When reading is all kids have to do at home, they develop a love for it
Gavin Keller, principal of Sun Valley Primary School in Cape Town, caused consternation recently when he announced that homework is a thing of the past — for years a critical component of education systems globally. Keller reckons “homework is a fiasco”. He says teachers perpetuate the myth that “practice makes perfect! [And that] if you practice what has been taught you will remember it.” The truth is, he says, the brain learns by repetition under the watchful eye of a master coach. Parents are masters at parenting (at least some are) — not teaching. It takes a four-year degree and years of experience to lay neural pathways that last longer than 40 days, he argues.
Why did Keller take such a drastic decision? Sharing his reasons with the Teacher, Keller says: “The 21st century has seen the introduction of longer school days as bureaucrats try to improve test scores in a competitive performance market. The long school day means that children are pressurised to fit everything into 24-hour days and the area most affected is sleep time. Schoolgoing children should sleep for 9.25 hours a day. School is currently 7.5 hours.”
He says learners are left with only seven hours to travel, exercise, connect with friends and family, play, pray, meditate and have some mindfulness and time out (just doing nothing). As a result, he says: “Our children are battling high levels of anxiety, leading to unnecessary levels of childhood sadness and depression dramatically affecting the drop-out rate during the teenage years. At Sun Valley, we bartered reading for homework. Teachers agreed to give up homework if learners committed themselves to reading. The deal was sealed. Sun Valley is now a reading school, committed to spending time in our iRead Centre and the local public library finding suitable books.”
Chelsea Harvey and Emma-Jane Fautley, who teach grades one and two respectively at the school, gave the new policy a thumbs-up, saying this has changed their classroom teaching experience. “I have thoroughly enjoyed the ‘no homework policy’,” says Fautley. She says it has been a pleasure not to chase and nag after the children for their homework. “It has been a bonus not to have about 64 parents wondering how to do the maths, or confusing their children with their ‘old school’ methods.
“I’ve noticed that the students are far more relaxed, and eager to learn during the school day. They aren’t stressed in the mornings anymore, because their ‘dog didn’t have any homework to eat the previous evening!’ Our focus on reading at home has been especially fruitful and my class is so enthusiastic about reading.” She says for her learners, reading is now an adventure, instead of one of many things they have to get through before bedtime. “The policy has many positive aspects, and I look forward to experiencing the benefits with my class this year.”
Harvey says: “As a teacher at the school, the no-homework policy has had a profound effect on my class. I am the teacher of a grade one girls’ class and although girls love to draw and work in their books, to set it for homework was just too much for them.” She says since the policy has been implemented she has seen a huge change in her class as well as the learners’ academic work. “Before the policy was implemented, my six- and seven-year-olds had to go home and complete homework tasks after a long school day. Where was the time for them to enjoy sport? To spend time with their busy, working parents without it involving work? Suddenly, when reading became the only ‘homework’ my girls began to thrive.”
Harvey says not only are her learners more relaxed; learning and reading has become enjoyable for them, not just a task they have to get through. “In terms of classroom management, I get to work more in-depth with my girls as they learn to read. Pressurising them to complete tasks is a thing of the past. They approach tasks with confidence and with the knowledge they have gathered through revision.” She says her job is to instil a love for learning, and the no homework policy has totally supported that.
“The girls look forward to going home and reading, and spending quality time with their parents. The work is done at school — that is my job. Home is a place of relaxation and fun knowledge building. Not a place of conflict. A child that feels safe, loved and relaxed, is a child that is in the right mind-set for the learning environment,” says Harvey. “To see their reading improve has been amazing to witness as it really influences their lives as well as other school subjects. I know my colleagues feel the same. Our classes are more relaxed, and the children are confident in their abilities and are developing a love for reading which is exciting to experience with them.”