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Dealing with the homework pandemic

By Berlin Fang | China Daily | Updated: 2017-11-17 07:17

Dealing with the homework pandemic


Believe it or not, homework, not smog or housing prices, is causing nervous breakdowns for Chinese parents. Chinese social media are full of stories about neighbors hearing parents yelling while helping their children with homework.

Some parents literally get sick trying to help their children after a long and hard day at work. In an extreme case, according to social media, a parent suffered a heart attack due to the mounting pressure of a child's education.

School homework, of all things, is becoming a pandemic, putting strains on the school-parent relationship and the already delicate dynamics between parents and children. For example, an angry teacher in Shanghai deleted a parent out of a WeChat group for whining about the absurdity of assignments.

As an instructional designer, I can say a lot about the educational aspects of proper assignment design which could minimize such issues, but none of what I suggest would have any impact if I ignore factors in the macro-environment that are creating problems for students, parents, as well as teachers and schools.

Teachers are enlisting the help of parents because they too face pressure in their work because of the increasing number of students in a class, especially in elite schools and schools that are left with no alternatives. School mergers are also causing a substantial increase in student-to-teacher ratios in consolidated schools. In less-developed regions with insufficient resources, some classes have as many as 70 students. It is a luxury in such circumstances to expect individual attention, especially in classes where students in the back rows can barely see the blackboard.

In order to make up for the shortage of learning in such environments, schools may have tapped into the anxiety of parents to provide preparatory or remedial help for children. Many school-parent social media groups have been formed to communicate class requirements, inadvertently establishing a social norm for parents to help children with their work.

Teachers' performance is, more than anything else, tied to students' achievements. Wedged between the problem of class size and demand upon tangible examination results, teachers will be hard pressed not to offload some work to the parents. Some require parents to review students' work before it is submitted. As a result, parents involuntarily turn into teacher assistants by becoming homework assistants. Unaware of their own limits, some parents are initially glad to help, until they also become exhausted.

The eventual solution should come from fair access to quality educational resources, especially with more investment in smaller schools.

Parents, in the meantime, should change the paradigm about learning. They should not allow schooling to occupy the center of their universe, sabotaging every other aspect of home life that is formative for a child in an informal way. It is unwise to create more-of-the-same work for students when they return from school after having spent hours upon hours doing such work. But other than what teachers assign, paranoid parents ask their children to prepare for the next module or semester far ahead of regular school schedules in order to gain a head start in the learning game.

Instead, parents should take a broader view of a child's education and development.

Education is also about getting physical exercise, playing sports, reading for entertainment and to gain knowledge, taking a dog out for a walk, doing the laundry, helping with family business, talking with neighbors, visiting relatives, touring local factories and farms, enjoying a walk in nature, or even daydreaming. In short, making home a haven for a child and the growing-up process a practical learning experience.

The author is a US-based instructional designer, literary translator and columnist writing on cross-cultural issues.

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