Alex Quigley: Making Homework Work

Alex Quigley: Making Homework Work

Opinion: Alex Quigley

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Is homework an unnecessary evil, or an important prerequisite for success? The jury is out. Yet year upon year, we ask our students to spend hours of their lives tied to its ink-stained shackles – so surely we should at least be asking whether or not it’s worth the effort?

Those who praise the merits of homework argue that the extra time is vital for our students to succeed. In an era of endless international comparisons, we see our delicate flowers compared with their East Asian raging tiger counterparts. The work ethic of students in Shanghai and Singapore is matched by a Godzilla-sized pile of extra homework. It is a monstrosity to scare our supposedly feeble offspring.

East Asian parents invest heavily in out-of-school tuition and they see hard work as synonymous with education. Their answer, indeed their culture, would champion the act of homework. Should we do the same? Like Boxer’s mantra in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, might the truth be that our students need to ‘work harder’?

Counting the cost

On the other side of the fence, many critics refer to studies in the USA – and beyond – that criticise homework as having little positive impact on student outcomes. Alfie Kohn, an American educationalist and political firebrand, regularly argues that homework is an unnecessary evil. There are many on his side in rejecting the ‘word harder’ assumption.

Plenty of people bemoan the loss of family time or the sheer decline of the pleasures of childhood. They picture the school lives of our students as being one long and depressing slide into the tedium of adulthood. And of course, there is the potentially negative impact of endless homework setting, and the attending marking workload, on teachers and their family lives.

No doubt our personal bias is influenced by vague memories of our own schooldays. Can you remember the painful groan from your friends in class when being set the next physics task, and the thought of how many evenings it would fill? Perhaps you can recall the headlong sprint to finish yet another page of sums so that you could do something vaguely interesting instead, like watching Australian seaside soaps?

There are countless different ways in which schools across the country tackle the homework issue, and no doubt some use it more effectively than others. For example, many establishments regularly enforce compulsory homework; but when teachers lack the flexibility to set purposeful home learning tasks, the result is often a succession of useless, sterile activities. Finishing off a piece of work, completing a mind-sapping worksheet, or drawing a picture of a character in English, simply to fill in a required time slot, is not going to move our students forward. We need to define what good homework looks like and feels like:

* It is clear, well scaffolded, and it can be done independently, with minimum support.

* It has just the right amount of challenge. Not so challenging that students easily give up, but not so simple that they may as well not bother.

* It has taken into account that students have the right resources, and access to further support, to complete the work to a high standard.

* It is monitored for completion and it is an integral part of the ongoing learning cycle.

* It has elements that encourage curiosity and enquiry to flourish. Such homework can be completed in the half hour slot allocated, but that wouldn’t stop a student going on a flight of excellence that sees him or her lost in learning that is wholly worthwhile.

I would argue that if we get homework right then we could make a tangible difference for our students, enabling them to work both harder and smarter. The benefits that attend students getting stuck into good home learning activities are clear. They can better learn to develop skills of independence; practise their research skills; problem solve and ask themselves tricky questions. If we structure, scaffold and model good homework it may even result in students who can work with genuine independence and become great learners.

I don’t have all the answers, as so much of what constitutes good homework is specific to the students in an individual school. Perhaps ‘flipped learning’ might be what your learners need, or maybe technology can provide the tipping point to success? I do know, however, that the building blocks for great homework are all out there, most likely sitting in the lesson plans of our expert teachers. We need to seek them out and redeem homework from being a mediocre time- filler – turning it instead into an integral tool for inspiring independent learning.