Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Homework – we should ban the word but not the idea... I'd rename it...

Homework is a horrid, industrial word that sounds like an unlikable chore. It 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’, its own apogee, then the ‘no homework’ arguments are rolled out like groundhog day. It comes and goes as Cooper (1998) tracked in cycles.
The problem is that it has been seen as something, not integral buts prate from learning in school. With the advent of online learning, specifically blended learning, it may be time to think anew and see a blend, not as two separate things, velcro learning, but synthesised into a single learning experience.

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. Others were thoughtful and saw it as a real opportunity to expand what they had done in the classroom and encourage autonomous learning. This variation drove ambitious parents bonkers. It was and remains one of the most contentious subjects a school has to deal with.
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 reasonable 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 a 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 research agenda.
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 is evidence-based. Alfie Kohn’s rarely read but oft-quoted,‘The Homework Myth’ (2006) is the typical source. 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.
What’s needed is a more enlightened view of what out-of-school learning should be. A balanced look at the evidence shows the benefits, if it is done well (Hallam (2004) and 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.

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 - ban it
‘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 as it can genuinely help improve autonomous learning.
In these days of online learning, where it can be done anywhere at any time in any place, the word 'home' may need to be dropped. It can be done at home but it may also be done in the library and any other suitable place. The same is true for 'work'. Claxton's point is that this is a pejorative sounding word that should be dropped in favour of normalised language around learning and tasks, seen as a simple extension of what is done in the classroom.

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 their schedule and explain in detail what is expected in terms of format, quantity and quality.

Quality not just quantity
There are serious problems with the quality of ‘homework’ set – often trivial, poorly designed, poorly explained and seen by the learner as a chore.Simply quantifying the task, as 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.

Use it for new pedagogies
In line with the research, design independent 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. This is an opportunity to introduce good, evidence-based practice around generative learning, interleaving, retrieval and spaced practice.These are the things that are difficult inside the classroom but can be encouraged and implemented across place and time outside of the classroom.

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. This is where technology can come into its own with the production of images, audio video and blogs. 

Deliver, mark and manage online
My own view is that independent 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 one task in teaching that can be automated. Everyone has a role in making this work. 

Free resources
There are lots of free resources out there. If you don't use them, you can bet that your learners will. YouTube, Khan Academy, BBC, Duolingo and tons of subject-specific trusted tools and sources. Make it your business to have a curated list.

Blended Learning is not Blended Teaching. It means redesigning your approach to optimise the blend of delivery channels and pedagogies you choose for your students. See online or independent learning is not some add-on but an integral part off what you now deliver.

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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