Saturday, 4 October 2014

Why homework needs more thinking

Picture this.  It's the end of Thursday or Friday afternoon and you're handing out a worksheet to each child to take home with maths or comprehension questions to complete or spellings to learn or class work to finish.  What's wrong with this?

The problem isn't about children spending insufficient time playing or the disruption to quality family time.  Homework was never intended to be something that helped families bond or enabled children to play more.  The problem with homework is that too often it has no effective impact on learning.  Why?

1) Homework provides opportunities for pupils to consolidate misunderstanding or to learn things wrongly.  This isn't the fault of parents/carers.  If you want a child to learn something, sort it out in school.  (Of course there's the stuff that children learn at home, from interacting with people and things outside school, but I'm talking about homework, set by teachers for children to do when they're not at school.)

2) Homework too often emphasises or extends the gap between high and low achievers.  Let's imagine you've set the same five multiplication problems as homework for all, the children who get it will complete successfully, the children who don't, won't.  (This is a problem with worksheets in general.)  

3) You have no way of accurately monitoring who did what.  Some parents/carers will complete the questions on behalf of their children - so the children won't have understood how to do it but you'll think they have.  And some parents/carers will complete the work incorrectly.

4) Some parents/carers are better equipped to support their children than others.  Often these will be the parents/carers of the most able pupils in your class.  So, again, homework will serve to widen the gap between the least and the most able child.

5) Homework creates unnecessary workload, particularly if you're expected to mark work which children (or parents/carers) complete at home.  This reduces your time to focus on learning and teaching in the classroom.

What's the solution?  Your school will have homework policy ("...parents and school working in partnership...regular homework...linked to the taught curriculum...") and Teachers' Standard 4 requires that you set homework to consolidate and extend the knowledge and understanding pupils have acquired.  The government have stepped back from telling schools how many hours of homework a 5-year old should do so there's nothing stopping you (within the bounds of the school homework policy) from deciding what to ask pupils to do.  So when you're setting homework, make it something that children can take ownership of, that doesn't contribute to widening the gap between more and less able, that allows you to check on misconceptions or misunderstandings, and that doesn't add to your marking workload.  How?

  • Set tasks which don't  necessarily involve writing or recording on paper.  These could be "Think about..." activities, observation or physical/kinaesthetic activities.
  • Link these tasks to lessons you'll be teaching in a couple of days, or next week.  Be clear with your pupils that the set task is in preparation for such-and-such lesson.
  • Use the introduction of this lesson as an opportunity to hear children's contributions and adjust the homework tasks you set to ensure that all children can participate.
For example:  Think about why some people walk to work, others drive, and some cycle or use public transport (in preparation for a lesson on writing a balanced argument or a geography lesson on urban transport choices).  Or: Sit in as many different chairs as you can find (in preparation for a D&T or history project on furniture design).  Or Look for right angles around your home (in preparation for a lesson on the properties of shapes).

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