The concept of homework has taken on new meaning with the closure of Swiss schools imposed by the coronavirus epidemic. But when compulsory distance learning ends, some Swiss schools are sure to renew the debate about the importance of homework.
This content was published on March 23, 2020 – 11:12 am
It was just before the health crisis began to take its toll. The last of the Swiss educational institutions, a primary school in the eastern part of the country, chose to experiment with the end of homework. At Feldli-Schoren College, near St. Gallen, this one-year pilot project involved students between the ages of eight and twelve.
“Our main goal is equal opportunities. There is a gap between educationally backward families and the rest. Homework is a source of stress for students who cannot seek help or advice from their parents,” said the school principal. Ralph Scheper spoke in February in the columns of St. Galler TagblattExternal link following the announcement that this program, originally planned for six months, would be extended.
A choice designed to benefit everyone. “When they leave school after seven hours of school, students should not sit down at their desks at home again,” Judge Ralph Scheper.
Instead, the school introduced four weekly periods of supervised learning – between twenty and thirty minutes each. Initial feedback from students, teachers and parents has been “rather positive,” according to Ralph Scheper — though he acknowledges that some parents have expressed a preference for the old system, which allowed them to follow their offspring’s work.
The Feldli-Schoren school is not unique. His counterpart from KriensExternal link near Lucerne and several others in the Bern area have also drawn a line under the home in recent years.
A controversial topic
The topic is still very controversial.External link. Bernhard Hauser, Professor of Early Childhood Studies at the University of Teacher Education St. GallenExternal link list the reasons.
“Many children and parents are quite happy to avoid homework and the resulting tension,” he told swissinfo.ch. But the results of international research show that homework contributes to the effectiveness of schools and is of great benefit in terms of learning.
“Of course, there are parents who complain about the lack of homework, the researcher notes. The topic does not make everyone agree at home.” Supporters of homework see it as important to their children’s academic achievement and future careers.
In Switzerland, education is the responsibility of the cantons. But many decisions are made at the local school level. Homework is generally optionalExternal link. In German-speaking Switzerland, Lehrplan 21 (curriculumExternal link) for example only establishes under what conditions they may not be distributed. During public holidays for example. There is no precision on the other hand as to whether or not to give the rest of the time.
There are guidelines for the duration of tasks. The canton of St. Gallen has chosen about half an hour per week for the youngest elementary school students and two hours or more for 11-12-year-olds. And even more in the junior high school stage (up to 15 years old), says Bernhard Hauser.
The specialist from St. Gallen declares the homework, assuring that it contributes to the deepening of knowledge. “With no homework for the entire school term, you end up with the equivalent of 700 hours of lost learning.”
Not to mention that homework helps kids develop self-regulation. They learn to limit themselves to a task that they would not choose immediately. Homework, not football… This is an important life lesson, referee Bernhard Hauser.
The researcher specifies that the abolition of homework remains unusual in Switzerland. In the absence of official statistics, he estimates that anti-homework is revived every ten or twenty years, but only a few schools actually go so far as to adopt this approach. The canton of Schwyz had good experience with this from 1993, before returning four years later under parental pressure.
Bernhard Hauser sees no momentum in the direction of abolishing homework at the moment, while several individual experiences are in the spotlight. Different experiences…
“Some schools are doing away with homework altogether, others are keeping it by bringing it back into school. This limits the negative effects. On the other hand, this is done to the detriment of students who are able to work independently, as they are then monitored at school,” notes Bernhard Hauser.
Beyond the language barrier
The French-speaking part of the country has its own curriculum. According to Samuel Rohrbach, president of the Teachers UnionExternal link Romands, the issue of homework is often topical in the region.
“Several cantons such as Neuchâtel and Jura have issued directives specifying in particular the maximum time to be devoted daily to homework. The will is that the students do not take on too much of a load,” said this representative of the trainers by email.
His association points to the issue of inequalities, but also to the need to learn autonomy through homework preparation. It offers supervised hours in schools to ensure the benefits of support for all students. Samuel Rohrbach specifies that the content of these sessions should be strictly limited to observing what has been done in class.
Support for parents?
Bernhard Hauser also worked on how to strengthen equal opportunities. It supports the daily homework help sessions offered at school – a reality in some schools, but only a few days a week. It also suggests that educationally disadvantaged parents are helped through courses on how best to support their children.
This approach would allow students who can afford to do their homework and others to get the support they need.
Meanwhile, the Feldli-Schoren school plans to evaluate its project before summer break, according to its principal. Therefore, no decision has been made at this stage whether to reintroduce homework for the next academic year.
Official reports on homework habits are relatively rare. That of the OECDExternal link released in 2014 offers a vision of the reality of fifteen-year-old students. From the 2012 PISA study, the organization notes that the latter spend almost five hours a week on their homework.
In this study, Switzerland ranks eleventh (out of 38) with around four hours of homework per week. Students in Finland and Korea top the charts with less than three hours, while the figure exceeds seven hours in Ireland, Italy, Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia and Singapore.
This same report found that the most advantaged students spend more time at the table doing their homework than their disadvantaged peers – in all countries covered by the PISA survey.
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