely does not reflect reality.  

She points to motivation as another root cause for differing perceptions:  kids view homework as something done for someone else (the teacher), whereas other activities that consume kids’ time (e.g., drivers ed, Facebook, sports) are done for themselves.  One is a chore and the other a pleasure.  So the old adage holds true again:  time flies when you are having fun.  They may think they are spending four hours on homework, but it’s really probably more like 2.5, that just drags on.

The truth is, homework is important.  For classes like math, it is an opportunity to practice skills just learned.  For classes like history, it is the time to read material that will be discussed the following day.  As my friend says, the challenge of a heavy workload can really be a teaching and learning opportunity.  We need to help our kids learn how to make good choices, conduct cost-benefit analysis with day to day decisions.  If the choice is to stay up until 3 a.m. finishing a paper, or losing three points turning it in late, the kids need to develop the judgment to determine what will be a better outcome. (GET SOME SLEEP!)

Our kids are burdened by talent, my friend reminds me.  They are ambitious, and want to please us.  So it is easy for them to get caught up in the frenzy of do-it-all-be-it-all-have-it-all.  As their parents, and teachers, we can guide them to a healthier, more mature conclusion.  We can help them learn to be honest with themselves about what really needs to be done, and what they are capable of.  And we can help them learn when they have done enough.

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