Managing the home learning environment: Parents, adolescents, and the homework problem
Authors: R. Sweet, N. Mandell, P. Anisef, and M. Adamuti-Trache
In this paper we examine parents’ response to current school reforms aimed at increasing their involvement in children’s learning. Although home-school partnerships are expressed in various ways, homework is the means by which parents can be directly engaged in their children’s schooling. Homework is accepted practice in schools and has the support of most parents. It has, however, become an increasingly contentious issue. Critics of homework argue that it fails to enhance either achievement or study skills. It also threatens the goal of improved home-school relations by introducing stress into the family. Moreover, the effectiveness of parental involvement depends on material and cultural resources that are not equally distributed across social groups. The ‘home learning environment’ of individual children then varies by ethnicity, gender, and socio-economic status. It also is affected by situational differences in families that include single or dual-parent arrangements, mother’s employment, and home language. In studying how parents manage the home learning environment, we consider two tasks: 1) the promotion of personal autonomy in children; and 2) the moderation of stress associated with homework assignments. Children’s personal autonomy is affected by the patterns of behavioural and psychological control practiced by parents. Behavioural control or regulation is generally beneficial but only where it is responsive to children’s capacity to assume responsibility for their own academic study. On the other hand, parental demands for greater effort and improved academic performance – usually expressed as ‘nagging’ or ‘pressure’ — is viewed as a form of psychological control that has negative effects on children’s development of autonomy. In relation to the homework task, pressure stems from parents’ beliefs about the nature of cognitive ability and children’s (un)willingness to realize their intellectual potential through study. As children progress from elementary to middle or secondary school most become better able to regulate their own study behaviour. Developing self-regulating skills does, however, take time; and learning to initiate and complete homework assignments can involve disagreement and conflict between parents and their children. How parents manage the emotional stress of these situations is important to the establishment of effective study habits. In addressing autonomy promotion and stress moderation in the home learning environment, we analyzed data on parents of children and adolescents (aged 9 to 16) obtained from a 2002 Statistics Canada survey of 4786 families (Survey of Approaches to Educational Planning). Our analysis of parents’ beliefs about ability and effort in relation to children’s reported achievement suggests that many parents make unreasonable demands for greater study effort by already high-achieving children. This is consistent with recent reports of stress among adolescents associated with the demands of teachers and parents for higher levels of academic performance. Our results also support the position of critics of homework who claim that it contributes to stress in families. While there are variations between parent groups defined by educational level, immigrant status, (child’s) gender, and limits on available ‘family time,’ the level of homework stress experienced across parent groups is very similar. Homework stress is moderated — in most, although not in all families — by children’s academic achievement. And parents do respond to the growing maturity of their children. The highest levels of stress are reported in families of 9-12 year olds who are preparing for the transition to middle and junior high school. Homework stress then decreases in intensity but nevertheless remains a significant problem for many families throughout the adolescent years of 13 to16. While this study indicates that autonomy promotion and homework stress management are problems in the ‘home learning environment,’ it also suggests families vary widely in their ability to cope with the demands of schools. Teachers and schools may not be able to accommodate all these differences, but it is possible to recast the ‘homework debate’ and begin working toward a more productive partnership with parents. Discussions about homework have developed around extreme views. Advocates recommend a dramatic increase in the amount of homework assigned and point to international achievement test results to justify their position. Critics call for the complete abolition of homework citing a lack of supportive research, academic benefits, as well as evidence of social and emotional costs to families. A third view argues for schools to relieve parents of the responsibility for homework and establish school-based study halls as part of the school routine. There is yet another alternative. A practical, hands-on literature proposes changes to classroom instruction that would see homework used in ways that extend its use beyond that of independent practice. A problem with current homework policies is not just that homework is a marginal, repetitive activity, but that it too frequently constrains or ignores individual children’s interests. Several articles and books have responded with recommendations for project work as a means of linking home and classroom learning. These offer opportunities to broaden and extend children’s experiential learning. Involving children’s family and other community members in learning activities that are not prescribed and repetitive has the potential to motivate and liberate the child’s thinking. It also may reduce the stress many families associate with the daily homework assignment.
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