What’s The Problem With Homework?

By Henry Sauntson

Are we getting it wrong with homework? Simple answer, in my view – yes. It causes more debate than it merits, more contention than it warrants, and more issues generally than schools have time to deal with. It is an extra stick in the ever-growing workload bundle that teachers love to self-flagellate with; it is often a bolt-on, an afterthought or, worse still, a compliance measure. So why does it cause such a rift?

Firstly, it is, apparently, a necessity; all students must get homework, lest the sky falls in. However, does it need to be the case? Yes, research exists that points to positive impacts but only with very specific conditions and a detailed understanding of the evidence base and its parameters.

Consider, for example, the environments in which said homework is meant to manifest; home – the clues in the title. However, what is homethese days? Consider, also, its perception and the attitudes towards it from students, and indeed parents; much of this stems from the way it is presented in school, how it is monitored, and what it is seen to mean. Is it authentic? Is it validated with feedback? Why does one teacher mark it and one not? Why does one teacher set detentions when homework isnt done, and another teacher lets his students get away with it because the effort of chasing it up is not proportionate to the educational benefits attained from completing it in the first place?

Jitpranee (2019) makes an interesting point to enhance this – ‘Students view homework differently according to their educational levels, beliefs, attitudes, and cultures; no one student is the same, no one approach works for everyone, and yet we seem somewhat blinkered when it comes to designing and setting tasks in the name of homework’.

It is a culture thing, for certain. For a start, it can often be too complex; very prescriptive timestamps for task completion and schedules for setting – ‘one 30-minute task every week for Core subjects, that sort of thing. That, for me, is too didactic, too comply or else; it needs to be much more responsive, more organic, and more relevant.

We need to reduce the noise around homework and focus far more on the signal it sends; heed, for instance, the words of Madame Dragon from Julia Donaldsons Zog’ – ‘now that youve been shown, you can practice on your own.

For me, Homework is a vehicle for the independent practice of previously taught and understood material; it is certainly not a period of extra time for curriculum content. In fact, as a school leader, I might see a class that forever gets finish this for homeworktasks as an indication of less-than-effective classroom practice, and I never want any element of education to be used as a stick with which to beat anyone.

Lets turn this around – why is that teacher using homework as a run-off at the bottom of the curriculum hill? Whats the matter with the curriculum? Focus on the root of the problem, not the flower; the neophytes stumble is the scholars window (Shulman, 2000), after all.

What is the existing diet of homework telling us about the culture that exists within the setting? If student completion rates are low and attitudes towards it are bordering on nihilistic, why? Negative cultures surrounding homework dont just damage staff; research has indicated that there is a negative impact on students as well, particularly around motivation and well-being; we have to be careful what we place our trust in.

We get other aspects wrong too, such as feedback (or lack of it) on homework – the absence of feedback invalidates any task, in my view. Lets go back to Jitpranee (2019) – Concerning homework feedback, findings revealed that students needed feedback from their teachers and realized that feedback played a critical role on their learning. Feedback from teachers can help them learn and increase their positive attitudes towards homework. It also improves studentslearning performance when they know what is right or wrong on tasks…’. Feedback must be built into the task, and sometimes we dont have time to give feedback to tasks, especially ones we set in the name of compliance as opposed to genuine benefit or practice opportunity.

Compliance also leads to us getting timing wrong; according to Jitpranee (2019) Homework should be appropriately assigned for students. Research has shown that overloading homework does not only make students lose their academic interests, but also leads them to physical and emotional fatigue, and thatHomework assigned for students in an inappropriate time considerably impact on their emotional conditions and attitudes. When we are bound by tight schedules and inflexible requirements for setting in order to be compliant with policies, we endanger the very benefits of the homework itself.

In essence, when the evidence is variable and the implementation equally so, why do we invest so much time and trust in the academic impact Homework is meant to have? Id be surprised if many students ever exceeded their target grade or indeed their own expectations because they always did their homework; they were taught well, they tried hard, they took advantage of the expertise around them. Yes, homework may have played a small part, but I doubt it has ever been the deciding factor.

So, if we know homework can work but we also know that it causes a lot of issues for school institutions and individual teachers, what can we do about it?

Maybe the issue lies with the language being used – ‘Homework. Biesta argues that the point of education is never that students simply learn […] but that they learn something, that they learn it for a reason, and that they learn it from someone. A key problem with the language of learning is that it tends to make these questions — about educational content, purpose, and relationships — invisible, or that it assumes the answer to these questions is already clear and decided upon(Biesta 2020 p.91).

Communication is a big thing – we cannot neglect it. Homework, or whatever we call it, is part of that dialogue between student and teacher – the cyclical dialogue necessary for critical thinking (Freire) but in a climate of hope (Freire again). Hans-Georg Gadamer felt that what makes coming to an understandingpossible is language, which provides the mitte, the middle ground, the place where understanding happens. For Gadamer, language becomes the vermittlung, the communicative mediation which establishes common ground; without a common ground, there can be no shared understanding, and if students dont understand the value of their experiences they will not appreciate or attend to them.

This dialogue extends; Homework is not just the dialogue between student and teacher where the teacher trusts – like Madame Dragon – the student to practice on their own, but also between school and the wider community; in essence, Homework is a message to the external stakeholders about what value is placed on what areas of curriculum and pedagogy; a school that sets too muchhomework, or too little; a school that never markshomework or where homework is too high-stakes; these are all messages, and will be interpreted in individual ways.

For a start, then, we can stop referring to it as Homework; the title places too much weight on the weaker struts. Out of classroom learningis fine to a point, but I prefer Independent Practice; no specifics for the venue, greater emphasis on the value of practice as opposed to the more generic work.

This also gives teachers more agency to be creative and to inspire, as opposed to engaging in what might seem acts of compliance with little autonomy; yes, routines for the regularity and expectations around this practice are vital, but having lunch every day is a routine too, and we would get very bored very quickly if e had the same thing to eat every time.

We can broaden horizons, enrich curriculum content, develop skills and embed fluency through practice, without ever making the mistake of assuming students are equipped to tackle the task without the necessary prerequisites; theres nothing worse than giving a Year 7 a research taskunless they have been already taught – and had sufficient chance to practice – how to research effectively.

The more homeworkis insisted on as a necessity, the greater chance of it becoming a necessary evil; instead, let us use it as a gift, a chance to help students practice with what theyve been shown, and to start to shine in ways that our classrooms just may not allow. To quote Shimamura from his excellent MARGE – ‘take a walk around unfamiliar terrainas a way of inspiring curiosity and breeding engagement in aspects of our content that we just cant enliven in the same way in the standard school environment.

This is lovely from Fan et al (2022) – ‘Homework can provide opportunities to foster some components of creativity by independently finding and developing new ways of understanding what students have learned in classhomework creativity should be a valuable goal of learning, because homework creativity may make contributions to academic achievement and general creativity simultaneously. We should be looking to embrace this thinking.

To return to Biesta, we can use these opportunities for independent practice to not just qualify our students as they practice with knowledge and skills, but also to socialize – values and traditions – and to subjectify – how the curriculum manifests for individuals, and how they portray their own understanding in different ways according to their perceptions of the subject and wider world. After all, as Biesta argues, foundational for education is indeed the formation and transformation of the individual.

References

Biesta, G; 2020; Risking Ourselves in Education: Qualification, Socialization and Subjectification Revisited; Educational Theory; Volume 70:1; 2020 p.89-104

Fan H, Ma Y, Xu J, Chang Y, Guo S; 2022: Effects of homework creativity on academic achievement and creativity disposition: Evidence from comparisons with homework time and completion based on two independent Chinese samples; Frontiers in Psychology: 13: 2022

Songsirisak, P & Jitpranee, J. (2019). Impact of homework assignments on studentslearning. Journal of Education Naresuan University; Vol 21:2; 2019 p1-19.

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