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Homework?

There has been much excitement on Facebook this week about setting homework for primary age pupils. The trigger was a teacher in the US who wrote to her pupils’ parents that she would no longer be setting homework as there was no evidence that it works. As is now so often the case, the social media furore enticed many news outlets to report on the story. This was followed little more than a week later by a similar letter from a school here in the UK.

As you might expect, comments on Facebook were well-informed by research and betrayed little of the writers’ untested assumptions and prejudices [!!]. Why, I wonder, do so many people feel qualified to tell teachers how best to do their job? I drink wine, but that doesn’t mean I can advise winemakers how to improve their product. Sometimes I am ill, but that doesn’t make me a doctor. But, mercifully, everyone is an expert on education, because they went to school as a child.

Anyway – rant over!

What does the research say about ‘homework’? The Education Endowment Foundation (formerly The Sutton Trust) indicates that the impact of primary age homework on attainment is minimal, and that there are many other strategies with far greater impact, many of which are similarly cheap to employ. Developing meta-cognition and self-regulation, for example, is judged to increase attainment 4 times as much as primary homework does, for similar costs. If we are going to employ attainment raising strategies, surely it makes sense to attend to those that are proven to generate the largest gains ? [The other highest impact / low cost strategy is quality feedback]

But even the elementary teacher from the States intends to set homework. Her letter to parents states that “Homework will only consist of work that your student did not finish during the school day, there will be no formally assigned homework this year.” So what she is really saying is that such homework that is set will be of the ‘finish off because you ran out of time in class variety’ – not much independent research or deep learning here, then! I am unaware of research that says that finishing uncompleted work is worthwhile, but that ‘formally assigned homework’ is not.

The UK school’s policy offers a glimmer of hope: children will be encouraged to follow their interests in selecting their homework. This will work particularly well if teachers steer them towards areas in which the student could do with being stretched. I note that whilst there is no upper limit on the number of assignments a student can complete, neither is there mention of a lower limit: some students may exercise their newly-found independence by electing not to complete any home learning at all!

It may, however, be the case that traditional ‘homework’ has low impact not because it is inherently ineffective, rather that the quality and purpose too frequently fails to engage interest and drive learning forward. So, what might ‘good homework’ (or Home Learning) look like? The biggest element of difference between home learning and school learning is not the setting (though this can often be the source of great challenge), but the coach: parents may well have to take on the role of the teacher, especially if the learning being set is sufficiently stretching. Good home learning will happen for children with parents who do things like:

  • Talk about the future (i.e. by creating a shopping list) with their children, help their children to think ahead (Planning);
  • Talk about how they have changed their mind about something, help their children to do likewise (Refining);
  • Listen carefully to what their child is saying, help their children to listen attentively (Listening);
  • Do not assume that everything they hear on TV must be true, help their children to be healthily sceptical (Questioning);
  • Talk about how things are similar and how they are different, help their children to spot connections (Making Links);
  • Try different ways of doing things when faced with difficulty, help their children to adopt a similar ‘can-do’ attitude (Perseverance).

If we could find ways to wean parents off ‘teaching’ their child how to do multiplication (their way!) and get them into the habit of modelling learning positive ways of behaving, we might reap the rewards in the classroom and maybe at the same time obviate the need for homework that is too often ‘more of the same’.

Pie in the sky? Or worth a thought?

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