This week, Beijing has been hosting the Liǎnghuì, or “Two Meetings”: annual sessions of two of the nation’s most important political bodies, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The first announcement made by the latter may come as something of a surprise to those familiar with the Chinese education system. It was a call for schools to reduce the homework burden on students.
In fact, this is nothing new. As spokesman Wang Guoqing put it, the state has issued “dozens of documents” since 1951 in a bid to tackle this issue. But instead the amount of work has increased. Chinese students do an average of 2.82 hours homework each day, three times the global average.
It’s obvious that the state is pushing against considerable social pressure. China Daily’s report suggests that some teachers don’t give all the necessary information during class so they can charge money for afterschool private lessons. However it seems that the main driver of excessive homework is parents themselves.
Beijing’s international and bilingual schools have different approaches and teach different curricula. Here too though there is pressure from parents for lots of homework to be given. One teacher told me in confidence that he would prefer not to give any homework to younger children, but that parental expectation leaves him with no choice.
Of course parents do this out of love; they want the best for their children, and to see them learn and prosper. The problem is that the evidence does not suggest that more homework necessarily leads to better academic results.
The simple case that “homework gives better results than no homework” is supported by a substantial body of research. However, look closer and the picture becomes more complicated. For younger children the benefits are mostly limited to developing good study habits, with very little additional learning taking place. There is also substantial evidence that too much homework has negative effects. A widely accepted rule of thumb is that the total nightly homework should not exceed 10 minutes per grade – so even senior students should not be doing more than two hours each evening.
Leaving aside academic achievement, there is the question of what else children are missing out on. Even from the point of view of college admission, students need to be participating in sport, learning to sing and play music, pursuing interests and hobbies. For many children of ambitious parents, sleep is what has to give way, with late nights of study and extra-curricular activity damaging their health and development.
And most of all, if we want our children to be happy, creative, fulfilled human beings, they need time to play: to imagine and explore, to hang out with friends, to learn and tell jokes, even just to lie around daydreaming.
It’s a depressing thing to watch someone spend their precious childhood years plodding through tedious, repetitious paperwork. Surely this is not the future we want to prepare them for? Maybe it’s time for parents to send a message to schools. We welcome relevant, age-appropriate tasks which will help our kids to learn, but homework for the sake of homework – no more.