Ever get frustrated at the amount of busywork your children are doing as a result of the curriculum they’re studying? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Many parents feel frustrated at how much time their children waste on tasks that don’t further their education or have any perceptible positive input.
In this article, we’ll talk about what busywork is and how it’s different from homework. We’ll also identify the signs of busywork and how you can see if your children are doing useful work or time-wasting activities in class. We’ll also examine the reasons some teachers assign busywork.
Let’s dive in and get started!
What is Busywork
Busywork is material in a curriculum that might take a lot of your child’s attention and time but doesn’t give them any educational value. Even though the student might look extremely busy, they’re not learning much from the work they’re doing. The work is often given to make sure students are occupied, while little thought is given to the educational content of the material.
Some teachers think busywork is useful if substitute teachers are taking a class and they don’t want to introduce new material until the old teacher is back. However, this is often only useful for the teachers and fails to make use of student’s precious time.
If busywork is given to reiterate a concept that’s already been learned, it’s arguable it’s not busywork at all, but instead useful homework.
Signs Its Busywork, Not Useful Work
There are a few signs that the work your child is doing isn’t useful work they can learn from, but busywork. Below, we look at five signs that could indicate your child is doing busywork.
1. They’ve done it before thoroughly
One of the hallmarks of busywork is repetition. If your child has done the work several times before, it could be a time-wasting activity.
While children sometimes need repetition to learn a concept (such as a difficult math problem, or some reading words), often work is assigned far too often, and children end up looking at material they’ve already learned.
It’s much better to let children go outside so they can run around and enjoy the air instead of embittering them toward education by making it mind-numbingly repetitious for them.
2. It doesn’t further their education
The purpose of education is to further our knowledge in specific areas. At the point where children are not furthering their education, we must question whether it’s educational, or just busywork.
Ask yourself if your child would gain more if they did something else like spending the time:
- doing physical education
- playing outdoors and enjoying nature or
- with family.
If children attend school, much of their time is already eaten away by the work they do. Busywork further takes away valuable time with parents but doesn’t give children anything in return.
Unfortunately, busywork is a favorite of some teachers because they have to keep kids busy while they are stuck inside a building. ‘They need something to do!’ says the teacher. However, if children could follow their interests, they wouldn’t have to be assigned material that didn’t further their education. To be clear, this is an inherent criticism of the setup of school classrooms and models.
(Often students are given a video which some teachers pass of as ‘educational’. Don’t be fooled into thinking videos are always – or even often – educational as many are just time-wasters where children learn nothing.)
3. It’s irrelevant to the subject
Sometimes children are given time-wasting work to do that’s irrelevant to the subject. They might be handed sheets of work on things they’ve never studied or things that are too simple or hard for them.
While some might be good to learn, many are just irrelevant busywork activities designed to fill up time at the end of the classroom period.
(I recently heard of a teacher who was himself studying a course at a tertiary institution who assigned his high school students busywork so they could research his homework for him!)
4. It’s boring
Another way to identify busywork is when you see students doing something that they’re not interested in. They remain on a base level of functioning, trying to get through the monotonous work they’ve been given. Surely, learning shouldn’t work like this!
Children – especially young children – learn best when they’re interested in a subject. They learn best when they’re exploring the world around them. This is because it activates more of the brain to help with the task. Children integrate previous learning and add to their knowledge as they do this.
So, unless it’s absolutely necessary, stay away from curricula that tend to bore children as opposed to engender them with a love of learning.
5. Your child is too advanced for his or her class
Some children might find teacher handouts or activities busywork, while others might benefit from the work. That is, it might not be busywork for some, but if you have a gifted child, they may know the work already.
A customized education like homeschooling is a great option if you have a child who’s particularly frustrated at the slow pace of work they’ve been given at school. Homeschooling lets children work at their own pace in every subject they study. They can follow their interests and study what truly fascinates them.
Why Teachers Assign Busywork
Teachers assign busywork for a few reasons. Some of these are fair enough, while others indicate lazy teachers who don’t care about their students.
- Sometimes substitute teachers assign busywork because they don’t know where the regular teacher is up to in the curriculum the children are following. Staff shortages mean teachers may be changed from time to time. The substitute teacher may not want to ‘mess up the curriculum’ by teaching something that hasn’t been taught before. So, they assign busywork.
- Proper work takes preparation. This can be a time-consuming task for teachers and the best teachers will put in this work. However, the worst teachers won’t care about their class and will arrive unprepared. This is another hallmark of substitute teachers (and who can blame them) because who wants to put in hours of preparation for a class you’ll only be teaching for a day or two.
- A teacher who doesn’t care if her class is interested in the work they’re doing won’t prepare for the day. If a student is unfortunate enough to get a teacher like this for a whole year, you can expect them to emerge from that year having learned very little of what they might have, had they had a teacher with more pizazz.
- They’re exhausted. Sometimes teachers are exhausted from a hard term and they are hanging out for a break. We all have days when, even if we’re usually a good worker, we put in a bad day’s work on specific days. For teachers, their exhaustion days come at the end of the week, after an excursion, or towards the end of the term. For example, you’ll find teachers tend to hand out more busywork the day before Christmas break than the first day of school.
If parents want to involve their children in education that makes them learn more, think about creating activities for your children yourself. You don’t need a teacher to give your children educational experiences!
This is what a lot of homeschooling parents do. They take their children’s education into their own hands, and they certainly haven’t seen any negative test scores as a result.
What you can do to stop the busywork
If you’ve identified that your child has too much busywork at school, you have two popular options:
- Talk to their teacher about a more individualized homework plan
- Homeschool your children
A good way to tackle too much busywork is to talk to your child’s teacher and ask them to reassess the amount of homework they’re assigning your child. Maybe they’ll be willing to personalize your child’s homework or exempt them from it entirely.
Unfortunately, some teachers assign the same homework to all children and want all their students to do the work, even if children know the material. Over the years, this will waste a huge amount of time. This is when homeschooling could be a great option.
Many people homeschool their children as they get frustrated at the huge amount of time children spend doing busywork at school. They can see their children will learn so much more if they can study at their own pace (+/- an individualized curriculum) at home.
For this reason, gifted children make up a large proportion of homeschoolers as home education allows them an opportunity to put their busy minds to work with more of a challenge than most schools can give them. (You can find out more about homeschooling at this link.)
I’m a homeschool graduate myself and I loved homeschooling. You can read about my experience here. As I now look at homeschooling my own son, I wondered if it would be enjoyable and if our family could afford it. I aired these concerns to my parents and my mother said she loved homeschooling us. My dad said the years he spent homeschooling were – by far – the happiest years of his life. They said that parents might have to give up some things in life to homeschool (having said this, they thrived financially on one income), but it’s so worth it! And you get back so much in return.
Does More Homework Give Students Better Grades?
Many people believe there’s a correlation between the amount of time students spend on books and the marks they get. But, this is a huge misconception. This is what Alfie Kohn, an education author, said on the topic:
Let’s start by reviewing what we know from earlier investigations. First, no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school. In fact, there isn’t even a positive correlation between, on the one hand, having younger children do some homework (vs. none), or more (vs. less), and, on the other hand, any measure of achievement. If we’re making 12-year-olds, much less five-year-olds, do homework, it’s either because we’re misinformed about what the evidence says or because we think kids ought to have to do homework despite what the evidence says.
Furthermore, too much homework can actually lower test scores! So, we need to be careful when we assign work to our children.
We need to change the way we think about the work we give our students by realizing these things don’t always lead to learning in our students.
What is Homework or Useful Work
Homework is different from busywork in that it continues a child’s learning from where it left off the classroom. In a school situation, students can take work home and learn at their own pace and discover concepts they need to work on.
In a homeschool situation, useful work is work that adds to a child’s learning so they don’t get the end of the lesson and realize they’ve learned nothing new.
In some subjects, students may need to repeat concepts in different ways. This happens in subjects like chemistry, mathematics, and vocabulary. This repetition is normal, however, in some subjects as these concepts are taught effectively when students repeat ideas multiple times.
For example, to effectively get some chemistry math problems, students often need slightly different chemistry problems given to them to wrap their heads around the idea from different angles. The concept they’re learning might be a very difficult one, but by the time they’ve done it 10 times, they’ll find they know how to solve it easily.
It is also important to note that work that requires parent or family involvement might have a more important purpose such as family bonding and including family in a child’s education.
Busywork in Packaged Homeschool Curricula
Sometimes there’s busywork included in a curriculum that you might buy to homeschool with. This is because many of these curricula are designed for use in schools also.
Parents can get around this by buying alternate year packages (as I’ve heard of some parents doing with the Switched-on-Schoolhouse curriculum). You can also quickly review your child’s work for the day and leave anything that looks like busywork. Tell your child to ask you when he knows the material well so you can do this with any remaining work.
Another way to get around busywork is to choose an eclectic homeschooling method which allows you to be flexible with the things your children are learning. It allows you to say, ‘We’re going to do this bookwork, leave this bookwork, and go outside and do some garden work later.’
We too often make the mistake that in order for children to learn, they have to do an activity that’s designed to educate, such as workbooks or assignments. But this isn’t true because learning happens all the time! In fact, learning happens best when we incorporate interest-based learning in the subject. Don’t worry if you can’t quantify your children’s knowledge through testing or other grading methods. Chances are they’ll be taking a lot in, and maybe even understanding more than they ever did filling out a worksheet!