Thursday, March 6, 2014

Is Homework Beneficial? Four Steps to Improvement

The vexed question 'Is homework useful?' is never far from conversations between parents about school, or between teachers when discussing parents. Like every teacher I have felt the pressure of parents wanting their children to do more homework. In spite of this I have never been a fan of homework in the primary years of schooling (age 5 to 12 years). Yes, homework does have a place, but not the exalted place that many parents want to give it.

Why you might ask? 

1. Because the vast majority of homework is banal and features drill of things that contribute little to the areas in which we want children to learn. Memorising spelling lists is a case in point (see my previous post HERE) with little contribution being made to the ability to write well.

2. Because school homework is often a substitute for things that are more critical to children's development. For example, play (posts HERE), discovery learning and problem solving (posts HERE), creative expression in varied forms and (dare I say it, rest at day's end).

3. Because it allows society at large to fill the school day with other things that parents have failed to teach their children and simply shift curriculum work to the category of homework, which has to be packaged in bundles that children can complete largely undirected (see #1).

4. Because it reinforces narrow definitions of learning, curriculum and assessment. Homework ends up being a type of test of that which should be learned at school, and this in the name of practice.

In short, school becomes squeezed by the imperative to test children's learning for public assessment (see related posts HERE), and the hours after school end up being used for largely non-directed and repetitive tasks that help children to pass tests delivered at school.

Is there an alternative? Yes!

Step 1 - Ensure that any after school time whether at home with a parent or carer or in after school care is spent well. Set high standards.

Step 2 - Control access to the things that distract children from rich learning and exploration. I'm thinking of course about 'screen' time (limit daily screen time), computers, gaming and television. But you may need to limit other things (that have merit and are useful) and become obsessive and shut out other options for learning.

Above: Screen time needs to be controlled, but it can also be a key tool for learning

Step 3 - Apply some simple tests for any after school 'homework'. Does it develop new knowledge and skills? Does it expand repertoires for learning - discovery, imaginative recreation, dialogue, observation etc? Is it enjoyable and challenging?

Step 4 - Make sure that you know what your children are doing, that you monitor it, and that you show genuine interest in what they are doing. 

What might post school time look like?

Hopefully time after school will have a level of planning (kids you need to do X, Y, & Z). Make sure that set agendas like sporting practice, music etc don't shut out everything else.

Start with down time - let them rest, talk to other people about their day, feed them, let them have some time to choose what they do (within predetermined limits).

Incorporate varied activities - some time outside to run around in an unstructured self-directed way; a time for exploration and discovery (this can include reading, viewing, hands on activities like craft drawing, construction etc); a time for school directed homework (I'd limit this in the primary years to no more than five times their age, i.e. thirty minutes aged 6, fifty minutes aged 10 etc); self-directed reading (e.g. HERE, HERE, HERE & HERE); family down time to chat and hang out.

Above: A different type of 'homework'

I understand that the complexity and varied nature of family life will always make after school time 'messy'. But we need to ask ourselves, how messy is it? What negative impact is the messiness having on family life and learning? What can I do to change things?

One thing I am certain of, the solution to the messiness isn't simply to ask schools to set more banal tasks, disconnected from 'real' learning which we police with minimal supervision.

I would love to hear your comments and suggestions.

Other posts

Other posts that address creativity, imagination and play (HERE)

Other posts that address homework alternatives (HERE)


Fiona Ingram said...

What an excellent article. Thank you very much.

Joanne said...

Love this post and couldn't agree more.

But, have you (or do you know of anyone) ever had a conversation with a school/teacher about your view on homework? How did you/they manage it? How did it go?

I've seen many schools where boring, drill homework is required and expected and want to save my kids from it, but don't know if that's possible.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Joanne, I've had many conversations with teachers about homework (as a parent and as a teacher). Many primary school teachers share my views. Most schools enforce homework because that's what many of their parents ask for. Many teachers feel quite stressed about homework and would wish for parents to have a 'healthier' and more 'learning-based' understanding of its purpose. Most teachers set homework to keep parents happy while still holding doubts about its validity as a tool for learning rather 'stamina building' and the testing of learning.If you have alternative views on homework to those that seem to underpin the homework sent home, you need to gently question it. I hope this is what you were getting at.