Of all the things we do as teachers, homework continues to baffle me the most. It baffles me because as a profession we’ve been setting it for decades, yet we’ve never really been able to crack it. Ask any teacher in any school up and down the country and they’ll probably tell you that it’s something that they still don’t really feel is having the same proportional impact as the time it takes to set it, complete it, mark it and chase it. Most schools these days are unrecognisable in relation to the days of Grange Hill, yet homework still seems to be something that is dragging its heels, kicking and screaming into the new age of slick educational organisations that run like well-oiled machines.
Unfortunately, in lots of schools, I fear that homework is still being set for a number of reasons that hold no educational value. For example….
- We’re setting it because we think Ofsted want to see it.
- We’re setting it because we think the Senior Leadership Team want to see it.
- We’re setting it every so often because a timetable in our school dictates it.
- We’re doing it this way because we’ve always done it that way.
If you’re reading this and it’s already struck a chord, you probably need to go right back to basics and ask yourself the question ‘What are we actually setting homework for’? When asking this question myself, I usually find that the most common answer is that ‘we want our students to develop long lasting study habits that will enable them to become independent and resilient learners when facing tough external examinations’. I’ve never come across any teacher (in my school or in others) that has answered that question by telling me that they want their students to be experts at finishing off classwork at home, or to become masters at filling in worksheets, or even become professional poster designers.
Once you’ve worked out the actual purpose of your reason to set students more work on top of the 5 hours of learning they’ve already completed that day, it might be wise to take some time think about the following areas before you let teachers loose on having free rain to set what they want, when they want:
Is it worth robbing families of precious time?
The best piece of writing I’ve ever seen on homework came from Tom Bennett who said ‘The few hours between getting home and going to bed are precious for families. If you’re going to steal any of it, be damn sure the reward is greater than the loss’. As a parent myself of two children, far too often I have to battle with them over doing their homework before they go to bed at a time when they are tired and grouchy. I often look at the task in hand and wonder if it’s worth me falling out with them over it, when I probably only get to see them for a couple of hours of quality time each day throughout the school week. The message here is clear – think before you set it.
What are you actually assessing?
If you are using homework to assess learning, progress and using it to help form your judgement about how well students are doing in your class, you need to stop and think about what you’re actually assessing. Some students will do it completely on their own without support, whilst others will have mum or dad ‘helping’ them, or even doing it for them to stop the rows that ensue based on the point raised in the previous paragraph. What you first thought was a good indicator of independent learning, has probably turned out to be something completely different. You might be better of putting the grade in a column in your markbook titled ‘quality of parental support and interest’.
Learning it, not finding it
If we set homework where students have to find information and answer questions, you can bet your bottom dollar that unsupervised in their own home, they’ll use whatever they can to find that information as quickly and effectively as they can. I’ve regularly watched both my children go straight to Google to find the answers or the information that they need. Yes they’ve found the information required and filled in lovely worksheets, or created PowerPoint presentations on topics ranging from leatherback turtles to climate change, but how much of this information have they actually learned as opposed to just finding it and copying it down? Exams in this day and age require students to be able to recall significant amounts of knowledge and apply it in varying different contexts, some of these purposefully unfamiliar. Why don’t we start giving students the information to begin with and ask them to start learning it and applying it? This way we can begin to remove the temptation to just ‘find it’ and instead, begin to get students to build up good study habits on how to recall information and commit this to their long-term memory.
Quizzing, spacing and interleaving
Once we get past students just finding information (or Google doing it for them), we can begin to look at the importance of regular retrieval practice to prepare students for the demands of the new and reformed external examinations that they’ll all need to sit one day. Research from Smith & Karprice (2014) states that ‘students who had participated in some type of retrieval practice performed much better on the final assessment, getting twice as many questions correct as those who did not’. This is crucial for us to remember if we want to prepare our students to perform at the best of their ability in examination situations. Teachers can start to interleave and revisit topics through spaced repetition to train students in recalling information effectively. We shouldn’t just ask students to learn information from the topic they’ve just been studying; this is far too easy and still stored in their short-term memory. Instead, start to get students to dip into their long term memory and recall information from topics that you taught a few months ago; after all, this is what they’ll need to do when they come to the final examination. Recalling information from a two year course is going to be almost impossible if you’ve not been doing it regularly throughout that period. Students can be given knowledge organisers and key information to learn at home. Quick and easy techniques such as ‘read, cover, write, check’ can be used very effectively to commit this knowledge to long term memory.
In recent years, flipped learning has began to creep its way into many classrooms across the world. In a flipped classroom, students learn the basic knowledge for homework and then use that knowledge in the classroom so the learning can be taken so much further in the presence of the skilled teacher in the room, rather than asking them to go home and do the hard part on their own. Teachers can therefore start to set their students videos to watch, articles to read or information to learn for homework so that the precious face to face time in the classroom can be used as effectively as possible to enhance their learning experiences.
Homework has always caused teachers’ headaches when it’s come to workload. Setting, marking and chasing it leads to umpteen extra hours every year, without that much proportional impact. I bet we’ve all considered at one stage in our careers not setting homework when you think about the amount of time and energy it takes to collect it all in and then chase all the students that haven’t done it and set the necessary sanctions. With all the suggested activities above, none of them require any teacher marking or significant increases in teacher workload. The onus and responsibility is placed on students to build up these long lasting study habits, together with learning and applying information, rather than just finding information and answering questions that inevitably will need to be marked, graded or judged by a teacher further down the line.
So, what have you been setting, why have you been setting it and what have you actually been assessing? Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought as we move towards a new academic year. Could this be the year we actually crack homework once and for all?
Written by Jon Tait for the Schools North East ‘Talking Heads’ blog.