Hateful homework – but why we need it

Guido Peuckert

As a class teacher, I have been thinking for a long time about the question of homework and why it is “uncool” to speak in support of it in public. I repeatedly try to talk about it with my pupils, parents and aspiring teachers to discover how a self-confident “YES!” might be justified. Because we cannot inwardly reject homework and then still regularly demand that others do it. In theory and practice it appears attractive to argue against it. But practitioners cannot do completely without it – and there are reasons for that.

Would there be homework without examinations?

“What he have to try and achieve is to conquer the curriculum in such a way that we do not need anything except the lessons,” said Steiner in 1921 in teachers’ meetings. He was speaking about the curriculum and hit the mark! It is necessary to “conquer” the curriculum. So what would have to change to be able to do without afternoon work? A drastic change to the curriculum with an even greater focus on Waldorf education and the introduction of all-day school! But for as long as Waldorf schools continue to aim to put their pupils through examinations (mostly to meet the wishes of parents) and the main focus after the class teacher period is on “testable knowledge” in all main subjects – for that long nothing will come of limiting school hours. The demands of main lessons are too varied: we want and are called upon to address the whole human being, support all children and not do without the rhythmical part, report verses, story segment, art and so on. If thinking dominated by final examinations penetrates too strongly, it is particularly the typical Waldorf subjects which are reduced or cut.

Homework is good for pupils

The activity of pupils outside lessons (= homework) is divided in the relevant literature and in German state regulations into two groups: the didactic and methodological part and the educational part.

The primary aim is to support lessons and practice; learning processes are to be deeppened and practiced. That is followed by the application and transfer of what has been learnt. The transfer of what has been learnt to new situations is wanted. Homework should motivate, awaken interest and arouse curiosity. The important thing here is that the process of learning should be individualised at home. Educating the pupil to be independent is the main goal. Pupils are to be enabled to organise and handle work times, work techniques and tools (information procurement) themselves. Discussing and checking homework is in turn intended to promote the dialogue with pupils and to give them self-confidence in what they do. If there is a wide variety of tasks, different pupils have the opportunity to excel in front of the group. Great, if these are things which for some children represent a meaninful and positive occupation of their leisure time. It is a moment of happiness when we hear a magnificent presentation which has been voluntarily prepared or when we look at wonderfully created main lesson books.

Homework is “demoralising”

But in fact many pupils suffer from homework. In this regard Steiner told the future teachers of the first Waldorf school in a lecture: “We should never ignore what it means for teaching as a true art if children are told to do something which can then not be enforced. It is much better if we are economical with the compulsory homework so that we can count on what the children have to do being done with real pleasure and out of conviction, rather than constantly assigning tasks which some children then never do anyway. It is very damaging in education if tasks are constantly assigned which are not carried out. That demoralises the children in a quite terrible way. […] We should rather endeavour to encourage to child to work voluntarily if we absolutely want the child to do work at home.”

So Steiner did not speak out against homework here but against “coercion”. Many children who are academically weak suffer from the regularity of homework and, above all, the workload. Pupils must be convinced that the tasks they are given have a purpose so that they perform them “happily” – otherwise they will not do them. If only half of pupils in a class 7 have not done their homework today – what kind of message does that send to the teacher? What should the latter question? Hopefully to begin with the task itself, its scope and content. Such a result of course leads to frustration, not only in the teacher. It is also quite unpleasant for the pupils concerned. They have failed to adhere to an agreement. They develop complex avoidance strategies which mostly involve more work than simply doing the tasks. The excuses are elaborate – often we should deal with them with a touch of humour and justice should be tempered with mercy. Truthfulness, on the other hand, is also an ideal and in the case of frequent fibbing the teacher must make clear where he or she stands – which mostly is not very pleasant. It becomes “demoralising” when the teacher fails to ensure that the homework is then also actually done. An uncomfortable and annoying task which the task-giver however has to face if her or she is not to loose moral authority. The voluntary approach called for by Steiner is mostly present in the first and last years of school. Many pupils are quite happy to work voluntarily during these periods. At first they do it for their beloved teacher, then for the exams. But it is the time in between which becomes difficult.

Finding the right measure

Getting the pupils to do the work willingly can also be achieved in the middle years – sometimes. Yet in these years the teacher often has a lot in common with a “donkey driver”, holding the carrot in front, swwinging the stick behind. But in practice the greatest problem often lies in the fact that many different individuals are given the same tasks. It is fascinating to see the diverse ways in which pupils can approach the same task and the different time they spend on it. Some pupils in my class do eighty percent or more of their homework in all subjects while they are still at school, while others struggle for several hours at home. So one section of the class – about one third – has no problem at all with the workload, something that parents then also like to point out: “My child does not have enough to do!” The “middle” third has to work at it a bit more but the homework is not really that bad.

It is the last third which has real difficulties. These pupils do not find it easy to organise themselves or concentrate. It already takes them a long time to write down the tasks and then doing them often takes a lot out of them (and often also their parents).

School extends too far into the home: mum and dad become assistant teachers. That is not what they should be, of course. Unfortunately, unnecessary communication problems then additionally arise between the adults. For example when there are different ways that a sum can be calculated.

Just as children become “school children” when they start in class 1, so parents become “school parents”. Homework helps to give a rhythmical and healthy structure to the day for the child. The child comes home, has something to eat, rests, does his or her homework and in the evening prepares his or her school bag for the next day. That is not an option but a necessity if the child is to thrive at school! What nowadays is packed into a child’s day beyond that lies in the hands of the parents alone. It is not the teacher who is responsible when there is no time left for play. Parents should ensure that their children do their tasks at regular times and in the right learning environment. That might indeed be the kitchen table; however, children who find homework difficult learn more easily if their work place is individualised and adapted to their preferences. Here too there has to be a sense of proportion. Parents must be allowed to remain parents and children children. There is more to life than school!

Individual workloads

I try to organise the workload in such a way that the majority of the class can cope with it well. I frequently ask for feedback from the pupils. That often goes so far that some of them will come to me and tell me what they have to do for other subjects or whether they have lessons in the afternoon on a particular day. Then a task might be postponed, a main lesson book handed in a little later, homework minimised or at certain special times (Christmas, the class play) be waived altogether. The agreement should then equally be adhered to but there must also be room for experimenting. Individual agreements which individualise the workload must be possible.

In the lower classes, the tasks should be varied and creative – there is no reason why they should not be fun. There are things to collect, phenomena to be observed, pictures to be painted, receipes to be cookes, jokes to be played, animals to be brought along and sticks to be carved. Of course there is also a lot to write and arithmetic to do – such general cultural techniques require practice, particularly by children who do not read a lot in their leisure time. In middle school, the bouquet becomes a little less colourful. Demands rise in all subjects. Essay forms are practiced, content from the lessons reproduced, subjects are researched and presentations prepared, experiments are presented in the science subjects and of course arithmetic is done. It is important that the young people should understand the purpose of their exercises otherwise the practical tasks become a “punishment” and respect for authority lessens. If we take all these factors into account, Waldorf pupils are not burdened with homework.

About the author: Guido Peuckert is a class and crafts teacher at the Rudolf Steiner School in Lüneburg and lecturer at the Waldorf Teacher Training Seminar in Hamburg.

Note: I was inspired by a conversation with Petra Brüel-Sasse and the paper “Institution Homework” she submitted to the Seminar for Waldorf Education in Hamburg.