Clara and the homework: A conversation among friends.

Clara and the Homework: I put the call out on Facebook, linked a couple of friends I could think of to get the ball rolling and this is the conversation we had in our international community about learning and homework. People I know based in various parts of the world replied. Most were New Zealanders, many with partners from different cultures, either the local culture where we lived, or, in the case of the Middle East folk, both were immigrant/ex-pats of different cultures.


“E nga tangata huri noa ki Aotearoa me te ao, whakarongo mai. Por favor. I know many of you are getting your PJs on and heading for the bed, but I have a question for anyone with a 6 year old in your life. What homework are they expected to do? What concepts in mathematics are they expected to know at this age? Is it too easy? Too hard? Just right? (I know one size doesn’t fit all) I’m seeing my daughter Clara’s teacher today about the quantities of homework she’s getting and I would like your perspective.”

I put the call out on Facebook, linked a couple of friends I could think of to get the ball rolling and this is the conversation we had in our international community about learning and homework. People I know based in various parts of the world replied. Most were New Zealanders, many with partners from different cultures, either the local culture where we lived, or, in the case of the Middle East folk, both were immigrant/ex-pats of different cultures.

First to answer, because she was probably already in her PJs with her cocoa was Leanne…

Leanne (Hutt Valley, New Zealand)  My thoughts are that a 5/6 year old shouldn’t have any homework except book reading. A day at school is enough for them to deal with. My parents teachers for over 25 years would agree. Next year a little maths as well but that’s all…
Hame (Palmerston North I, New Zealand) My kids get pushed to do a little more, but DJ(7) loved doing well and doing extra so that was easy, Bri (6) on the other hand… Also kids do extra maths, reading and writing on top of what school gives them. Not onerous, but have seen the positive results…
Fi (Wellington, New Zealand) E get’s a homework sheet per week which has reading, basic maths revision, and some literacy exercises. They also do Mathletics which is a fun computer programme to support learning. The kids enjoy it though. I’m with Leanne, that I don’t think homework very young is that helpful. It was always much more stress creating for J and A. I tried to have a chilled out hands off approach – basically they have to learn to be self motivated to do it. That has now paid off I think.
E’s also really conscientious – likes to get it done quickly and yip – she likes the challenge too.

ELP (New Zealander in Seville, Spain) Good point Fiona, kids here are spoon fed (I feel) – they have their parents on top of them from day one because parents feel this pressure to get good grades! The thing is it spirals – the kids all compare – if we don’t keep up, Clara will no do so well which won’t look good among her peers.

Ar (Palmerston North, New Zealand) Hi Em, T 6 and N 8 have reading every night, and every now and then a maths problem for the family to work on. T also has his poetry book- more reading and an activity sheet that comes home daily but is completed at school. Studies support that reading at home is beneficial, maths not so much in these early years. We extend our kids learning through play, drawing, activity books. Some kids love homework I guess..I imagine Clara will want to be and do the same as her peers though..perhaps check the curriculum. Best of luck discussing Clara’s needs with her teacher.

ELP Thanks A, I agree with the reading -story time is gold – and Clara has even started reading English out of her own desire to try – and reading well with amazing intuition – I’m so surprised, but the problem is I don’t think the curriculum is on my side. We’ll see how we can take the middle road somewhere.

(New Zealander based in Germany) In Germany they don’t even start school until they’re 6 or 7, and Kindergarten is reserved strictly for play-based learning (there are some relevant milestones they pay attention to there, like being able to count, quantify relative amounts of e.g. blocks etc. and so on, but this seems to be done in a relaxed way with the awareness that kids reach these milestones at different paces).

When they start school, however, it’s a completely different story – they are thrown straight into the deep end. A big shift in culture, from being encouraged to play independently to suddenly having to sit still and do what the teacher tells you, and a very tightly packed curriculum involving a steep learning curve in the areas of literacy and numeracy which require considerable amounts of homework and parental involvement (those who fall behind have to repeat the year – this applies from the 1st class).

The only alternative to keeping up with the system is to step sideways into something like Waldorf / Steiner / Montessori. The pressure on kids and teachers to get through the curriculum is increasingly regarded as problematic, especially since the system clearly privileges families where at least one parent is a native speaker of German and has considerable time, energy and patience to dedicate to getting through several hours of homework a week (on top of “Ganztag” (full) school days from 8:00am to 16:15pm).

My (limited) experience of Latin learning environments (in Brazil) is that they start the three Rs much earlier (with 4 years or so), meaning that they lose those years of play-based learning, and that they police the milestones quite rigidly from the beginning.

ELP You got it, they start earlier. I didn’t expect there to be so many parallels between Germany and Spain in terms of pressure cooking. And you’re right too that bi and multi lingual families have to fit that extra aspect in. We are one of three families in the entire school (infants through to secondary) where one of the parents isn’t a native Spanish speaker.

(New Zealander based in Germany) In T’s class at the beginning there were at least 6 families where one or both parents weren’t native speakers – and 3 of those kids had to repeat the first year…. It’s now a big topic too because of refugees – there are currently 6,750 refugees living in Dusseldorf (pop. 600,000), and all the kids have to be integrated somehow into this very competitive school system….

ELP That’s the big one for you guys, a long term issue. The refugees are now German residents. We need to remember that.

Some outside sources came in :

(Bay of Plenty, New Zealand)
John Buell (2004) puts it: ‘… for a practice as solidly entrenched as homework, the scholarly case on its behalf is surprisingly weak and even contradictory.’




(Australian based in Seville, Spain)
O has loads of homework too. She’s even doing long addition and subtraction. The worst part is the shitloads of colouring in on top of it. It isn’t even creative or free. I write a note if she doesn’t do it all saying she couldn’t finish it because she was busy playing with plasticine or kicking a football in the park.


Heather (based in Wellington, New Zealand)  T’s six now. She started at a Montessori in California and had a lot of homework, often taking 1-2 hours but she learnt reading, writing and maths in about 6 months. Now we’re back in NZ, it’s pretty chilled, just reading easy books/poems.
Hame There are other, intangible benefits to doing homework, like learning to sit down quietly and work at something independently, reading for reading sake.. Its like a sport or activity you enjoy… if you didn’t work at it (shooting hoops, playing hockey, doing forms in martial arts) then you can’t get any better. .. Overloading at a young age is an issue, I agree, but having no homework is a little too far the other way.

(Australian based in Seville, Spain) I think it’s up to us as parents to decide when too much is too much…when it becomes a battle to do it maybe it’s time to do some other activity. They are too little or tired sometimes to do it all on top of full school day.

(New Zealander based in Germany)…also in defence of homework (just to play devil’s advocate!): the general quality of education in Germany is high in a way that translates for instance into a critical and varied media environment (including prime-time debates on complex and highly politicised issues like legalising prostitution and investor-state dispute resolution where people who disagree actually go point-for-point through each other’s arguments instead of just insulting each other, unlike in other places I’ve lived!) I guess this doesn’t have nothing to do with kids having to tackle a demanding curriculum under a certain amount of pressure….

Re the talk with the teacher: they might also be under externally imposed pressure to cover a certain number of topics during the school year – could this be what’s behind the large amount of homework (as it seems to be in my son’s case)? If so, your best bet may be to get hold of the textbook(s) they’re following and figure out either how to make the homework that is given out more fun and interesting, or come up with your own alternatives so she gets the same learning outcomes under her belt in a way that better suits you both ...I mean I reckon you’ll be better off trying to work with her than by pointing out failures in the system that she’s probably only too aware of herself;)


(Teacher in a UK Curriculum School in Jerez, Spain) Does the school have homework policies? Good place to start! The problem we have is that parents push for homework.


(New Zealanders in Abu Dhabi) Maya & Sammy go to an IB school here, Sammy’s in grade 1 (6 years old) and it’s been fairly manageable so far, mainly just a book at his level to read each night, plus he’s had one biggish project to do which was a bit of research about a typical kid from his home country. Plus 5 minutes of Arabic homework every week, which is basically copy these words onto the page. Very mind-numbing. Maya, phew, grade 2, they really step it up, and as well as reading a book every night, there’s the 5 mins of Arabic like Sammy, plus three biggish tasks each week, one Maths, one related to their current unit of inquiry, and one related to language. It gets a bit stressful, to be honest. Maya’s super diligent and tries her hardest to get everything done, but she complains about feeling stressed out about it!! Aaargh. Sammy would be totally lost, so luckily for him, we’ll be in NZ next year and here’s hoping it’s a bit less intense.

Oh… and… as Yvonne mentions, it’s the parents that seem to push for it, and interestingly, often some of the Spanish-speaking parents. One who took her kids out of the IB school into a more traditional set-up, as she felt that they weren’t getting enough homework!! Whaaa??? I’ve heard other complaints along the lines of: why are our KG1s (4 years old) not getting books and maths homework to do? Tricky for the teachers to deal with.


(New Zealander in Australia) Alexander (6) just has his reading books each night, a Mathletics task to do for the week (10 mins worth), some spelling & a little bit of literacy either via Reading Eggs or an assignment. That sounds like lots but it’s not. We do one homework night a week, prob takes 30 mins max & leave the rest of the week free for just the reading book & play time. I repeat only the spelling words he doesn’t know through the week. Mathletics and Reading Eggs are online Educational tools for Maths, Reading and literacy. Reading Eggs is Australian, created by the Australian Broadcasting Company and Mathletics may be international.


(New Zealand teacher in Australia) I agree, any homework should be an exception not a rule!


(Northland, New Zealand) We just took the school up on the option to opt our 7 year old & 9 year old out of homework on the basis they had too many other activities (karate, gymnastics) after school.


(Wellington, New Zealand) And more generally homework at that age is really too much on top of a full school day. My two cents !


Pauline (Wellington, New Zealand) For our family and at that age we did the homework when it suited us (which was hardly ever). I wasn’t worried about the academics because they were practicing in everyday-life – stories at bedtime, going to the supermarket, baking a cake, posting a letter, talking about stuff, asking questions, going places and seeing & doing things…..

Finishing a worksheet in class time (or before the end of the week) is about speed and quantity and we found first-hand that that can cause problems down the track – perhaps Clara isn’t speedy because she’s being accurate or neat or double-triple checking (or daydreaming) and perhaps children are finishing quickly but with poor ‘quality’ – you just have to finish to get a green sticker, right?

If the homework habit is important to you then moderate it – you need to do some sums but only 5 more, not all of them – we will work on one spelling word each day, and then use the heck out of it, spell it front ways, back ways, use it in sentences, make a pun, think of all the words that sounds the same or mean the same – do it verbally.

The comparing between students is another issue and should be considered under peer pressure strategies. Another student’s work is no one else’s business. What are ways to build confidence for her to not engage with comparisons? Tell kids to mind their own business or to be up front about “in our family we do homework this way” – and for you to be confident in that too. You’re a multicultural family.


(CHCH, New Zealand) We are encouraged to do reading with our 6 year old. She brings school books home and we tick off when she reads 20 minutes as a guideline. She can read out loud with us or quietly by herself.

The kids also do a maths program on the iPad which makes it fun. And writing practice is something we do less frequently than we ought to. The limiting factor is parental time to supervise. There is no pressure from school. Sophie more often does at work on her own.


(Cambridge, New Zealand) Hi, H and P are 6 now and we just get a reading book each night which we make sure we read. We don’t get maths homework yet. There are work books which we can get from school if parents want their children to do extra homework. I got some but the girls didn’t want to do them so I didn’t push it.

I think at this age if children want to do it then that’s great but if they don’t that’s fine too. There have been a few documentaries on TV which suggest there is no evidence that doing homework has much effect at this age. Other people instead of homework think cooking a meal or baking or planting in the garden, activities like this are more beneficial.


A Side Step into Cultural Isolation Experiences of Ex-Pats

ELP A, I think as you might have said yourself, it’s possibly even more upsetting at a deeper level if the issue forms part of this “other” culture you live in, I think here also of immigrants anywhere, Aotearoa NZ, you and me navigating our particular circumstances, AC, your experience as a child going into our school. Speaking for myself, it’s upsetting because I can’t help but compare with what I know and it add to my sense of isolation.

(New Zealander based in Germany) Yes you are so right Emma, these kinds of issues (which seem to come up a lot around children!) can be the “make or break” of our love affairs with the places we live in. I could never have stayed in South America because, while there are many lovely and brilliant things about the people and cultures there, the ways of mothering I encountered were different to what I know and idealise to the point that I felt like an alien in the very places that would normally be main points of entry into local society (in front of the school gates, at kid’s birthday parties, etc.).

Whereas in Germany, while there are some quite big differences in terms of family life, schooling etc., I feel much more easily able to relate to the other school and kindergarten mums (despite my still-clumsy German and persistent inability to dress my kids appropriately for forecast weather!).

Attitude has something to do with it I guess: there are some basic values and habits that ya just gotta embrace or your frustration with them will eat you up!

ELP  Got to find ways to make it work positively or you’ll cut yourself off and make yourself miserable. I find that if I meet with other non-Andaluz/Spanish parents, we all sit around and complain, and that doesn’t get us anywhere -so I tend to avoid that.

But I have to be careful not to complain to local parents, because they’ll just think, bloody winging foreigner, if she doesn’t like it, she knows where the airport is!

I had a very productive talk with the teacher. The homework isn’t obligatory and the bi-weekly “exams” as the parents call them, are set because the parents have requested them in the past.


Why the Focus on Exams?

This is because the parents have been raised in an exam obsessed culture. An example of this deeply rooted exam culture is that the best, i.e. most secure (for life, no transparency, no questions asked) and coveted jobs in the country are gained by passing a state exam, not by proving you’re going to be any good in the job itself. Once you have that job, you have it for life. If you ask any teenager around here what they want to do, more that half will say they want to be a Funcionario – civil servant.

Clara’s teacher reassured me that these “tests” are taken very lightly as they don’t prove much to her about the effectiveness of her teaching and the children’s learning in the class. She knows that some parents are sitting there re-teaching at home to get the best marks. It all proves squat and she knows it. My confidence in her has risen. Feeling much better – for this year anyway.

(New Zealander based in Germany) A posted a news article that has been doing the rounds in the Euro village over the last week:
(Spain, this is embarrassing and why we need a BIG change.)

Well, you can see why these jobs are much-coveted! I guess the whole exam thing makes more sense in countries with populations the size of Germany and Spain, where you’ve got to have some shortcuts to sort out the chalk from the chaff. (Exams are probably also some sort of attempt to cut through nepotism, though no doubt not always successful).

Also the recent history – and present, in Spain – of mass unemployment of course makes people take finding jobs (and keeping them) very seriously. NZ’s comparatively laissez-faire education system and flexible employment market may reflect the fact that it is a tiny and currently very rich little economy that has been able to afford to rest on its laurels for a good few years…

ELP Having been outside of NZ for eleven years, I don’t know what kind of NZ I would be going back to. At the moment, I doubt we could even afford to go back. It seems to be a wealthy country for a few. As for employment, maybe a 24 year old could tell me about job prospects. But this is a whole other conversation.

But you are right, the competition is out there in a higher population – and in our region of Spain, with the highest unemployment rate, the pressure is on.

I need to gear my kids up to be ready for a bigger scenario than the local. I don’t know what our future is. We may all end up training to be farmers with my dad, and studying permaculture to be self-sustaining food growers in the deep south of New Zealand. Anyone with me?


Back to Homework

(New Zealander in Dubai) Right now I’m sitting in a coffee shop with Monika doing her homework. She gets it assigned once a week on a Thursday (last day of school/work) to be done by next Wednesday. We do it on the weekend over coffee and a fluffy for some daddy daughter bonding. It’s a good system as she’s always excited to do it. Some schools here have every evening homework and some have decided to have no homework. But I like doing some together each week.

Interesting to see the variations across countries and schools. Since it’s private here the amount of homework featured in our decision on which school. We wanted balance not hard core academia.

ELP If the kids want to do it, that’s the point, making it positive, interesting, motivating. Not against homework, not even against tricky stuff, as long as the kids are positively motivated to do it. Just checking, is this an IB (International Baccalaureate) school in Dubai?

(New Zealander in Dubai) UK curriculum. Agreed, need the right balance to keep them interested and give a sense of achievement when completed.

(New Zealander in Japan) Hi . Our children (7 and 10) get homework everynight. A few maths drills which for our oldest ranges from about 5 to 15mins. They then have to read a set text out loud to us which can take anywhere from 1 to about 10mins. If they have a test, then there is prep for that. Our youngest gets a few drills for his addition, some reading out loud and sometimes some character writing practice.

Homework can be completed in about 10 to 30mins, leaving time for playing outside, doing things they want to do like crafts of reading or rip-sticking with the locals.

We also try to instill some English skills in there, but are not really pushing that so much. The result is their English isn’t strong compared to others, but they are fairly communicative and I know that considering the time we put in, their results are not bad at all.

I agree with Hame, homework can have it’s place in child development, so long as it is balanced and not over bearing. For me, I think 30mins a night for a 10year old and 10mins a night for 7 year old is fine. More than that and I’d be cautious.

(Auckland, New Zealand) Ah homework, such a relevant topic this week. Our 8 year old (year 5) has weekly homework issued on a Friday due the following Thursday. There are some math equations at 2-3 levels, and he is required to try at the level he knows he can do. He needs to read for 20mins each night, record and write a brief comment in his reading log about the book. He then needs to choose 2 “can do” options from the four choices given. This week that involved writing a minimum of two paragraphs describing himself to a visiting alien, then he had to research an experiment to do at home, conduct it, write it up including the results. It doesn’t sound a lot but we find it challenging in between before school sports practices and after school sport and activities. We try to do almost all of it (bar nightly reading) on a Sunday knowing if we don’t it’s going to end in tired cross tears of frustration by Wednesday night. I am starting to sense the expectation for him to get it done is causing him to worry about it and not sleep well. Which worries us and we are monitoring closely.

Thank you to everyone who put your valued two cents worth in.

I think it’s interesting to consider that we are influenced by the different cultures within our families and partnerships and these influences inform our approaches to learning, where our children are concerned. Our Japanese or Spanish  may partners have a different take on “achievement” that we have to work in with. Either that or totally convince them how utterly misguided their culture is 😉

The culture and/or bubbles where we find ourselves or choose to be also mix it up. I don’t mean bubble in a negative sense. Ex-pats/immigrants, and I now certainly know, form these bubbles as a survival mechanism or as a comfort zone to retreat back to, after time at the front.

About the author Emma Louise Pratt

Emma Louise Pratt studied at Ilam School of Fine Art, Canterbury University, New Zealand. She has been the runner up in the Molly Morpeth Canaday Award (2005), and a finalist in the Norsewear Award (2007) in New Zealand and finalist in the Focus Abengoa International Painting Prize, Spain in 2014. Emma is known for her landscape based work where she explores specific landscapes that convey significance to her either for their historical or personal importance, serving as they always have, as a personal travel map.

All posts by Emma Louise Pratt →

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