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Kids In Spain Rebel Against Homework, And Parents Are Their Biggest Boosters

Dec 11, 2016
Originally published on December 11, 2016 7:01 am

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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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Lots of children want less homework, but in Spain, parents and even some teachers now agree. Millions of Spanish students are on a homework strike this weekend. The protest is aimed at changing Spain's public education system, as Lauren Frayer reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL BUZZING)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: (Speaking Spanish).

A father of three greets me at his door in a leafy northern suburb of Madrid.

CAMILO JENE: My name is Camilo Jene. I am an architect,

FRAYER: On this weekday evening, his 14-year-old daughter Clara is at the dining table doing homework.

JENE: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "Often we're sitting down to dinner and I have to tell her to put away the books," Jene says. "It's cutting into our family time." Sixty-four percent of 15-year-old girls in Spain report being stressed about the amount of homework they get; even about a third of 11-year-olds say the same. Clara gets about three hours a day and double that on weekends, but she's now among millions of Spanish students on strike refusing to do weekend homework.

CLARA: Last weekend, I spent time with my family (speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: She says she learned how to make a campfire outdoors rather than studying.

JENE: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: "It's complicated," says her father, "because we all want our children to succeed." Clara's grades won't be as good as those of classmates who completed their assignments. But the Jene family wants to change Spain's education system, which they say relies too much on busy work and rote memorization.

JENE: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Spanish teenagers get about a third more homework than average for developed countries, but that doesn't translate into higher scores. Spain consistently ranks low in reading, math and science. Organizers say about half of public school students are taking part in this homework strike, which began in November. Marius Fullana is an astrophysicist, father of two and spokesman for a parents' association, which called the strike. I asked him what happens next.

MARIUS FULLANA: (Laughter) This is a good question. Professors or teachers also agree with the measure and so they...

FRAYER: He says some sympathetic teachers have stopped assigning homework on weekends, and he hopes that could become the norm. A spokesman for Madrid's education system says it's up to teachers and principals and that there's no government mandate of homework on weekends. Catherine L’Ecuyer wrote a best-seller in Spain called "The Wonder Approach To Learning." She says to change Spanish children's homework load you first have to change their parents' workload.

CATHERINE L’ECUYER: The basic work schedule in Spain, for instance, is not 9 to 5 as it is in other countries. It’s 9 to 7. And for professionals, it’s 9 to 9 or 9 to 11. So what do you do with your child when he comes home at 4, you know, after school?

FRAYER: Homework - it fills that gap for Spanish families, but L’Ecuyer says studies show it doesn't actually help the kids. Finland ranks at the top of European education tables. But teachers there assign less homework than almost anywhere else.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: It's the end of another school week in Madrid, and parents arrive to pick up their kids, many of whom will spend the weekend playing rather than battling their way through hours of homework. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE GO! TEAM'S "GET IT TOGETHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.