Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Homework – 'no homework myth' & 7 teacher strategies

Homework (horrible industrial word) has long been an educational lightening rod. Teachers are suspicious and don’t like the marking, parents get stressed and learners have to endure what are sometimes dull, repetitive, even meaningless tasks. Even worse, politicians encourage more of it to increase education standards until it literally reaches ‘peak homework’, reaching its own apogee when the ‘no homework’ arguments are rolled out like groundhog day. It comes and goes in cycles, Cooper (1998). The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in-between.
Homework as ‘no mans land’
When I was a School Governor, in a large comprehensive school, I was asked to do classroom observations. I did this and was astonished to find that some teachers had a totally negative attitude towards homework. They were adamant that ‘homework’ had no benefits at all for learners. Others set tasks that could only be described as tedious chores, others, in an effort to be creative set ill-defined and sometimes meaningless tasks. This drove ambitious parent bonkers and turned students off their subjects.
One can easily see why teachers are attracted to the idea that learning tasks, outside of school, are a burden, as they have to set, collect, give feedback and mark the damn stuff. From their point of view it’s a workload problem. There’s also the problem of the friction it causes between parents and their children, as well as between parents and the school, and the view that it can demotivate rather than motivate students, Cowan (1999). Homework in many schools is a sort of no-man's land, where combatting sides draw up their front lines, leaving an empty and battle scarred landscape in-between.
No homework myth
There are lots of problems with ‘homework’ research. It is exceptionally difficult to do comparative work with control groups so isolating ‘homework’ as a variable is tricky. This is made all the more difficult as testimonies about ‘how much’ students do is unreliable. Add to this that the ‘quality’ is often unknown and often very, very narrow in terms of subject and scope, and you have a tricky task.
But that it not to say that research cannot or has not been done. What is odd are claims by many that suggest a ‘no homework’ policy makes sense in schools. Alfie Kohn’s, rarely read but oft-quoted, ‘The Homework Myth’ is the typical source, Kohn (2006). One book, deliberately written to an agenda, should not make homework a no-go area. Hattie is the next source but few seem to have read what Hattie actually said about homework, as the data is complex. Weak results were shown at primary but strong effects at secondary. This shows the danger in Hattie's (some now think discredited approach to research). He did not say that homework has no effect on educational progress.
Then there’s the non-sequiturs. Tom Bennett was used to bang the no homework drum on Twitter recently, even though he clearly attacked bad homework and bad homework targets and policies, not homework per se. Who can deny that learners have to move beyond spoon-feeding. Tom was right in saying "I'm not anti -homework- it can be a useful tool - but too often it's an exercise in back covering, or box ticking, with no real thought for the educational outcome." What’s needed is a more enlightened view of what out-of-school learning should be. Tom is right, a balanced look at the evidence shows the benefits, if it is done well (Hallam (2004). This explains the sheer range of results and many contradictions in the research. However, with a more rigorous selection of the evidence a general position can be taken, that modest amounts of homework contribute towards educational achievement. This seems to rise as learners move towards the final years of primary and secondary school.
7 teacher strategies
So if we were to ask ourselves ‘What should ideal homework look like?’ and list our expectations, I’d say seven things:
1. ‘Homework’ is a hideous word
First, ‘Homework’ is a hideous word and why education still uses such a negative and obviously industrial word ‘work’, in relation to learning, escapes me. Guy Claxton has shown how destructive this word can be and his work in avoiding it is instructive – it helps. There are also serious problems with the quality of ‘homework’ set – often trivial, poorly designed, poorly explained and seen by the learner as a chore. I’d call it ‘home learning’ or ‘self-learning’ but I’d welcome other suggestions.
2. Teach how to learn
Teachers should focus less on the tasks and more on the form of what learners are asked to do on their own. You wouldn’t expect someone to head off on several, adventurous car journeys without first learning to drive. To do this properly focus on what the research shows make effective autonomous study. Teachers need to prepare learners for independent and ultimately, autonomous learning. Get learners to list the seven tactics up front, then plan to them. You can then match your home learning tasks to the rhythm of these tactics.
3. Quality not just quantity
1/2/3 hours per night sounds like a punishment or chore. More confusion comes when subject teachers set their own 20 minute rules, so that it all adds up to an unachievable goal for the learner. Learning, on your own, outside of the classroom, should be encouraged and this means setting expectations for students, parents and teachers. The usual ‘policy on paper’ is not nearly enough but it is a start. There needs to be an easy to remember pattern to the expectations in terms of frequency and quality. Quantity alone sets the wrong goal. Out your home learning through a filter. Is it dull, boring and pointless?
4. Little and often
In line with the research, design your home learning to be lots of manageable things, rather than huge monolithic tasks and match these against what the student will be expected to do in the exam.
5. Task not time defined
Better to define the task in positive learning terms, such as attain, accomplish, reach, or achieve, then be clear about what is expected in terms of the goal(s). If they will be assessed by short essay or essay answers get them to write blogs – an on-going series of posts on what they have learnt. Match the task to the form of assessment and recognise achievement. Don’t mark - encorage
6. Personalised
One size fits all will demotivate those with poor pre-requite knowledge and skills and bore those stronger learners. Home learning must be variable to allow for the variability in students. If homework is to be challenging but not too difficult, then it must be able to cope with variability. This, I believe, can only be achieved online, with content and delivery that can cope with a range of learners.
7. Deliver, mark and manage online
My own view is that home learning should be delivered, marked and managed online, so that it is visible to students, parents, teachers. If you want a personalised, feedback provided, motivational approach to homework, then technology may provide solutions. It is the one task in teaching that can be automated. Everyone has a role in making this work. There are plenty of high quality resources and system out there, such as Khan Academy, BBC content and so on – use them.
Even more radical
For an even more radical approach look at this case study from one of my favourite teachers. He records all of his lessons and makes them available for students and parenats alike. It worked - increased attainment.
Cooper, H., Lindsay, J.J., Nye, B. & Greathouse, S. (1998) Relationships among attitudes about homework, amount of homework assigned and completed, and student achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 90(1), 70-83.
Cowan, R., & Hallam, S. (1999) What do we know about homework? London: Institute of Education, ,University of London
Kohn, A. (2006). The homework myth: Why our kids get too much of a bad thing. Princeton.

Hallam, S. (2004) Homework: the evidence. Institute of Education, University of London

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