Is it time to ditch homework?

on Nov 17, 2016

students-top-viewLast  week Inverlochy, a primary school in Scotland, made headlines as it became the latest U.K. establishment to abolish homework. The school argued that neither parents nor pupils wanted it, that it encroached upon precious family time and that it prevented pupils from participating in more enriching after-school activities.

The fact that the somewhat innocuous decision made front-pages news reflects the zeitgeist: setting or not setting homework is a question that increasingly haunts headteachers.

On the one hand giving “challenging” homework that aims to consolidate classroom learning is a condition of obtaining an “outstanding” or “good” rating from much-feared Ofsted inspectors.  Scrapping it entirely is thus a dangerous proposition that could result in a very public –and costly– slap on the wrist for the school.

On the other hand, multiple studies (including a recent one from the Education Endowment Foundation, a charity) have shown that homework in primary school has little positive impact on educational attainment while widening the gap between “privileged” children who are well supported at home and those who aren’t.

To start with, it helps to agree on a definition of homework in its traditional understanding: it is completing a written exercise/task that must be handed in and then reviewed by the teacher; it is not reading aloud to parents or drawing a furry animal for an art competition. Its goal is to consolidate learning that has already happened in the classroom and to determine that concepts have been understood.

The drawbacks of “traditional” homework

The worst homework at primary level is rote homework that is automatically and uniformly set. That means the same homework for all pupils, irrespective of where they stand on a particular topic and whether they are quick graspers or slower learners. At best it is boring and repetitive, disengaging the child. At worst it is vexing and confidence-sapping.

Why does it still exist? Some argue that it’s because it’s the way it’s always been done while also being easier and faster to assign for teachers working increasingly long hours for relatively low pay. Others that children feel secure in their learning when given the chance to repeat tasks.

In the early years, when nearly every task –preparing for a spelling test, conducting basic operations, practicing handwriting– requires the presence of an adult to be effective, this type of homework also dangerously widens the gap between children accompanied in their home learning and those whose parents/carers have neither the time, ability or inclination to help. Even if the parents are switched on and sharp-elbowed when it comes to home learning, such tasks can seem more a test of parenting skills — and the magical ability to find time when 24 hours is not enough– than a means of adding value to a child’s learning.

In France, written homework in primary school is actually banned by law for exactly that reason — though in practice some schools ignore it, arguing that otherwise their pupils are not prepared to cope with the work set in senior school and have not formed the habit of studying outside the classroom.

Another problem with such homework is that unless it’s actually marked by the teacher, the child often feels it is worthless. Homework that needs to be assessed is a significant demand on teachers’ time, especially if the marking aims to be thoughtful rather than automatic. One legitimately wonders if this precious time might be better spent planning extension work –in the classroom– for the more advanced, or  researching new ways of supporting those who struggle, by approaching the same topic via a different angle for instance.

This was precisely the argument used by Catherine Hutley, principal at Philip Morant School and College in Colchester, Essex, when she scrapped homework at her institution back in September. “The job of a teacher is impossible. There are not enough hours in the day to teach, set homework, mark homework and plan their lessons,” she told the Times.

The benefits

Still, some teachers truly believe in the benefits of homework, arguing it helps to foster the independent study skills that students will increasingly need as they progress through the years.

In senior school, homework indeed starts to have a positive impact. In 2012, a study published by the Department of Education that tracked 3,000 children over 15 years showed that spending more than two hours a night doing homework is linked to achieving better results in English, maths and science at GCSE level.

Back in primary school teachers in favor of homework highlight its role in weaving a solid working relationship with parents, giving them better visibility on their child’s progress and weaknesses. But again, this argument only works with involved parents who have already made their child’s education a priority, thus reinforcing the advantage.

More intelligent homework

Are we ready to do away with homework entirely? Probably not. In part because long ingrained habits are hard to break, but also because many parents would be against it as they often –in our view wrongly– regard the quantity of homework set by a school as a reflection of its academic status.

What the most inspiring teachers are trying to do these days is set homework that deepens the child’s understanding and engagement with a particular topic. In this context, homework can take a completely different shape: at primary level it could be listening to a choir singing carols over Christmas, writing a poem about the season, baking bread to understand the process of fermentation. At secondary level homework could mean the chance to pursue a personal research project, preparing students for developing the independence of thought needed to thrive in higher learning at university level and beyond.

Inspired homework should broaden learning and engage both child and parent in a pleasurable family pursuit. It should take learning out of the classroom and help pupils to see the practical uses of the lessons learned.

Aude is a co-founder of Magus Education. She is an Ivy League graduate and worked for more than a decade as a journalist for publications including Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. She writes about all education matters and has a special interest in multilingual children.