What’s the Point of Homework?

Any teacher worth their salt should always ask ‘why’ and know what impact their teaching has upon the learning of their students. Why then do we continue to revere the sacred cow that is homework? Is it parental pressure, force of habit, the notion that all that extra work must do something positive?

All the evidence challenges the view that homework is working. John Hattie, whose ‘Visible Learning’ brought a weight of evidence and research to bear on education that is unsurpassed and that is required reading. In his meta-analysis of many thousands of educational studies undertaken he created an evidential judgement of worthwhile impact upon student achievement – this average bar of impact being 0.40 in effect size. Contextually, classroom discussion has an effect size of 0.82 – teacher-student relationships has an effect size of 0.72. All very positive – good stuff with proven impact. Homework has an impact size of 0.29. Any longer studies over time reduced the effect size nearer to zero – it just isn’t working. It is a dead parrot! Now, this simply doesn’t stack up with our instinctive prejudices – can you imagine Gove and Cameron accepting this evidence? Their notion of competitive sport and even more competitive working hours simply wouldn’t align with the evidence – better ignore it! Now, I am not some lily-livered leftie who doesn’t believe in the merits of hard work, but the evidence tells us homework as it stands isn’t working. Why are we stealing family time, play time, time for reading for pleasure, to plough on with a rather painful pursuit that isn’t working?

Why isn’t it working? I have focused on the evidence so far. I want to stick to the evidence as it is crucial – but there isn’t evidence to explain why homework isn’t having a significant impact upon achievement, so I will surmise some conclusions of my own. Students rely on the expert instruction of teachers, and importantly, the instruction and support of their peers (this should never be under-estimated – think how much they learn from others and not directly from you). Homework takes away that scaffold for successful learning and many students flounder without support. Homework may actually further exacerbate the divide between the most able and least able in any given group – causing a loss of crucial time in class to bridge that gap. Younger students, of Primary age, have the positive impact size reduced to nothing which may indeed support my supposition that not having the expertise and support provided in the classroom may have a troubling counter-productive effect.

Secondly, too many homeworks still remain as ‘finish the class work’ tasks. They provide little or no engagement or motivation to be completed with an investment of time that would impinge on the personal time of students in the comforts of their home spaces. Homework can therefore have the detrimental effect of turning off students from learning altogether. This often occurs because schools follow homework timetables that impose arbitrary slots for homework that must be filled, regardless of the real value for learning. teachers are then pressured to set lots of homework regardless of merit or value to the learning process.

Thirdly, so much homework now includes using the web and filtering information. The problem with this is that most students struggle to make the required filtering choices independently that makes that research process truly worthwhile – or make those key selections, beyond simply cutting and pasting a Wikipedia entry!

Baby and Bath Water

Now, I am deliberately being blunt about the problem to provoke thoughts on the subject – but I don’t think the solution is to abandon homework altogether, nor do I think we should rebrand it with educational speak – even though ‘home learning’ has a better ring to it. I think we need to rethink homework completely – ask why, ask when and ask how.

With no learning at home the vacuum may well be filled with hours of COD or whatever TV programme is being repeated endless on MTV. Parents would be rightly concerned with this state of affairs. Therefore we must communicate with parents, educate them about the evidence and support them to provide alternatives. My biggest recommendation is promoting reading for pleasure. Perhaps the single most underrated activity a child can undertake that impacts upon their school success, and indeed, their happiness and their life. Get parents involved, share reading lists, create book clubs, find time in the school day to share reading – review, discuss, even rant! Anything to promote reading to provide time for reading. All the evidence says reading for pleasure has a positive impact, but it is in inexorable decline – but that need not be the case.

We also must create engaging challenges that reach far beyond simply finishing off a piece of class work that there wasn’t quite time to complete. Extended challenges that involve parents, collaboration with their peers, that demand a variety of skills – like good old- school Blue Peter challenges! In our school reception recently we had a fleet of amazing motte and bailey castles on display. They were sensational – a testament to students going far beyond an allocated thirty minute homework slot. These challenges provide intrinsic motivation and deepen learning and bring a pleasure to learning that should not be readily dismissed. I also suspect a few parents were involved – this is brilliant – and exactly what we should support and encourage. Students need time to develop these projects – support and advice, from teachers, peers and parents. We must avoid the temptation to avoid their electronic world and create gimmicks, like mock Facebook pages – these are cheesy and students see through these strategies with contempt! There are tools out there that can work – websites like http://www.wallwisher.com/ provide a useful space for students to collaborate, whilst using a platform which they invariably enjoy. But not every challenge need be on the web!

Importantly, we must find time and a physical space for students to be supported with their homework, like lunchtime or after school clubs. This is particularly crucial for weaker students who are more dependent upon expert instruction and who can painfully flounder without some knowledgeable support. There is the added bonus of keeping the attendant stresses of homework out of the home altogether. How many parental arguments are triggered by the fight over homework? This emotional stress has exactly the opposite effect than what we want to create.

Whatever we do we regarding learning outside of school we must ask why, know how and carefully decide when – not simply do more of the same.

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About huntingenglish

I am Director of Learning and Research at Huntington Secondary School, York. I have taught English (including a bit of Media Studies) for over a decade. If it is tragic and gothic, laced with humour and bitter truths then I'll teach it! I have had the great privilege to have written a book, 'Teach Now! Becoming a Great English Teacher', edited by the brilliant Geoff Barton, and I am writing another for Routledge, entitled, 'The Confident Teacher'. I am Project Lead of the RISE (Research-leads Improving Students' Education) Project. An EEF funded randomized controlled trial to evaluate if and how a Research-lead can improve outcomes for students. I am a proud member of the Institute for Effective Education (IEE) Executive Board at York University. I am also a proud member of the ResearchEd Advisory Panel. I write regularly for the TES and Teach Secondary magazine. My first book, 'Teach Now! Becoming A Great English Teacher' was released by Routledge in 2014 and my next book, entitled 'The Confident Teacher' will be out at the end of 2015.

2 responses to “What’s the Point of Homework?”

  1. jwpblog says :

    Reblogged this on English teaching resources and commented:
    An interesting response to a perennial problem.

  2. Piers Young (@piersyoung) says :

    Thanks for this – enjoyed reading it.
    Very much agree with the not throwing the baby out with the bathwater – there’s lots of good that could come from homework, but it’s amazing how mindless much of it is.

    That said, while am pro involving parents it needs, I think, to avoid the science project syndrome where:
    – child gets given project description (e.g. build a periscope)
    – child goes home and tells parents they need to make it.
    – parents don’t have all the required material (cereal boxes, egg boxes etc).
    – child empties eggs into e.g cutlery draw to get egg box
    – parent goes berserk #1
    – child struggles to follows instructions
    – parent has limited time (as is e.g. tidying up egg mess)
    – child makes comment about other people’s parents being really good at this sort of thing
    – parent goes berserk #2
    – parent spends weekend trying to follow instructions but finally finishes it.
    – parent goes berserk #3, #4 , …
    – child breaks project on way to school …
    etc etc.

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