Bad homework

Don’t worry, this isn’t road-kill. I’m just dissecting a rat. The rat in question is ‘bad homework’. Why does it happen?

Much has been written about what constitutes good and bad homework, most recently this pithy blog post by Greg Ashman (it’s hot off the press as I write and has prompted this response). I’m not going to enter the fray (but Greg is basically right IMHO). However, I have been thinking about why we, and I am as guilty as the next teacher, set bad homework. I should say at the outset that my own school is as flawed as the next in this respect i.e. we do quite well but there is room for improvement. By writing this down, I am giving myself some advice first and foremost.

It helps to think of this in terms of push and pull factors. How do schools push teachers in to poor practice and how do teachers allow themselves to be pulled in to bad habits?

How do schools push teachers in to poor practice?

Schools promote bad homework when they…

  1. dictate the frequency that teachers must set homework. If teachers know they have to set a homework every week, they will make up anything off the top of their heads just before the end of the lesson. I have known many teachers to say things to students like ‘don’t spend much time on this homework; I’m just setting it because I have to’.
  2. design monitoring approaches which focus on compliance over quality. Online homework platforms make this really easy to do as they generate data on the amount of homework. It would take much more effort to examine the quality of homework set or to seek to understand the rationale the teacher has for setting homework and whether it helps students learn.
  3. ask for all homework to be marked. This skews the type of homework set. For example, the teacher will be more likely to set students a task which is ‘mark-able’, such as an essay or answers to lots of questions. The problem with this is that the teacher’s main consideration in deciding on the task is not ‘what will complement their classroom learning best?’
  4. respond to misinformed parental pressure by meeting their expectations rather than presenting a compelling case for the most appropriate policy. Some parents will tell you they want less homework set, some more. Often the ‘more homework’ voices are loudest. Parents will often want to see lots of marking; it shows the work is being looked at. Parents will have expectations, often from their own school experiences, of what ‘proper homework’ looks like. These views are all legitimate and well-intentioned. However, homework serves learning, not parents.

How do teachers get pulled in to bad habits?

Teachers set poor homework when they…

  1. believe that what ‘good teachers’ do is set lots of/a particular type of homework. Teachers’ self-identity is a very powerful influence on their behaviour. They may believe that homework signals to students that they will work them hard. They may be proud of being the sort of teacher who sets really creative/fun homework. They may identify with a colleague who gets students to draft and re-draft essays numerous times in an attempt to instill academic rigor. Homework is about learning, not about what kind of teacher you want to be.
  2. have poor understanding of how students learn. Homework must be an integral part of the learning process, complementing the learning in class. An understanding of memory function, at the very least, is required to be able to use homework effectively to reinforce the knowledge insecurely acquired in lessons.
  3. have skewed priorities for setting homework. For example, they may want to refresh a classroom display prior to Open Evening.
  4. fail to understand what it is like for the students and parents. There is nothing like being a parent of a child at school to open your eyes. However, many teachers aren’t in that position, so the perspective of students and parents needs to be gained in other ways. Perhaps asking parents at parents’ evening? If they express angst, frustration and conflict, you’re probably doing it wrong.
  5. don’t consider opportunity cost. Young people do have valuable experiences other than doing the homework you have set. The opportunity cost of homework is hobbies, family time, relaxation, social contact and sleep. However, the cost of too little or ineffective homework is lost learning. Homework must be efficient i.e. deliver the required gains in the minimal time.
  6. don’t consider the diversity of home environments. Not every child has a desk, a bedroom to themselves, a parent at home to supervise, a parent who understands the task set, somewhere warm and well lit, minimal distractions, access to a computer. This isn’t just about poverty and disadvantage, however. Many children will be overwhelmed with hobbies, have overworked parents, fight siblings and parents for IT access and feel under pressure from high expectations.

In the quest to improve homework we do need to address the question of what good homework looks like, but we also need to create an environment where it is as easy as possible for teachers to do the right things and which makes it as easy as possible for students to meet our expectations. Here are some suggestions:

  • Get the Policy right. Undertake a literature review of the research evidence. Ask parents and students not what homework they would personally prefer, but what it feels like to live with the current approach. Keep it simple. Avoid practices which are put in place because they will be easy to check compliance against. Be clear about what is and is not considered good practice. Spell out the pitfalls and how these can be avoided.Create a framework which makes it easy for teachers to do the right thing. Think of the policy as more guidance than diktat.
  • Focus on teacher development over teacher accountability. Teachers want to set good homework. Explore what this is in a collegiate way.
  • Make homework integral to teaching and learning. Homework is not an add-on to the learning process or an after-thought, it is a critical part. Ask teachers to consider what part it best plays. Plan homework as carefully as, and in synchronicity with, planning sequences of lessons.
  • Evaluate impact and equity, not quantity and frequency.
  • Communicate your rationale and expectations clearly to parents. Get them on board.
  • Take bold action to  mitigate the effects of disadvantages in home circumstances. Provide space to study. Provide and signpost help. Set homework which students should be able complete interdependently in most instances.

Now I’ve publicly dissected that rat, its time to sew it up. Another thing on the to-do list.

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