Homework revisited

At the same time as a group of French parents and teachers have called for a two-week boycott of homework (despite the fact that homework is officially banned in French primary schools), and just after the British government scrapped homework guidelines, a large long-running British study came out in support of homework.

The study has followed some 3000 children from preschool through (so far) to age 14 (a subset of around 300 children didn’t attend preschool but were picked up when they started school). The latest report from the Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE), which has a much more complete database to call on than previous studies, has concluded that, for those aged 11-14, time spent on homework was a strong predictor of academic achievement (in three core subjects).

While any time spent on homework was helpful, the strongest effects were seen in those doing homework for 2-3 hours daily. This remained true even after prior self-regulation was taken into account.

Of course, even with such a database as this, it is difficult to disentangle other positive factors that are likely to correlate with homework time — factors such as school policies, teacher expectations, parental expectations. Still, this study gives us a lot of data we can mull over and speculate about.

For example, somewhat depressingly, only a quarter of students (28%) said they were sometimes given individualized work, and many weren’t impressed by the time it took some teachers to mark and return their homework (only 68% of girls, and 75% of boys, agreed that ‘Most teachers mark and return my homework promptly’), or with the standards of the work required (49% of those whose family had no educational qualifications, 34% of those whose family had school or vocational qualifications, and 30% of those whose family had higher qualifications, agreed with the statement that ‘teachers are easily satisfied’ — suggesting among other things that teachers of less privileged students markedly underestimate their students’ abilities). Also depressingly, over a third (36%) agreed with the statement that ‘pupils who work hard are given a hard time by others’ (again, this breaks down into quite different proportions depending on the student’s background, with 46% of those in the lowest ‘Home Learning Environment’ agreeing with the statement, decreasing steadily through the ranks to finally reach 27% (still too high!) among those in the highest HLE).

One supposed benefit of homework that has been much touted, especially by those who are in the ‘homework for the sake of homework’ camp, is that of teaching self-regulation (although it can, and has, be equally argued that, by setting useless homework, teachers weaken self-regulation). While the present study did find social-behavioral benefits associated with homework, which would seem to support the former view, these benefits were only seen in relation to behavior at age 14, not to any changes between 11 and 14. In other words, homework wasn’t affecting change over time. This would seem to argue against the idea that doing homework teaches children how to manage their own learning.

Another interesting (of the many) key findings of the report concerns children who ‘succeed against the odds’ — that is, they do better than expected considering their socioeconomic or personal circumstances. Parents of these children tend to engage in ‘active cultivation’ — reading and talking to them when young, providing them with many and wide-ranging learning experiences throughout their childhood, supporting and encouraging their learning. Such support tended to be lacking for those children who did not transcend their circumstances, whose parents often felt helpless about parenting and about education.

In view of my last blog post, I would also like to particularly note that ‘good’ students tended to have a strong internal locus of control, while ‘poor’ students tended to feel helplessness, and had the belief that the ability to learn was an inborn talent (that they didn’t possess).

But education providers shouldn’t simply blame the parents! Teachers, too, are important, and those students who succeeded against the odds also attributed part of their success to supportive and empowering teachers, while those disadvantaged students who didn’t succeed mentioned the high number of supply teachers and disorganized lessons.

There is also a role for peers, and for extracurricular activities — families with academically successful children tended to value extracurricular activities, while those with less successful students viewed them, dismissively, as ‘fun’, rather than of any educational value.

You can download the full report at https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/DFE-RR202  or see the summary at http://www.ioe.ac.uk/newsEvents/62517.html

There’s a lot of controversy about the value of homework, for understandable reasons. And the inconsistent findings of homework research point to the fact that we can’t say, simplistically, that all children of [whatever age] should do [so many] hours of homework. Because it rests on the quality and context of the homework, and the interaction with the individual. Homework may be an effective strategy, but it is one that is all too often carried out ineffectively.

Homework for the sake of homework is always a bad idea, and if the teacher can’t articulate what the purpose of the homework is (or that purpose isn’t a good one!), then they shouldn’t set it.

So what are good purposes for homework?

The most obvious is to perform tasks that can’t, for reasons of time or resources, be accomplished in the classroom. But this, of course, is less straightforward than it appears. Practice, for example, would seem to be a clear contender, but optimally distributed retrieval practice (i.e., testing — see also this news report and this) is usually best done in the classroom. Projects generally require time and resources beyond the classroom, but parts of the project may well require school resources or group activity or teacher feedback.

Maybe we should turn this question around: what are classrooms good for?

Contrary to popular practice, the simple regurgitation of information, from teacher to student, is not what classrooms are best used for. Such information is more efficiently absorbed from texts or videos or podcasts — which students can read/watch/listen to as often as they need to. No, there are five main activities for which classrooms are best suited:

  • Group activities (including class discussion)
  • Activities involving school resources (such as science experiments — I am using ‘classroom’ broadly)
  • Praxis (as seen in the apprenticeship model — a skill or activity is modeled by a skilled practitioner for students to imitate; the practitioner provides feedback)
  • Motivation (the teacher engages and enthuses the students; teacher and peer feedback provides on-going help to stay on-task)
  • Testing (not to put students under pressure to perform on tests that will decide their future, but because retrieval practice is the best strategy for learning there is — that is, testing needs to be done in a completely different way, and with students and teachers understanding that these tests are for the purposes of learning, not as a judgment on ability)

All of this is why the flipped classroom model is becoming so popular. I’m a great fan of this, although of course it needs to be done well. Here’s some links for those who want to learn more about this:

An article on flipped classrooms, what they are and some teachers’ and students’ experiences. http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2012/03/31/20120331arizona-school-online-flipping.html

A case study of ‘flipped classroom’ use at Byron High School, where math mastery has jumped from 30% in 2006 to 74% in 2011 according to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments. http://thejournal.com/articles/2012/04/11/the-flipped-classroom.aspx

A brief interview with high school chemistry teacher Jonathan Bergmann, who now helps other teachers ‘flip’ their classrooms, and is co-author of a forthcoming book on the subject. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/the-flip-classwork-at-home-homework-in-class/2012/04/15/gIQA1AajJT_story.html

But there's one reason for all the argument on the homework issue that doesn't get a lot of airtime, and that is that there is no clear consensus on what school is for and what students should be getting out of it. And maybe part of the reason for that is that, for some people (some teachers, some education providers and officials), they don’t want to articulate what they believe school is all about, because they know many people would be outraged by their opinions. But if you think some people are going to be appalled, maybe you should rethink your thoughts!

Now of course different individuals are going to want different things from education, but until all parties can front up and lay out clearly exactly what they think school is for, then we’re not going to be able to construct a system and a curriculum that teaches effectively and reliably across the board.

Which is not to say I think we'd all agree. But if people openly and honestly put their agenda on the table, then we could openly state what particular schools are for, and different guidelines and assessment tools could be used appropriately.

But first and and most important: everyone (students, teachers, and parents) needs to realize that, notwithstanding the role of genes, intelligence and learning ‘talents’ are far from fixed. ((I’ve talked about this on a number of occasions, but if you want to read more about this, and the importance of self-regulation, from another source, check out this blog post at Scientific American.) If a child is not learning, it is a failure of a number of aspects of their situation, but it is not (absent severe brain damage), because the child is too stupid or lazy. (On which subject, you might like to read a great article in the Guardian about 'Poor economics'.)

What I think about homework is that we should get away completely from this homework/classwork divide. What we need to do is decide what work the student needs to do (to fulfil the articulate purpose), and then divide that into work that is most effectively (given the student's circumstances) done in the classroom and work that is best done in the student's own time and at their own pace.

So what do you think?

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