Opinion: Irish primary schools should learn from Finland and drop homework
Schools are going back and I bet you, like me, are looking forward to the little sliver of normality this will offer up – for both kids and adults
My own two children are delighted to be going back to school, see their friends, and interact with their teachers – and much as I adored and treasured all the extra time I have had at home with them these past 18 months, I am also happy to return to normal.
Last year, when my children first returned to school after lockdown, there was no homework for the first few weeks.
This was partly done to give the children a soft return to school, but also to avoid books going back and forth between home and school on a daily basis, which is a fair point.
They eventually brought back homework and I don't know about you, but I was disappointed. I had hoped it would turn into a permanent thing, and that lessons would be learned about how the lack of homework played out.
I was hoping schools would start to realise how much better children learn when they are not tired or bored or unmotivated from having spent the previous afternoon (after being in school all day) doing homework.
I was hoping they would see the benefit that play and free time has to children, and how allowing them to have afternoons free to do just that, will actually positively influence their school work too. I was hoping there would be more room for children to spend their time off from school not thinking about school, but rather playing outside, spending time with their families, doing sports or simply relaxing and recharging.
And if you think the idea of school without homework sounds ludicrous – there is plenty of both science and experience to back up the fact that homework in primary school is really rather unnecessary.
A couple of years back, a second-grade teacher in Texas delighted her students — and at least some of their parents — by announcing she would no longer assign homework.
“After much research this summer, I am trying something new, Brandy Young explained in a letter to her students' parents.
"Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day. There will be no formally assigned homework this year,” the second-grade teacher wrote.
“Research has been unable to prove that homework improves student performance,” she added. “Rather, I ask that you spend your evenings doing things that are proven to correlate with student success. Eat dinner as a family, read together, play outside, and get your child to bed early.”
Sounds nuts? Not really.
In Finland, children in primary schools across the country don't start school until they are seven years old – and they have no homework. And guess what? Finish students still come out with some of the best results in the world.
As the OECD think tank recently wrote on the matter: "One of the most striking facts about Finnish schools is that their students have fewer hours of instruction than students in any other OECD country."
It continued: "But when it comes to the international Pisa tests, Finland is in sixth place and the UK is 23rd in reading; and Finland is 12th and the UK is 26th in maths."
Finland is now hoping to share what works in its schools with other countries.
Saku Tuominen, director of this HundrEd project, says parents in Finland don't really want longer hours in school.
He says there is a "holistic" approach to education, with parents wanting a family-friendly approach.
Finland says their system works on trust. Rather than overloading children with work when they are home, Finnish parents trust that the teachers will give the children all the education they need while they are at school. Although many studies have tried to prove that more homework means better results, it looks as though Finland is determined to prove them wrong.
In Finland, primary school teachers seem to know this intuitively. They send kids outside—rain or shine—for their frequent recesses. And the children get to decide how they spend their break times. Usually, teachers in Finland take turns — two at a time — supervising the playground during these 15-minute stints. But the focus is, for the most part, on free play, not organised activities. And it works.
I think it's about changing the way we think about school and learning. And about childhood – and the importance of honouring this time for what it is, and how much learning there is to be found in the basics; play, play and more play. As well as family time, sports, spending time in nature and also in rest.
“The curriculum in Finland is designed so that the pupils themselves have an active role in learning," explains vice-principal Jukka Ihalainen of Kalasatama school in Helsinki.
"There is lots of collaboration, students working with teachers, flexible learning groups, and kids with special needs and mainstream students work together when reasonable.”
Manninen said the core principle is that kids encounter learning everywhere. “The whole of Helsinki is the classroom. We have the park, the city centre, the zoo – it’s ideal for this kind of approach,” she said.
Spending time in recess is also just as important as spending time inside the classroom in Finland:
“In Finnish schools, there are lots of breaks and recess. For Finnish people, that is normal and rational. For us, we believe it is important that kids can run out and play in the rain. We believe that makes it easier for them to concentrate and to learn."
And this is the basis of their rule on homework too. And I think it is nothing short of genius. And clearly also effective – as Finland's system has now become a role model for many other countries and schools wishing to do things better – and more child-centric.