Over the past decade people have been divided over homework and whether it carries real value for children’s learning and grades. The article discusses a moderate standpoint on the issue and explains how to give effective homework. Nevertheless, in the contexts of Madrassahs, the benefits of giving homework should be weighed against the risks of overwhelming children or causing them to perform less well in their overall education.
Senior leader John Stanier tried to ban what he saw as a huge waste of time, but a more thorough review of the research has turned him into a proselytiser for the cause. The story is the same in every school across the country, for the majority of teachers in the majority of lessons. The homework is set: a significant minority of the class fail to hand it in. The detentions are set: a significant minority of offenders fail to turn up. The detention with the senior leadership team is set: a significant minority of detainees fail to attend…and so the cycle continues.
As a teacher, I used to dwell on the futility of this. When I was fortunate enough to be promoted to senior leadership, I finally had the influence to put an end to it. So, armed with recent research, I began my campaign to end homework – fully prepared to receive the “Most Popular Member of the Senior Leadership Team Award” from teachers and to be carried around the school on their shoulders as they cheered my name.
I sat down with a focus group of about 20 teachers and repeated the argument for getting rid of homework that I had so convinced the rest of my senior leadership colleagues with the week before. Why should we waste so much valuable time and resources on a learning strategy that the oft-quoted research of Professor John Hattie (he of Visible Learning fame) showed had only a marginally greater impact on learning than if children didn’t attend school at all (that’s an impact of d=0.29 for you research enthusiasts)?
Why should we worry about how our school would look to a tiny handful of vocal, affluent parents who wanted to keep homework when most would thank us for ending hours of needless confrontation and stress at home?
Why should we pursue a policy that, according to some, actively extended the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers?
It was a passionate speech. I waited for the cheers, the bunting, the ticker-tape parade.
The teachers simply looked at me in silence. The awkwardness was interrupted by a mild-mannered English teacher slowly raising her hand at the back of the room: “I really need to set homework if my pupils are going to learn everything that is in the specification to a high standard. I don’t mind chasing
them for it. I think it’s worth it…”
Then, one by one, many others added to this brave teacher’s defence of homework. They all thought it was vital, that it developed essential skills of learning independently, that it made a link with parents – even the union reps said that their members should be able to set homework if they wished.
The meeting ended. I withdrew to my office. I was not to be derailed. I set about building a case so watertight against homework that the staff would have to admit I was right. But what I unearthed was a watertight defence for homework in secondary schools.
Behind the headlines of Hattie’s research lies a more complex picture about homework. Studies suggest that the setting of homework has little if any impact on learning in primary schools (d=0.15). This is supported by Durham University’s research for the Sutton Trust social mobility charity, which shows that regular homework-setting in primaries helps a child to progress by only an extra two months over the course of a year.
Yet these figures change dramatically when studies focus only on secondary school pupils. Hattie suggests that homework has a significant impact on progress at secondaries (d=0.64) and this is well within what he calls the “zone of desired effects”. These findings are supported by the Sutton Trust research, which shows that homework in secondaries helps a pupil to progress by an extra five months over the course of the year.
Studies have also shown that the impact on secondary pupils can be even greater if certain types of homework are issued. Tasks should be specific and clearly link to a precise learning target from the classroom. Rote learning or practice and rehearsal of the subject matter learned in class have a significantly greater impact than open-ended, problem-solving tasks. “Flipped learning” tasks, where pupils learn content before the lesson, are also effective. One study shows that teachers regularly commenting on homework had the impact of boosting a pupil’s progress by almost a year (d=0.88).
Homework is most effective when tasks are short and set frequently. But working at home for more than one hour per night in young adolescents and two hours in older adolescents has been shown to have a negative impact on progress.
Just like every teacher I have ever met, I am a busy man who is constantly trying to cling on to the semblance of a vaguely healthy work-life balance. So the chimeric promise that homework was futile was music to my ears.
The truth, however, was that if homework was having no impact, this had little to do with the concept and a lot to do with how I was putting it into practice. I now realise that planning meaningful homework, giving specific and helpful feedback and chasing transgressors is one of the best ways we can use our time as teachers. I now recognise that we need to change the culture of homework being seen as a necessary evil by teachers, pupils and parents alike.
Rewriting the rulebook
So, we didn’t tear up the school’s homework policy, but it has been rewritten.
The new approach encourages homework to be used where appropriate to support learning, with guidance for teachers about which tasks have the most significant impact. There is no schedule for homework to be set on a fixed day for a fixed amount of time.
We also specify that teachers, pupils and parents have a shared responsibility for ensuring its completion. This is already recognised as best practice by Ofsted. If pupils are not learning outside the classroom, let us build a dialogue with the pupil and their parents to find out why and offer extra support – just as we would in class – rather than entering a negative and futile cycle of punishments.
The teachers in my focus group were happy with this – even the union reps. But there is no sign of any bunting or cheering…yet.
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