Top marks for school that scrapped homework

22 November 2015 - 02:00 By NASHIRA DAVIDS
Sun Valley Primary School principal Gavin Keller has scrapped homework at the school to encourage more play.
Sun Valley Primary School principal Gavin Keller has scrapped homework at the school to encourage more play.
Image: ESA ALEXANDER

"MR Keller! Mr Keller!" A mini-stampede ensues and in seconds principal Gavin Keller is drowning in hugs and handshakes.

The hysteria among the foundation-phase pupils intensifies at Sun Valley Primary School in Fish Hoek, Cape Town - where homework has been scrapped and children are encouraged to play more.

Many South African children, some experts agree, are overloaded with homework and taking strain.

Since the school has made the decision to scrap homework, in July this year, academic performance has improved, anxiety levels have dropped, teachers are smiling and families are happier.

Keller said that although "uniform homework" - assignments designed to "practise [what] has already been covered in class" - had been cancelled, pupils had to read at least 20 minutes a day.

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He said homework was often exhausting for children and parents. "Instead of just having a chance to make supper with your kid, hear about their day and discuss their struggles, you have to say: 'Have you done your homework? Why haven't you done it?'" said Keller.

The decision was not taken lightly. Keller and his team studied research papers and books, and he travelled to the US for a conference that highlighted helping children with "problem-solving, facilitating change and being innovative" through play.

Teaching methods were adapted to be more focused and assessments are done in class to identify and address hurdles immediately.

But they are also cognisant of children's short concentration span and classes are frequently let loose on a specially designed circuit that includes jungle gyms. Even the staff start their day with activities such as a game of tag.

"We make use of BrainSMART teaching strategies by Donna Wilson - a neuroscience-based learning programme - and Brain-based Learning by Eric Jensen. These two strategies have been redesigned and developed over a number of years at Sun Valley into what we called 'neuro-learning'," said Keller.

Medical doctor Nasreen Mia now spends more quality time with her family. She has daughters in Grade 5 and 6 at the school. "My daughter comes home interested in something the teacher said, and she will read up on that or just read a novel; it is just rekindling their love for learning for themselves, and not for the teacher," said Mia.

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Last year, the Stanford Graduate School of Education in the US found that many high school pupils in "high-achieving communities" who spent too much time doing homework often suffered from health problems, increased stress levels and alienation from society.

Basil Manuel, president of the National Professional Teachers' Organisation of South Africa , said children were overloaded with homework. "If you can create reinforcement in other ways, why have the homework?"

Former Gauteng education MEC Mary Metcalfe said educators needed to have a "critical approach" to school routines and consistently improve what they did.

"If effective learning and high levels of performance can be achieved without homework, we have to re-evaluate and ask ... what are the costs and the benefits," she said.

But Professor Kobus Maree of the University of Pretoria said: "I fail to see what damage a reasonable amount of homework can cause. Quite the opposite ... The amount of homework should increase gradually from the beginning."