Homework – time for a re-appraisal?

The Covid-19 crisis that has closed our schools has sent most of us more deeply into the world of home learning than we’ve ever cared to go.  It’s been challenging to think of good home learning tasks that can be downloaded, completed remotely without any help (other than what family or the Internet can provide) and that are useful to the course.  Really what we’ve been doing is amplifying the amount of regular homework – and amplifying the advantages and disadvantages of regular homework.

I wrote my post-graduate dissertation on homework and I think that this crisis is highlighting the existing concerns with homework.  Does it help learning?  Only in a limited way.  The headlines of research (those that we always recite to Secondary students) show that those who complete their homework regularly do better in their GCSEs.  That’s probably true.  But the obvious, but largely unspoken side to this, is that those students are the ones who are likely to do better anyway.

Does it help those who struggle with learning?  No, because most homework tasks are either practice of something that’s been done in school – which if they didn’t understand when teachers were explaining it to them, they’re certainly not going to understand at home – or they are a research-based task.  These are the ones that lots of us are setting now… watch this video and write down 5 things you notice about it; research 5 scientists and describe why they were important; take a virtual trip through the V&A museum and describe 3 things you liked and why.  All good tasks – particularly at the moment when we don’t know when next we’ll all be sitting in a classroom together.. but the sorts of children that aren’t normally going to do this in class, or work more slowly than the others – are no more likely to do it now.

I’m not mocking the task – for many of us – particularly those who work in deprived Inner City schools we’re often competing against other students’ cultural capital and if our students have the time and are willing then tasks like these are invaluable at building that.  But every day in a normal environment, they’re not. 

My research showed me that homework was effective when achieving this outcome, but if the students aren’t doing it it doesn’t help them.  It’s just a waste of time for the teacher to continually have to set homework to everyone, have to mark it and return it and check who’s done it.  Let’s face it, if you know most of your students don’t do homework you don’t set anything meaningful, so then it’s not helping those who would do it anyway.  But you can’t rely on it being done for the next lesson if it’s not going to be done by a majority.

There was some research a few years ago in the Netherlands that showed that there was at least one case when homework actually hindered attainment.  This was when teachers had set homework that needed to be completed before the next lesson.  Many of our students don’t have a place to work at home that’s suitable, or don’t have a computer to work on.  If a significant group isn’t able to complete that homework then their results will be adversely affected.

There’s lots that will come out of this crisis.  Maybe a willingness for students to engage with home learning, supported by their parents will be one of them.  But more likely, it will be that homework in its traditional form doesn’t help most pupils, that Show My Homework and Google Classrooms only help those with not only a good internet connection at home, but access to an actual computer (you can’t download a set of questions, type an essay and resubmit on a phone) and that therefore it’s time to re-appraise traditional learning and the curriculum.  That’s something that’s definitely ripe for a re-appraisal.

Gerald Clark – Camden NEU