Great learning outcomes happen when children have the time and freedom to think. During my attempts to understand the Canadian school education system and role of parents, I became acutely aware that aversion to homework is universal. Therefore most Canadian schools instruct parents not to interfere with the education of their children and let schools follow their own pedagogies without external — including parental — interference. This not only translates into no homework, but children are assured of ‘instruction-free’ environments in their homes.
On the other hand, there’s been no reappraisal in the Indian school education system about the validity or utility of homework for students. One can state with certainty that the great majority of parents consider homework a necessary component of learning, and of a good school. However, not all parents are comfortable with it.
Every interaction opportunity with the heads of top-ranked independent schools invariably reveals that most of them are firmly convinced that more homework means more learning and that further, it enhances institutional credibility as it “convinces parents that we are very serious, far more than other schools”. Some schools don’t hesitate to recommend more books than the quota prescribed and recommended by examination boards, caval-ierly ignoring persistent and genuine demand for reduc-tion of the curriculum load.
In government schools, teacher shortages are end-emic. Therefore, the emphasis on homework is greater. Moreover, while private school teachers are discouraged from giving private tuition, such restrictions apply to government school teachers only on paper, and offers them vast opportunities to earn supplementary incomes through ‘extra-inputs learning’ (aka private tuition) which has various implications and impact on learning and levels of attainment. The much-hyped comprehensive and continuous evaluation (CCE) system is ineffective in government schools as teachers are either overworked, not interested and/or not appropriately trained to implement it. Remedial teaching would really help government school children who mostly don’t have appropriate home environments to complete homework.
In the circumstances, it’s unsurprising that demand for admission into private schools is fast increasing. In 2011, private school enrolment countrywide rose to 25.6 percent of the school-going population compared to 18.7 percent in 2006, with the percentage rising to over 40 in some states. Even in small towns, villages and urban slums, private budget schools with low fee structures are flourishing while government schools are steadily losing credibility. Although the Central government’s Kendriya Vidyalayas and Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya schools have good reputations, their number is too limited. On the other hand, state govern-ments have shown little interest in upgrading their schools to comparable levels. They seem unaware that govern-ment schools can be brought on a par with private schools only if infrastructure support is adequate and teacher shortages are eliminated.
The essential objective of assigning homework to children is to enable them to replenish learning and inculcate the skill of self-study in them. But this requires teachers to do their own homework thoroughly and plan the quantum of homework for children. Absence or inadequacy of prior preparation on the part of teachers results in pedagogically weak assignments which are handled by parents rather than students. Properly planned project work is a proven option which can upgrade the quality of learning. But unfort-unately readymade projects can be easily purchased from the market, and everyone knows that!
A recent study on homework conducted by Virginia University has found that “homework doesn’t necessarily help children get higher grades, although it may help them get better standardised test scores”. However, one can be sure that no one in India will pay heed to this study. Nor would any indigenous institution be interested in conducting a serious study of the impact of homework on learning outcomes of children. But how teachers decide the nature, extent and magnitude of homework, the degree of coordination between teachers of different subjects, nature of parental support, market-availability of readymade projects and a host of other concerns need the attention of higher education institutions assigned responsibilities of educational research and innovation.
In sum, the Indian education system is characterised by learning in schools, supplemented by private tuition and finally by coaching institutions for competitive examinations. All this has to be supported by a growing workload of homework. Indeed, some schools have begun to assign more homework in the name of preparing students for IITs right from class VI onwards — a big and unintended bonanza for test prep and coaching institutes.
On the other hand, this complex imbroglio can be pre-empted by modestly equipped schools with balanced teacher-pupil ratios and traditional levels of teacher commitment. This would reduce the homework burden of students and restore the joys of childhood to India’s children.
(J.S. Rajput is former director of NCERT and National Council for Teacher Education)