What’s the point of homework?

Father: What’s all those books then?
Son: That’s my homework dad.
Father: You know what son, if they can’t teach you all the stuff you need to know during the day, they can’t be very good at their jobs can they?

How To Teach p170

Homework. The word clangs with leaden dread, doesn’t it? I hated it when I was a kid and I’m not too keen now I’m a teacher. Parents seem very keen on it and are quick to let schools know if an insufficient quantity of it is being sent home on a daily basis. Clearly, this is one potential strength of homework; it encourages a certain amount of parent-teacher dialogue. But is this reason enough to continue setting the stuff?

Phil Beadle, has this to say: “Our workload is absurd enough without the existence of homework. Homework tips the work required from a teacher somewhere beyond the absurd into the abject, the surreal even.” Quite.

As an English teacher, I find that the demands of homework can be particularly onerous. The thought of marking 32 essays per class per week is enough to give anyone the heebie geebies. So what are the options?

  1. Set it, mark it, go mad.
  2. Set it but don’t mark it properly
  3. Set ‘thinking’ or ‘research’ tasks that don’t require any marking
  4. Don’t set any

OK, let’s have a look at these positions:

  1. This is only an option if you teach a subject like maths where it’s easy to get students to peer assess their work. In subjects like English, history etc. the workload involved in formatively assessing extended writing properly is crushing. Something has to give – don’t let it be your sanity.
  2. I think this is the very worst option. Ticking and flicking students’ work devalues it and shows a lack of respect for the effort the little loves have put into that 27 page story they’ve lovingly laboured over. This is a surefire way to switch off your students. If you can’t be bothered, why should they? This is clearly supported by the findings of Marzano, Pickering and Pollock who spell out the detrimental impact of unmarked homework. So don’t do it!
  3. Now this one has possibilities.It does, however, beg the question of whether you’re setting homework simply for the sake of having set some homework. If you work under a regime where your setting of homework is monitored and failure to comply results in metaphorical beatings from the homework Stasi then this might be the best option for you.
  4. Gasp! No homework! Heresy! Well, interestingly, educational researcher, John Hattie was seeking to identify factors which had positive impact on children’s learning: guess what he found? Homework has no significant positive impact at all. There is “zero evidence” that it promotes time management or study skills and while there can be advantages for the most able, it actually has a negative impact on the less able, reinforcing their negative self-esteem. In addition he hammers a nail into the coffin of homework in a primary setting stating that, the younger the child, the less benefit and more potential harm there is in doing homework.

Interestingly, the amount of homework a student has to do seems to have a direct impact on how effective it is. Cooper, Robinson and Patall say that if too much is set any ‘positive relationship with achievement diminishes’.

Homework also throws up the age old chestnut of what to do with the kids who don’t do it. The traditional view is that the blighters should be punished with a swift detention. This is turn adds to the beleaguered teacher’s already groaningly ponderous workload.

Phil has this advice to offer:

I set the kids homework, letting them know that it was entirely at their discretion if they did it. If they did it I would mark it with a degree of passion and interest but if they didn’t, I wouldn’t chase them up for it. This spared up acres of time, relieved a substantial plop of unnecessary stress and affected the kids’ attainment how much? Not one jot.

And this is the approach I favour. And I’m always amazed at the number of students who decide to do it. Most importantly perhaps, the quality of what you do get handed in is far superior – there’s simply no point to scribbling it on the back of the bus. If the optional homework’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.

In my faculty we have moved towards Independent Learning Tasks which are published at the start of the year with deadlines, success criteria, resources etc. Students are given a choice of tasks ranging from writing a story, to research a topic to making or drawing something. The idea is that there is something for everyone which will hopefully make it more engaging. This fits with what Hattie says we should be doing if we are going to set homework (or homelearning as it has now been rebranded).

So, with September upon us, now seems a good time to decide on what your homework policy for the coming year will be.

Related articles

Alfie Kohn – The Homework Myth

12 Responses to What’s the point of homework?

  1. justin says:

    So smart kids who get the subject do the homework and get a better understanding but those who can’t be arsed get a well thats ok I can’t be arsed marking it then? I’m not sure on this concept I thought homework was there to re-enforce understanding in a particular subject? Am I wrong in that assumption?

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks for your comment Justin, but this isn’t a “concept”, it’s the finding of academic researchers. It appears to be a ‘fact’ that for some homework has a negative effect on progress. Not saying it’s fair but it does seem to be true.

  2. Stuart Lock says:

    I don’t know how I feel about this. It feels like a but of a risk, and, like a lot of theories that we all advance based on our individual experience of education (that we shouldn’t act on too quick – I’m looking at you Mr Gove) – it probably isn’t universally applicable.

    Now I’m not sure that splitting learning into subjects is an appropriate methodology for the twenty-first century, but if I don’t challenge that for a second…

    I agree with each of your points in that I’ve either seen or experienced the things you mention. However, I think of circumstances where I’ve had conversations with students where they know what they have to learn because of difficulties with home learning (a phrase we use because of the connotations of “work”).

    Now, I teach Maths (I’ve done some English, PSHE, Citizenship, Business, History, RS, Philosophy, Science in my time, but I’m trained to teach Maths) and in my experience, I think there is a role for repetition. The skills the students learn in Maths – for example (if I maintain the subject/ topic method of organising for now) Pythagoras Theorem. I can teach a lesson or four on that and have almost all students able to complete three types of Pythagoras problem, link it with Trigonometry, do the word problems, and so on….

    …. and none of them will be able to do it two weeks later. They need to practice to aid recall!

    I find that the best use of Home Learning in Maths is actually to set something that we did two or three weeks ago (or that we did two or three months ago and did a piece of Home Learning a month or two ago) – it’s like scaffolding revision for them – and aids long term recall and what for now I will term their “mathematical memory”.

    So I think I’ve found a form of Maths Home Learning that works and makes a difference to progress and achievement. That doesn’t mean that I’m not searching around some weeks for inventive pieces of Home Learning, nor that I don’t sometimes set Home Learning just because I have to. But most pieces of Home Learning aren’t planned to go with a lesson, but go with what is planned over the year – to complement it in the way that we hope that outside-school learning complements inside-school learning (and might I posit, could be considered a half-way between form of learning).

    I think the project based home learning that some schools encourage, and indeed the “voluntary” home learning (incidentally I don’t agree with Justin – I think it’s a great lesson about independent enquiry and makes the less enthused students more likely to do it) might be other attempts at reworking traditional homework into something that scaffolds the independent learning skills we’d like all our learners to exhibit.

    So I think it’s probably easier to do this in Maths – particularly because then peer and self assessment is easier (though a side point is that while it’s easier, it’s not as effective for the student – assessor’s learning as in English, for example) so it’s easier on the teachers’ workload.

    Anyway, that’s the start of some not-very-worked out thoughts to help (or hinder) the discussion. Good post though David.

    • learningspy says:

      Thank you Stuart for taking the time to post such a thoughtful response. I absolutely agree about the importance of repetition in embedding learning – have you come across the concept of “spaced learning”? Clearly this kind of thinking underpins the 10,000 hours theory in Gladwell’s Outliers and Matthew Syed’s Bounce. It also underpins the purpose of formative assessment and feedback.

      As to homework though, I think I mentioned in my post that maybe maths was an exception to my rule. The bottom line is that I think that as long as teachers have had a bloody good think about why they’re doing whatever it is they’re doing, that’s probably OK. I would recommend having a look at Visible Learning by John Hattie though.

      Cheers, David

      • Fran says:

        Maths is an odd subject. Repetition probably helps middle and lower ability embed the learning. However in my experience mathematically able kids grasp a concept and once grasped it doesn’t get forgotten. Repetition doesn’t help this kind of conceptual understanding, whereas coming at it from a different angle can. Repetition kills the subject for able kids who get it. Doing the same thing over and over is like playing noughts and crosses when you’ve already sussed that unless you get the middle box you can’t win. Doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t help you learn the things you haven’t understood either.

  3. Stuart Lock says:

    You’ve just sent me and my morning coffee in my office to Amazon!
    Oh God; I really should proofread my comments – even if I’m about to go to bed… sorry about the typos.

  4. Tom Bennett says:

    Interesting post, thanks. And Phil’s always worth a read. Cheers.

  5. Shawnee says:

    I hate homework. I’m 12 & i cry everytime i do homework. if someone just says ONE THING to me i feel like punching them. I want to go home after school, sit on my bed, put my earphones in, listen to music and draw or something! I love drawing, writing stories and listening to music! Homework just wastes my time at home. Even my teachers dont like giving homework cuz THEY think home’s for relaxing & doing your own thing too! Homework makes children annoyed more. It makes me moody, stressed, annoyed, angry and upset. It wastes time!
    So let’s just face it; THERE IS NO POINT IN HOMEWORK !
    And i dont care if it helps our research skills or practice or anything. I’d rather do my own thing when i get home, and I’m tons of children feel EXACTLY the same way.
    So take it from OUR point of view & why dont you adults actually think about how WE feel with all this 7hours of homework a night. Yeah, you have work late if you’re a teacher, but it was YOUR choice to be a teacher. We dont have a choice to be a student, do we? No. So think about it; you wouldn’t like it if YOU were like this and had to do HOURS of homework EVERY SINGLE NIGHT! Homework ruins my life; so stop it for EVERYONE ! Please !!

  6. Academic improvement is only one effect of homework. In addition to this, the age of the pupils is not told in the study – there has been substantial research done which says that primary school homework does not give significant increase in test sores but in secondary scores it does.

    Show My Homework / @ShowMyHomework

  7. Louis Gordon says:

    As a student, I can say that homework is about as fun and effective as consuming faecal matter. here has been numerous studies proving that homework has no benefits. It brings kids away from their family and friends and puts them in their room wasting away their life on a pointless piece of work set by gibbons at the top of the education system who can’t tell their arse from their elbow and are about as interesting as a pile of cattle excrement. I am actually sitting here right now, doing my homework. I decided to see why I am forced to waste hours of my life that I could be spending doing something like, I don’t know, socializing. And, in all honesty, I now rather wish I didn’t look.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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