Do Japanese Kids Try Harder?

The Japanese believe a struggle is a way to become strong. Their children would spend an hour working on one math problem.  American students, on average, spend 30 seconds trying to solve a math problem before they “give up.”

I believe it. I have watched this happen and I know it’s not because the kids would never “get it.” It’s because we let them get away with being lazy – or distracted. At home, students do their assignments while they listen to music on one gadget, hold a cellphone waiting for texts, and dip into the bowl of popcorn at their elbow. Little kids might have Legos on the same table with their workbooks. In contemporary homes with “open floor plans,” there is sure to be TV in the background.

Homework has controversies, but it provides families with insights to how their children are doing, and how the schools are doing, too. A recent study considered school design and how that effects learning. In England in the 19th century, an experiment proved kids thrive better with more natural light in their classrooms. Yet many of us growing up in the 20th century will remember gazing out a schoolroom window when we were utterly bored. Today we obsess about “attention span” and yet demand a “stimulating” classroom environment.

There’s help for homework woes on The Hospital for Sick Children (Canada) website ( One article, “Homework: some is good, more is not better” (June 18, 2010), acknowledges that while scientific studies have shown a correlation between more time spent on homework and “doing well” in school, there is no proof that homework is the reason for success. The student may be especially interested in schoolwork or the parents may motivate them (one way or another).

The article also points to the danger that homework creates “an unlevel playing field where poor families face a serious disadvantage.” A teacher/researcher at the hospital cites educator Etta Kralovec’s focus on home-school interface. The reality of overworked parents and their shortage of resources cause her to conclude that homework should be moved back into the schools, even if it means hiring extra help; she says the school day should be longer.

The right length of a school day is being debated here now. Many children go to after-care and have opportunities to at least start their assigned homework. But do they have the right people to guide them? Students in Japan have less homework but their school day is longer.

Under “Homework guidelines” the article warns that homework should not be “busywork” nor should it be a discovery process (something not yet introduced in class). In Canada the common “threads” in policy include:

Homework is an opportunity to practice skills and reinforce information learned recently in class.

Math, design, and entrepreneurship combined in this non-homework project.


Math, design, and entrepreneurship combined in this non-homework project.

Math, design, and entrepreneurship combined in this non-homework project.

 Young children have a limited capacity to focus, so more homework is not helpful.

Parents should not be responsible for teaching the school’s curriculum.

Nor should they undermine or take over a child’s homework efforts.

  • Dad listens.


 Most families these days have little time to even talk about homework. Many other activities pull us away from home or destroy its calm, so getting homework done well is severely challenged. On the other hand, I have watched children make up their own homework: playing school, inventing things, writing long messages to each other, reading books, and competing with themselves in math video games.

NOTE: The information about how we compare with Japan came to me in an e-letter from Laura Walton, a Tucson financial planner. She cited Dr. Jim Stigler, a Professor of Psychology at UCLA.

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