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What’s the point(lessness) of homework?

Why do teachers set homework? It is often said that it is because parents like it. I’m a parent and I have to say it sometimes drives me mad. It invades family time at the weekend and can create emotional trauma, especially when it is left until too late in the day and is confronted in an over-tired haze.

I must confess that as a teacher I have often found myself setting less homework than my colleagues. I almost never set work to do over holidays and I have often found myself choosing not to set anything even when it is my turn on the homework timetable. At one school at which I worked this was definitely frowned upon: teachers were expected to set homework as per the timetable, to keep the pupils busy. I guess my reasons for not setting homework as regularly as others are that I’ve always wanted to ensure it is constructive and I’ve often felt that the pupils have better things to do.

Given my views a recently published book on the subject, entitled Unhomework, caught my eye. The author is teacher Mark Creasy who has spent the last 10 years working on a different approach to homework. His motivation, as he explained in a recent article in the Guardian, is that “Traditionally-set homework – involving worksheets, workbooks, research, answering and memorising – does not and cannot meet the needs of every learner individually.” So, in response Creasy explored the idea of not setting pupils homework but asking them to set their own. It took him some time to find a method that worked but eventually he developed a system which means that his pupils produce good quality work in response to topics being covered, setting, undertaking and assessing the homework themselves.

This approach is set against a backdrop in which most studies fail to demonstrate that homework has a positive impact on learning. Indeed, Professor John Hattie, who has spent years undertaking meta-analyses of aspects of education and measuring their overall impact, recently noted on the BBC Radio 4 series, The Educators, that “Homework in primary school has an effect of around zero.” This might lead you to think that Hattie would argue homework should not be set. However, he doesn’t – instead, he goes on to say that this “is why we need to get it right. Not why we need to get rid of it.” However, Hattie, like a growing number of educationalists, would argue that homework should be carefully linked to classwork and it should be specifically targeted. He suggests that projects are the worst sort of homework which can be set.

So, Creasy is advocating very little direction from the teacher, while Hattie is arguing that the teacher must direct things very carefully. Are these views at odds? No, I don’t think so. In the end Creasy and Hattie are confronting the same issue from different directions. They both see some of the traditional homework tasks as ineffective and they both urge teachers not to set homework for homework’s sake.

This is my view as well. Teachers should set homework when it is relevant. That is, when it allows pupils to properly consolidate what they have been doing in class or allows them to undertake useful preparation for the next stage of learning. Teachers should never feel under pressure to set it. Our pupils have busy lives and we do not need to add to the pressures they feel by giving them pointless tasks.

Published by: Dr Glenn Moodie
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