Is it time we banished homework?
Schools say it's essential and means pupils learn to work independently. But students – along with some of their teachers – say it's a waste of everyone's time. Here, a headteacher and a pupil lay out their arguments for and against.
Wednesday 24 April 2013
Claudia Vulliamy, Year 9 pupil
When I was younger, as soon I was old enough to hold a paintbrush, I used to do pictures every day. I used to lose myself in a sketch and explore different painting techniques. It's just what I did. I've recently come to realise that I now hardly ever paint unless I'm in an art lesson. Nor do I do much reading, baking or any of the other things I used to enjoy. There's just too much homework.
Studies show that there is little or no correlation between whether children and younger teens do homework (or how much they do) and a meaningful measure of achievement. In the words of one US education expert: "Most small children and early adolescents have not yet developed the self-reflection and self-monitoring skills to get the benefit of either homework or self study." Isn't it time we questioned why hours and hours of a young person's week is taken up by something few enjoy and which, it seems, doesn't even enhance their education?
Professor Susan Hallam, of the Institute of Education, University of London, investigated all studies on homework for the past 75 years and came to a conclusion that homework accounts for less than 4 per cent of the differences in teen students' scores. Professor Hallam found that while homework can enhance examination results (a tiny bit), its impact is relatively small compared with students' prior knowledge in a particular subject.
Professor Hallam also points out that homework can lead to family friction, especially when families are pressuring children to succeed. Children or teenagers can be badly mentally affected by extreme pressure put on them, which adults are sometimes unaware of and is counterproductive as well as horrible for the student.
If it seems that the idea of abolishing homework belongs in some trendy, hippie school, the head teacher of Tiffin School, one of the top grammar schools in the country, would disagree. He has reduced homework to a maximum of 40 minutes per night – and says he wishes he could get rid of it altogether. I wish my London comprehensive school would do the same.
Homework causes anxiety and stress, it leaves the student very little time to spend with family and other things (Tiffin students are encouraged to use their extra time to watch documentaries or do sport or music). It can sometimes make students actively less enthusiastic about learning because it is being forced upon them and it closes students' minds and timetables in such ways that make them less creative.
People say that young people should not take their youth for granted and should seize the advantages of a youthful mind while they have one. Homework limits a young person's ability to do this.
Children are more creative than adults. Many people dislike how the creativity of childhood fades away with age, so children's ideas and activities should be encouraged. Perhaps if they are, then adults in the future will be more open-minded and more likely to follow their own ideas and ambitions in life. Learning is not just about exam results.
Homework gives children with stable homes and plenty of support an unfair advantage. In school hours, pupils have the same opportunities and circumstances. But setting homework is asking a student to complete a task, whatever conditions they live in, whatever the attitude of their family and how much help they they can expect to get, or their economic situation. An alternative to setting homework would be setting the work to be done independently at school, where everyone is in the same environment. Homework can cause a child to work for extremely long time in a day, in addition to their time at school. A labour rights movement in 1833 caused a law to be passed that children aged 9 to 13 could not work more than eight hours a day. Of course, students work for education and not to be paid, but a student's school day with several pieces of homework can add up to at least eight hours of work.
It can be argued that homework increases a student's ability to work independently, but there is just as much of a chance that a student will complete a piece of work without help at school as there is at home.
"Teachers and schools should make a judgement about whether it's important in relation to the learning needs of particular groups of students," Professor Susan Hallam says.
Professor Dylan Wiliam, deputy director of the Institute of Education, says: "Getting pupils to do homework is an incredibly expensive and generally unproductive public relations exercise. Schools push homework because they think parents like it, but most schools don't plan homework well enough for it to be worth doing. This is not to say that homework cannot be good, just that most of it currently isn't."
The little proven positive impact homework has on someone's life is outweighed by the negative impact and has a lot less meaning in a student's education that many people may think. I would like to see a world where children and adolescents are happy and appreciate the precious period of youth. People say that youth is wasted on the young. I think young people are wasted on homework.
Kieran Larkin, principal of ARK Kings Academy, Birmingham
The argument about whether homework is worthwhile has raged since I was at school. It's true that homework given without a clear purpose can be confusing and sometimes demotivating for students. I remember one of my own children in Year 3 being given a piece of homework which was "write a story". His first reaction was to ask my wife and I what he should write about.
Of course, we wanted him to come up with something and despite several attempts to link it back to what he had been doing in class he (and we!) remained unsure whether that was what the teacher wanted. He duly spent a good chunk of a Sunday afternoon doing it and handed it in.
Being interested in whether he (or we!) had done it right we asked a few days later how it had been received. It turned out the teacher had not commented on it and it was never marked, so none of us were any the wiser and my son's faith in the utility of homework slipped down several notches.
That's not to say, however, that homework does not have a place or a purpose, but if it is given it needs to be done with purpose and teachers need to make clear to the students what that purpose is. This is never going to be a popular topic with students and so teachers need to be clear why it is issued and why it is important.
So what can homework achieve that can't be achieved in the classroom? First, it's important to create an independent work ethic. Success at and beyond school requires students to get used to problem solving and persevering with extended pieces of work without support from their teachers. There is a huge difference between solving an equation, doing a translation or writing or deconstructing a piece of prose in a lesson after you have just discussed it, and doing it alone in the library or your room a day or a week later using your own knowledge and skills.
Homework is a way to learn practical research skills: using the library, devising questionnaires or interviews and conducting online searches. (Not just accepting the first Google hit as a universal truth.) Whether students intend to study beyond school or not these are essential – and enriching – skills for later life.
Third, homework provides challenge. Having to solve a problem to bring to the next lesson enables students to demonstrate understanding and teachers to assess its depth or identify any gaps. It also provides time to practise. Homework provides time to embed the things that are useful to learn by rote, such as timestables, vocabulary, spelling, irregular verbs and handwriting.
Lastly, well thought-through homework provides uninterrupted time for a student to make sense of their own understanding at their own pace.
So what should schools and students do to make it worthwhile? It's not about the length of time spent on it. It's about using the time spent on it for a reason.
Ensure variety. If you want to maintain interest in your subject it needs to be engaging in the first place. Avoid homework that is "finishing off class work" – that rather implies it should have been better managed in the class by the teacher. The teacher should indicate the length, content and presentational style required – so that students know how it will be assessed. Collect homework in on time and use it as part of the lesson or as soon as possible, so that you value its completion and demonstrate its importance.
Schools should communicate a clear timetable to staff, students and parents and stick to it so students are not overly burdened on any particular day. Staff forgetting its homework is disruptive and a bad example to students. Issue homework planners and post them on the web so that parents can see them.
Ensure that the school has a consistent response to logging the completion of homework and any sanctions for not completing it. At ARK Kings Academy it is a part of the home-school agreement that students, parents and I, as principal, sign at the start of the year.
When setting homework, the teacher should create time in the lesson to record it and clarify what needs to be done. A hurriedly set assignment at the end of the lesson is more likely to be undone or done badly.
Lastly – always show that you value the work you are asking students to do. Collect it at the agreed time, mark it quickly and thoroughly. Use the work to provide feedback to the student and the class what has been done well. Shape the next lesson to plug gaps, address any misconceptions or extend the standard/ challenge of the work for students.
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