The fourth-graders in Miren Artetxe’s classroom have sat through an intensive morning of math tables, reading comprehension, and videos about bullying. But as they file out of the school doors on a recent Friday they leave it all behind: unlike most of their peers, they’ve got no homework this weekend.
“They’ve worked hard enough,” says Ms. Artetxe, surveying her empty classroom at a public elementary school in this tiny Basque town in northern Spain.
In fact, Artetxe hardly ever sends her 9- and 10-year-olds home with work. She's joining other Spaniards in asking whether excessive homework has the opposite of the desired effect, aggravating inequalities, unnecessarily bogging kids down, and stealing away precious family time – with little to show in return.
Last November, the Spanish Alliance of Parents' Associations (CEAPA) called a weekend homework strike for the entire month. The parents’ association in the Basque Country didn’t follow suit, but is nonetheless deep in an internal debate about whether and what kind of schoolwork is appropriate – joining a burgeoning group of homework skeptics across the globe.
Cathy Vatterott, author of “Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs” and a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, says the perennial homework debate has kicked up in the past five years in one clear direction: “Less, less, less,” she says.
“It seems to be coinciding with a concern about stress in kids,” she says.
Parent activism around the subject is being boosted by social media, so that parents in the US are eyeing what parents in Spain and beyond are doing. That's a significant change from when she was a school principal in the 1980s, she says, when parents just did what they were told. Not anymore. “There is a real willingness to challenge teachers, and school policy," she says.
One of those taking a stand is Bilbao resident Nieves Velasco, whose fifth-grader loves school, but hates the work she is sent home with each night. In fact, when the working mother thinks about her daughter's homework, the first word that pops into her mind on the topic leaves little question about her position: “horror.”
Ms. Velasco and a group of parents battled with their school two years ago over growing levels of after-school work. “We were up until 9 and 10 at night studying with third-graders,” she says. “It was excessive.”
While she says the school listened and lessened loads, levels are still so high that instead of going to the park most days after school, the family instead goes home to complete exercises that can take up to 1.5 hours. Velasco also hired a tutor.
“I used to think I was the only one, but now I realize many people are concerned about homework,” she says. “Something is not working, and it’s not the children.”
In fact, data from the OECD show that Spanish 15-year-olds have 6.5 hours per week of homework versus the average of almost 5 hours for 38 countries. But on exams that measure their competence in reading, math, and science, Spain is just average, and slightly below average for math.
The parents’ association of the Basque region, Ehige, has been grappling with how to respond to the disconnect. In a survey they conducted last year, families say they are concerned about the quality of work sent home. Eighty-eight percent of those in primary school say their homework is repetitive busywork, for example.
Lurdes Imaz, coordinator of Ehige, says one of their group’s biggest concerns is that not all parents have the time to help – or money to hire help. In OECD countries, more economically advantaged students spend 1.6 hours more per week on their homework.
“This can lead to differences between kids and families,” she says. Their group wants schools to come to a consensus on homework policies; she says she believes it should be non-compulsory, and forbidden on weekends and school holidays.
'Still a taboo'
Teacher Artetxe wants to go further. She and a small group are pushing for government regulation over homework policy. The vast majority of respondents in the Ehige survey called for some sort of regulation.
In the meantime, the fourth-grade teacher has sent home work just twice this year, once to have her kids film themselves in the kitchen following a recipe, and another time to search for information about a country of their choice.
Some of her colleagues disagree with her stand. “It’s still a taboo to talk about homework in schools,” says Artetxe. “Many people give homework, because that’s what they’ve always done,” she says. “Giving homework, especially repetitive work – multiplications today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow – it doesn’t excite students to learn.”
Cognizant of being characterized a “hippie” teacher, she gathered parents at the start of the year to share her philosophy, citing studies that have shown that too much homework – generally no more than 10 minutes per grade level can be counterproductive, not to mention wreak havoc on family lives and sleep schedules.
That’s especially true in the Spanish context, says Catherine L’Ecuyer, who authored the Spanish bestseller “The Wonder Approach to Learning.”
The typical 9-to-5 job in Spain is actually an “intensive workday” that employees have to lobby for. Here, a normal day is 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., including a two-hour, unpaid break for lunch. Children tend to fill their afternoons with extracurriculars. Dinner is eaten late. “They end up doing homework way past bedtime,” says Ms. L’Ecuyer. Sleep deprivation has a clear negative impact on learning, and homework is then given to increase class efficiency, turning into a “vicious circle,” she says.
Zurine de la Horra says this is unfair, and is the education system's problem to solve: just as professional work should be kept at the office, so should lessons stay at school. She admits her partner, a lawyer, doesn’t agree with her. “He thinks children have to be constant, and continuously reinforcing what they are learning.”
But at least one person is on her side: her 10-year-old stepson. As she was leaving the house to discuss his homework schedules, he asked her to pass on an urgent message. “We work very hard all day,” he said to relay. “We are just kids.”