When does homework work?




If one gives credence to the frequent writing of educational experts and media reports this year that homework makes no difference, then why is it that good schools and diligent parents persist with the task of distribution, supervision and marking of school work done at home?   

As always, I am interested in the research and go to the meta analysis undertaken by Professor John Hattie on the topic of homework. If one looks simplistically at his research, then the benefit (or effect size) of homework is low for primary school students.

Yet, a more in depth analysis of this data and my own experience of more than 30 years of educating, leave me believing it is very much a matter of what type of homework and the characteristics of the children that determine whether or not homework is a valid and worthwhile pursuit.

Given we are talking about discretionary after school time, what is it that we as educators can do to ensure that such activity maximises benefit and outcome for each child. The following attributes and factors are those necessary to see time spent on homework being worthwhile and resulting in a positive impact on student learning.
Task orientated activities are beneficial, where the child is able to engage in review, revision and rehearsal independently. Such activities build fluency, competence and confidence that is difficult to achieve in a busy school day. Conversely open ended tasks in which the child has to navigate their own learning pathway show low benefit.
Short, sharp and frequent bursts of homework that is differentiated and closely aligned to student ability see good benefit. 
Older children who can self-monitor and independently sustain concentration benefit more than younger students. 
Teacher involvement in homework is paramount to its success. The nature of the task needs to be tailored to student learning needs, feedback needs to be timely and expectations need to be high regarding the quality of the work and the value attributed to the exercise. 

So when doesn’t homework work?

Too often homework is given to children that is a one size fits all and is the same for the entire class. Such tasks rarely meet the learning needs of the child as they are either too difficult or too easy. Neither of which enable pertinent practice to be achieved. Some tasks can be so challenging and beyond the scope of the curriculum that they are impossible for the child to complete unaided. I have been made aware of parents hiring architects to make the models of Inca civilizations all in the name of homework.

Activities can be set so far in advance in a ‘contract’ format that it is difficult for the tasks to be differentiated to meet the immediate learning needs of the child. Other tasks can be so open ended and nebulous that intent and direction are lost. A failure to mark homework and give targeted feedback also contributes to negative effects. It is true that poor quality homework abounds, but it is wrong to then label all homework as ineffectual.  

Worthwhile learning experiences, whether in the classroom or beyond, don’t happen by chance. They require the expertise, creativity and innovation of an experienced educator to devise, deliver and then give feedback. When time on task is extended by differentiated homework pertinent to each child’s needs, then the benefit to academic success is manifold and positive.



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