A couple of days ago I saw a tweet linking to this piece on ‘Five false claims about homework’ and I’ve been wanting to write a piece responding to this, reflecting on it and adding a few extra views I have about the place of homework in school.
The five claims, almost myths, about homework which the author John Spencer sets out are as follows:
- Homework builds a work ethic
- Homework prepares kids for college (it’s an american piece)
- Homework prepares kids for a career
- Homework teaches responsibility
- Homework lets kids practice skills in their own time
The author doesn’t completely trash all of these myths, acknowledging quite rightly in some cases that homework does have benefits in each of these areas but he makes enough of a case to make one reconsider a number of prior positions one may hold about homework.
So instead of a direct response to each of the five points above I’m going to set out my own thoughts on the place of homework at school. Some of these points may be strikingly obvious but I hope the sum of them may add up to a convincing argument on homework.
1. Kids should be doing some work at home
I’ll start off by saying, before I start writing about the negatives of homework, that pupils should be doing work at home. The format and scope of that work may be different from what one would call ‘traditional homework’ but should still largely take place. Of course kids are also going to be writing essays and preparing for tests and exams but this will go on regardless.
I do not feel that school should immediately be ‘dropped’ from a pupil’s thoughts until 7:30 am the next morning. Part of a high-achieving school environment is that pupils must be prepared to learn and that will involve some preparatory work or study the night before. Doing effective and well structured work at home I think should improve how a pupil does in class. An innovative school will need to consider what the form and shape of that work is rather than asking for homework for the sake of homework.
2. Home though is for other things
I ache when I see a school’s plans which call for excessive amounts of hours in front of a desk at home. I get annoyed when parents seem to expect ever increasing amounts of homework to prove that not only is little Johnny actually working but that we are too.
Teenagers are not full-time working professionals yet. They do not have the skills and emotional maturity yet to be able to adopt that sort of posture which might be expected of them. For me the times which I enjoyed the most as a teen and which I feel shaped me more were not the times answering maths questions on topics I have forgotten about but were the times spent with friends, playing sport, being involved in a church etc. Forcing pupils into working every day of the week is counter-productive.
A homework programme must always take into account that pupils need to ‘switch off’ from school at times. Although I can’t find much prior writing about the benefits of switching off I think from my own experience it is vital for pupils.
3. Homework should not be an extension to the school day
As an extension to the point above but something which I feel needs to be said on its own I do feel that there needs to be a differentiation between school and home and I wonder sometimes whether homework is set because either things didn’t go well in class and the teacher wishes to catch up or because they don’t trust pupils and feel they need to keep them busy. Whichever it is I do wonder if homework is sometimes used as a stop-gap solution in which case I would guess no matter what you do pupils will simply not do the homework you set them. If one is going to require work of your pupils in the evening the class situation needs to be working absolutely effectively before one can expect pupils to do work at home.
Even if things are going well in class requiring pupils to work extra at home does give the message that school is a limitless environment when most jobs (perhaps apart from teaching!) tend to have a well defined cut-off between work and home.
4. A fully functioning homework system is not really possible
I’m going to do some estimation here so forgive me if my stats seem a bit off. Let’s say a teacher has about 150 pupils (I generally have between about 120 to 150 a year) and they set each pupil a piece of homework which needs to be marked each week. If each pupil’s work requires at least ten minutes to get open, mark it and enter marks into a book or online system that will take about 1500 minutes which is about 25 hours a week.
That’s a lot of time spent marking, week in, week out. In amidst the demands of lesson preparation, policy reading (and writing), teaching (!), attending meetings, research and all else which goes on in a school that doesn’t leave much time for marking.
So perhaps the answer is to reduce the amount of time one spends marking each pupils homework? Well I think no matter what amount of time you reduce it to most pupils will have spent far more time on the work then you will spend marking it and is it fair to give it that sort of short attention?
5. Should homework be optional?
Here is where I am setting out my store about homework. I think work at home should be required, but structured to avoid some of the pitfalls mentioned above. What should be optional, and I know this can only work in certain subjects, is the way in which pupils choose to work on the topic and sometimes even the topic itself. Although Jon Spencer criticises the notion of pupils practising skills badly at home in my subject, computing, as well as many others it is possible for pupils to practise at home.
So give them options, pathways and different tools they could choose to use themselves. How would you mark it? This is a tough one and would largely depend on what sort of paths you had given them and whether there was correlation in theory covered across what pupils were doing. Certainly looking at self-assessment could be a starting point, taking into consideration whether pupils are able to self-assess effectively.
I don’t think a perfect solution will ever be found for the issue of homework. I think it is important to obviously be aware of potential pitfalls and design against them. In writing this blogpost I think I have realised how imperfect most homework systems are and that regardless of one’s position more research will always be needed.
I think regardless of one’s position some points can be drawn out regarding homework:
- Pupils should be doing homework in some form
- Homework should not be given ‘because pupils must be doing homework as it’s the done thing!’
- A teacher should be considering the best form of work at home which suits their subject and might be different from other subjects
- This form of work at home should be analysed and revised and iterated as much as possible
- More research is needed – but even in the research I have read I wonder whether it’s possible to account for all the variables
- Technology can play a part in getting pupils to engage effectively with homework
It’s certainly a vital topic which I have been meaning to write about for a while. I look forward to any comments on it.