02 Sep Homework Matters: Great teachers set great homework
As long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve held the view that homework makes a massive difference to the learning process. Without any doubt, students who are successful at A level and at GCSE are those who have highly developed independent learning skills, have the capacity to lead the learning process through their questions and ideas and, crucially, are resilient and resourceful enough to get over the many humps along the way. A strong culture of homework in any class or school, is key to developing these skills, particularly in a situation where families are not in a position to provide the necessary platform without a school-led structure. Importantly, homework does not have to mean, literally, ‘work done at home’; fairly obviously, we are talking about any tasks that students do in between lessons – at home, in the library, in the after-school club – whenever, wherever.
However, despite what I regard as the critical importance of homework, I regularly hear or read these objections:
- ‘there is no point of setting homework for the sake of it’,
- ‘children need to have a childhood, why rob them of their evenings’
- ‘research shows that homework doesn’t make much difference’.
- ‘I couldn’t possibly cope with all the marking if I set homework every week’
- ‘half the class won’t do it anyway, so what’s the point’
Well, I would argue with all of these points:
a) there is always a ‘sake’ because homework can and should always be an integral part of the learning process
b) it is perfectly possible to do lots of homework and have time to engage in all kinds of other activities and
c) the research doesn’t really deal fully with the nature of homework being set; we are not just talking about any old task – we are talking about great homework that feeds into lessons and provides exciting opportunities for student-led learning and creativity. (See the post about Hattie’s research, which he comments on himself.)
d) As I have described in my post about marking, the assumption that all homework needs to be teacher-marked is ludicrous and
e) the point about homework is to offer learning opportunities and generate a culture of high expectations; half the class will do it and they should not be held back because of the others.
Here are some of the key reasons why I think homework matters so much:
1) Bridging between teacher-led and student-led learning:
Most homework that I set (as I do religiously, every week for every class) is given on the basis that students will bring it to a lesson in the following week where we will discuss what they have done. 5 or more questions, tackled at home after an initial exploration in class, then form the basis of the next lesson: which questions did we find hard? What different kinds of answers did we get? Then I can help some who are struggling and push others on. This is simply not possible without the homework element. Most homework is, therefore, peer or self assessed. It has to be designed to facilitate that – which is reasonably straightforward. Along with research, note-taking and other pre-learning activities, most homework is about getting ready for the next lesson; this makes lessons much less teacher-centric.
(See this post: Flipped out by Flipping? You may have missed the point.)
2) Extending learning time.
There are so many learning processes that do not fit neatly into lesson-long segments. There all kinds of tasks that students prefer to do in their own time, on their own terms – outside the confines of the school day. All students work at their own pace and homework allows them to get to grips with ideas or finish something properly, when they were rushed in class. This applies to writing essays, writing up science investigations, practicing maths problems, constructing a paragraph in French, producing some ideas in a sketchbook for Art or DT…etc. It applies to any number of exam preparation activities. It also applies to some tasks that students would never be set within school time like making videos or designing websites.
3) Creating Opportunities for Creativity and Choice.
Homework to my mind is about setting students free to try out different ideas; it is not about drudgery. Giving options for how they present information is a great way to do this: make a video, write a dialogue, write a standard essay or a booklet explaining the idea to younger children. Each of these is challenging in its own way – and students can choose their preferred response. I’ve had some extraordinary work from students with this kind of open ended homework task. The diagram shows a template for a half-term’s worth of homework that would be submitted at different times.
4) Developing the skills required for independent learning
How likely is it that Jimmy will have his moment of greatest clarity during the History lesson, period 4 on Tuesday? Or that Sandi will feel at her most creative during Art on Friday after lunch? It is unlikely. I think I made most of my own personal break-throughs in my room at home; the penny won’t drop just because the teacher is there. The goal is to empower students to engage in learning so they can learn anything anytime they want to… and homework is the vehicle for that. Year 13 students don’t just suddenly develop sophisticated independent learning skills; they have to be built up over years – and routine challenging homework throughout Years 7-12 is a good preparation. A good, standard part of homework is to pre-learn material and make notes from books or videos – as with the ‘flipped classroom’ idea and the Khan Academy concept. These things transfer ownership for core learning to students leaving lesson-time free to deal with students’ questions, their difficulties, misconceptions, interesting variations and so on.
5) Reducing the diverging effect of home support: ie it’s about equal opportunities.
The research by Hattie et al shows that homes make more difference to learning than schools. So, take away homework and what do we have? Essentially, homes with the greatest cultural capital, typically more affluent and middle class, will just fill the gap with their own family-education as they always have. They’ll be fine. Meanwhile, children from families where home-learning is scarce or simply doesn’t happen are left without structure or resources to fall back on. The same inequalities that give children such different learning orientations from pre-school persist. I’d argue that homework for all is a basic element of an educational entitlement; it is a leveller – provided that schools offer support for ‘homework’ to be done anytime, any place.
6) Communicating the values of the school and the teacher
I think that the quality of homework that comes from a teacher or a school says a lot about the values in that school or classroom. There is a definite link between the teachers regarded as ‘great teachers’ – those who have strongly positive reputations in the school community and model very high expectations – and the extent to which they provide students with a rich diet of challenge in and in between lessons. It is part of the job to involve and engage parents in the learning process; homework is a crucial part of this. As part of the diet of homework, it is lovely to include tasks that explore family history or include parents in some way. Teachers do share the responsibility for promoting their school in the ‘parental choice’ market place and, like it or not, a reputation for being soft or inconsistent on homework can be the kiss of death. This isn’t some superficial ‘pushy parent’ nonsense. I feel the same; taking learning seriously includes taking homework seriously and all the best teachers do!
So, to finish, in the routine flow of school life, I would urge teachers to put time and energy into setting great homeworks, mixed in with some more routine consolidation tasks. A balanced diet! Don’t get overly bogged down in setting detentions and so on; reserve sanctions for those who are very very persistent in not doing any work in between lessons. The greatest sanction of all is that they miss out on learning…. that message can’t be stressed too much. As soon as homework is associated directly with punitive sanctions, the battle has been lost – and you get a canteen full of students copying out last minute bits of work just to have something to hand in! My most well-worn teacher-cliche, as I refuse to accept the scrappy, half-hearted, last-ditched effort: “you are not doing it for me, you are doing it for yourself!”