How often have you heard children complaining at the amount of homework that teachers give? This is because a large number of schools and colleges place an undue emphasis on their homework policy. Although it might seem an indicator of their commitment to learning, homework remains an area that is poorly thought-out.
Schools and colleges espouse the benefits of homework and argue that it helps children to digest what they learn in class. They make assumptions about the educational value – that it aids their learning which, in turn, helps them pass exams.
More on this: Four steps to setting worthwhile homework
Background: The top ten homework excuses: the 2019 edition
Impact of setting homework
However, such assumptions are misplaced. The actual impact of setting homework is relatively small and largely dependent on the age of the child.
Researchers at the University of Virginia in 2012 looked at data from 18,000 school pupils and discovered that homework made no difference to actual learning/grades while the Institute of Education at the University of London stated that it only accounted for less than 4 per cent differences in scores.
There have been other similar studies in Spain, Germany and Finland concluding that homework is just expensive and unproductive, leading to some children’s anxiety, annoyance and frustration.
Moreover, educational establishments need to understand that homework has different benefits at differing stages of a child’s education. It has some benefits in primary school when pupils are learning to hold a pen or to produce some rudimentary pieces of writing. But in secondary school and thereafter the benefits are minuscule.
Waste of time
It is little wonder that heads in some top grammar schools feel it is a waste of time for both pupils and teachers.
Research also shows that homework is not thought-out in the way lessons are – which are supposed to be organised, planned and structured. Instead, homework is given out without much care for, or attention to, the needs of individual children. Yet, for homework to have any discernible impact, it has to be targeted.
Giving undifferentiated homework can lead to children's bouts of isolation, feelings of academic inadequacies, incompetence and inability. These manifest themselves in their putting up resistance and barriers to learning. In other words, it can be counterproductive because it has the potential to turn young people off learning and affect their wellbeing.
So, as opposed to merely setting written academic tasks, schools and colleges should encourage their young people to take up leisure activities – something creative, physical or practical such as joining swimming classes, youth clubs, Air Training Corps, sports clubs, Scouts or the Brownies. They should encourage them to interact with the world in which they live in – their families, their communities etc.
Alternatively, schools and colleges can get young people to spend quality time with their families. This will develop their social/communication/interpersonal skills. Imposing recreational activities will enhance children's health and develop their confidence. In the long run, such attributes are likely to be more beneficial than doing homework in isolation, cut off from the world. As such, we need to reconsider our attitudes and mindset about the nature and purpose of out-of-class activities.
For schools and colleges, it seems keeping young people busy in academia is be-all and end-all. And this also extends to their time at home. Yet, the minor benefits of homework need to be weighed against the enormous infringement on children's freedom and social life. Is it worth it?
It is also the case that, more often than not, teachers give homework as punishment – it acts as a punitive measure designed ostensibly to correct children or to curtail their free time. This cannot be right. Is it any wonder that young people will try and avoid homework at all costs?
But the issuing of homework – and, indeed, the policy as a whole – is also reprehensible in a philosophical context.
Children spend six or seven hours a day in a school environment. During this time their behaviour, movement and activities are regulated to such an extent that even going to the toilet requires the teacher’s permission. Moreover, their classwork is scrutinised, corrected, judged, marked and graded while they are required to compete with their peers. It is a tense atmosphere of anxiety and competition. From the standpoint of an outsider, such practice will appear unhealthy and restrictive. Why are we doing this to our children? What is the purpose of our causing stress?
Essentially, I believe and research studies indicate that homework does very little to improve children's engagement with their studies. However, if schools and colleges are adamant they want to enforce it, then here are a couple of tips to bear in mind:
- Instead of giving homework as punishment, schools should issue it as a reward, as something pupils earn. For instance, at the moment homework is issued as a penalty to pupils and students for not finishing classwork or displaying poor effort/ bad behaviour. This is wrong.
- We should allow children to complete classwork at home ONLY if they have worked hard in class. That way they can improve it and increase their chances of attaining a better grade. Pupils and students who do not work hard should be denied that opportunity and thereby they forfeit the possibility of improving their grade. It’s a mindset.
In time, by promoting such reverse thinking, homework will be seen as a reward. Moreover (as idealistic as this might sound), I think it is the teachers’ job to inspire their pupils to want homework or an extended task. The contents of their lessons should entice them to proceed with an activity after class – to continue with their learning. Children who do not complete their classwork, can be set homework – but only if they ask for it. And, I believe that because they have requested it, they are likely to do it conscientiously.
It is only by redefining homework and our own attitudes to it that we are likely to improve children's engagement with learning. Otherwise, homework will continue to be a little more than a waste of time and (quite rightly) young people in both schools and colleges will continue moaning, "Oh, no Sir - not more homework!"
Dr Roshan Doug is a visiting professor, strategist and educational consultant at the University of Birmingham