Horror Homework In Spanish

Brothers Martin and Manuel enjoyed the kind of weekend they like best, lounging around at home in Madrid.

Their mother, Gracia Escalante, is one of millions of Spanish parents asked to observe a homework strike each weekend in November.

"Manuel (year nine) loves to read and Martin (year six) really needs time to lie on his bed and imagine things, not just playing with the tablet or watching TV. And certainly not doing schoolwork," she says.

The protest was called by the Spanish Alliance of Parents' Associations (CEAPA), which argues that homework is harming children's education and families' quality of life.

Spain ranks highly among industrialised countries in terms of homework set, but can boast only mediocre positions when it comes to academic achievement.

According to a 2016 study by the World Health Organisation, 30% of Spanish 11-year-olds feel stressed by the amount of homework they have to do, rising to 65% by the age of 15.

Longest homework hours
1. Shanghai
2. Russia
3. Singapore
4. Kazakhstan
5. Italy
6. Ireland
7. Romania
8. Estonia
9. Lithuania
10. Poland
11. Spain

Those who support the strike say the amount of homework children get - often two hours or more a day - is the direct result of an old-fashioned system of rote learning, constant examinations and a lack of school resources or modernised thinking in Spain's education system.

"Some teachers try to be different, but when you have 25 students in the classroom at primary level and constant pressure from evaluations, the only way the Spanish system stays afloat is by children doing homework," says Ms Escalante.

"Kids are stuck at home doing homework instead of learning to relate with grandparents, cousins, all the different kids in their street, learning to cook, how to fix a broken pipe."

Eva Bailen, who started a petition against homework, believes primary school children should not have more than half an hour's homework a day and older children one hour.

Elsewhere in Europe:

Among teachers, who have also been asked by CEAPA not to set homework on weekends this month, some sympathise with the aims of the strike.

"I don't set homework at all," explains Alvaro Caso, a primary school teacher in Aravaca, near Madrid. "Children spend enough time at school and have enough work to do during the day. If a teacher is doing their job right, there is no need for any more - at least in primary education."

Alvaro Caso argues that Spain's rowdy politics has seen the education system reformed six times in the past 35 years, but without any analysis of the big picture in terms of today's society.

"It's all still very dry and academic. Never mind the last century, there is still a lot of the 19th century about our schools. If a child falls behind, there is not much of a learning culture to hold on to, just studying and repetition."

Who's against the strike?

"It's awful to hear my son ask why he has to work in the evening when I have finished," says Violeta Ruiz, a university lecturer and mother of two boys in primary education.

But she does not support the strike. "I am completely against it because it's taking a swipe at all teachers without discriminating, and without prior consultation."

Unions have also criticised the confrontational aspect of a strike, which they argue questions teachers' authority.

Juanma Fabre, a teacher of philosophy to Baccalaureate students in Madrid, accepts there is too much homework, but says teachers are not to blame.

"As a father myself, I have seen how bad it can be. Teachers and students are oversaturated with work."

Mr Fabre points out that state schools have no system of coordination between teachers so students might get work from all eight or nine subjects at the same time, with Spanish language, maths and foreign languages like English providing the biggest workload.

"The national curriculum is impossible to cover. Each education reform talks about modernising the methodology and moving away from memorising things to working on skills, and then adds more material to the syllabus."

For Ms Ruiz, great loads of homework are actually counterproductive for the learning mind.

"Having three hours of homework to do is a direct attack on the development of a reading habit. No child sits down to read from 17:00 to 17:30; they have to be in their room, get bored and eventually take a book down from the shelf."

How much homework do children get?

  • Spanish 15-year-olds were found to get an average of 6.5 hours per week
  • UK 15-year-olds got 4.9 hours per week, close to the international average
  • Finland's teenagers are set less than three hours a week, and yet are consistently in the top 10 international Pisa rankings
  • Shanghai, China, tops the Pisa 2012 rankings for 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science, but also sets the most homework: 13.8 hours

  • Do you think your children get too much homework? Join the conversation - find us on Facebook

Camilo Jené, 51, watches as his daughter Clara, 14, does her homework at their dining table. She refuses to do homework on weekends now. Lauren Frayer for NPR hide caption

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Lauren Frayer for NPR

Camilo Jené, 51, watches as his daughter Clara, 14, does her homework at their dining table. She refuses to do homework on weekends now.

Lauren Frayer for NPR

On a typical weekday evening, 14-year-old Clara Jené spreads out her homework across the dining table in her family's apartment in a leafy northern suburb of Madrid. She gets about three hours of homework a night — and more than twice that on weekends.

"Often we're sitting down to dinner, and I have to tell her to put away the books," says Clara's father, Camilo Jené, a 51-year-old architect. "It's cutting into our family time."

Keep in mind that Spaniards sit down to dinner around 10 p.m. Clara often resumes her homework after that, staying up as late as 1 a.m.

A recent World Health Organization study found 64 percent of 15-year-old girls and 59 percent of boys the same age in Spain said they feel "pressured by schoolwork." Twenty-seven percent of Spanish 11-year-old girls and 38 percent of boys said the same.

In comparison, 54 percent of 15-year-old American girls and 42 percent of 15-year-old boys said the same.

So last month, Spanish students went on strike. Clara is among millions of kids in primary and secondary schools across the country who've been refusing to do any assignments on Saturdays or Sundays.

"Last weekend, I spent time with my family. One day we went to visit my grandparents at our relatives' house in the mountains," Clara says. "I learned how to build a campfire outdoors."

Normally, she would have spend that time studying.

Lots of children around the world want to do less homework. But in Spain, parents and even some teachers are backing the kids up. Clara's father — a member of a national parents' association — is the one who suggested that she participate in the strike.

"It's complicated," Jené says, "because we all want our children to succeed."

He acknowledges that Clara's grades may not be as good as those of classmates who completed all their assignments. But the Jené family wants Spain's education system to change. They say it relies too much on busywork and rote memorization.

Spanish teenagers get more homework than the average for about three dozen developed countries surveyed annually by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD found that the average homework load for Spanish students of all ages is 18.5 hours a week.

But that doesn't translate into higher scores on standardized tests. Spain consistently ranks below average in the OECD's rankings for student performance in reading, math and science.

"We think the reason is that our educational system is ancient. It dedicates a lot of time to memorization rather than participatory learning," says Marius Fullana, an astrophysicist, father of two and spokesman for the parents' association in 12,000 Spanish school systems, which called the homework strike.

Finland, in contrast, boasts some of the highest student performances in Europe — and some of the highest teacher salaries — but teachers there assign less homework than almost anywhere else in the world.

Fullana estimates that about half of public school students across Spain took part in the strike in November. It was supposed to finish at the end of that month. But it received so much attention — and in some cases, resulted in less assigned homework — that many students plan to continue the strike through the end of 2016, he says.

While many were docked points on their grades for failing to do November weekend assignments, they're demanding not to be penalized in December. That will be up to individual teachers and school principals.

Some teachers have complained about the strike, saying it unfairly targets their profession and puts them in an adversarial relationship with their students, the parents' association says. But many other teachers have been sympathetic. Some stopped assigning weekend homework altogether.

Fullana says he hopes that becomes the norm.

In Spain, education policy is made by local governments in 17 autonomous regions across the country. A spokesman for the Department of Education in the Madrid region told reporters that there is no government mandate for homework on weekends. It's up to the discretion of individual teachers and school principals, he said.

Some experts say this homework strike has exposed a larger problem in Spanish society.

"It's much broader than just homework. Why? Because of working schedules. They're really not family-friendly," says Catherine L'Ecuyer, author of a bestselling book in Spain called The Wonder Approach to Learning.

L'Ecuyer, a French-Canadian education researcher and consultant who has lived in Spain for several years, says to change Spanish children's homework load, you first have to change their parents' workload.

"The basic work schedule in Spain, for instance, is not 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., as it is in other countries. It's 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. — and for professionals, it's 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. or 9 a.m. to 11 p.m.!" she says. "So what do you do with your child when he comes home at 4 p.m., after school?"

The child does homework — for hours and hours. It fills a gap for Spanish families. But experts like L'Ecuyer say data show those hours of homework never actually benefit the kids themselves.

"Some educators, they tend to consider education as 'more is better' — more activities, more homework, more hours of school — more everything. And it's not true," L'Ecuyer says. "What we have to look at is quality."

So for now, parents and caregivers arrive at schoolyards across Spain on Fridays to pick up their children — many of whom will spend the weekend playing, rather battling their way through hours of homework.


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