I am meeting prospective First Year pupils (and their parents) at the moment. I rather enjoy it: a first chance to get to know the children and to answer questions about school life.
The questions range from the impressively profound, ‘What are the most important lessons you learn at school?’ to the fearsomely specific ‘Do we learn about dinosaurs from the late cretaceous period?’ Unusually, a couple of children have asked ‘Why do we have to do homework?’, a higher-level question than the usual, pragmatic ‘How much homework do we get?’.
In a brief conversation, it is difficult to do justice to the rich debate around homework that has raged for many years. Writing at greater length, however, it is easier to capture some of the key points. More pragmatically, as a parent of three children I am long used to homework debates at home and managing the emotional and temporal demands that homework makes. Herewith then a few things about homework that I believe to be true and might help other parents brave the sometimes-fractious evening conversations with their offspring.
Meaningful homework improves grades. The research evidence for this is quite strong (see here for a clear summary of the impact of different initiatives on students’ learning measured by the number of months of additional progress the average student makes during a school year). The oft-quoted fact that Finnish children do less homework than UK children (not none) but are still placed higher in international league tables is not relevant here: there are doubtless many other differences between education in the UK and Finland any or all of which might be responsible for the differing levels of performance. Children in Singapore do more homework than in the UK and come higher in the league tables! To be successful the homework task does need to be meaningful, linking clearly to the work in the lessons and being genuinely interesting to the recipient. Tasks which offer the opportunity for students to exercise some choice and creativity always go down well; equally, unspecific ‘googling tasks’ are to be avoided. The accountability required of the students and the high expectations for the results help to enhance a culture of achievement within the school. Marking homework which shows evidence that the student has taken real pride in their work is a genuinely exciting experience for most teachers.
Homework extends learning time. Children work at their own pace and homework gives them the chance to finish a task off rather than being rushed in class. This would apply to practising problems in Mathematics, writing an essay in English, producing ideas and sketches in Art or DT etc. A balance between these consolidation tasks and the more open-ended tasks discussed in the previous paragraph is essential. Perhaps I will re-name homework as home-learning to see if it aids motivation.
Homework provides feedback about learning. A carefully crafted homework task gives children confidence that they have understood the topic or technique or have mastered a skill; they have completed the task away from the supportive environment of the lesson with a teacher to give hints and explanations. As a teacher, when I mark the homework (and look over the lesson work) I get excellent feedback on the learning and on what I need to do next lesson: press on, consolidate or try a different tack. Feedback can, of course, be given in different ways: sometimes a discussion in the lesson is a good approach and sometimes allowing students to offer feedback on each other’s work can be powerful.
Homework breeds independence in learning. Sixth Form students don’t just suddenly develop the independent learning skills that they will need for success at university or indeed at A level: the skills must be built up over years. When a student realises that to achieve their very best they need to move beyond the ‘turn up and do what I’m asked’ approach to learning and instead gauge for themselves how much extra work they need to do to master a topic or to read ahead then they have truly ‘come of age’ educationally. Homework helps children to develop the skills in learning to learn anything anytime: surely one of the most important abilities for life.
Homework can prepare for future lessons. These homework tasks involve tackling preliminary questions to see what is already known or reading a passage from a textbook or watching an explanatory video. The following lesson can then be used to apply the ideas or principles learnt, to discuss and tease out any misunderstandings. This style of homework is often called flipping because it reverses the usual arrangement of ‘lesson to explain and homework to practise’. Flipping makes a refreshing change from the usual consolidation type of homework and makes the pupils more independent. The videos can either be made by the teacher recording a commentary onto e.g. an animated PowerPoint or direct filming or just using one of the many thousands of already posted videos across YouTube and many other video-hosting sites.
Homework does not subvert family life or prevent children participating in extra-curricular activities. There are 6 hours between 3.50pm and 9.50pm, which is only slightly less time than that spent at school. Six hours is sufficient to practise musical instruments, attend a sports training session, do some homework, relax and enjoy a chat over dinner with your parents. That still leaves the weekend!