The home advantage

Geography does not stop when pupils leave the classroom, says Keith Grimwade, who argues that homework should be regarded as an opportunity not a problem.

Homework has hit the headlines. The Office for Standards in Education has reported that schools which set homework regularly achieve better results than those which do not. The political parties have vied to respond in different ways to these findings. Commentators have questioned whether a strong homework policy raises standards or whether it indicates more fundamental processes.

Many teachers have smiled wryly over this debate's progress. For them homework has always been an issue: its purpose, what to set, how to resource it, what to do about those who don't (or can't) do it and how to deal with parents' concerns that their children are being given too much or too little.

The Geographical Association's secondary education section committee decided it was a good time to take a fresh look at this topic. We have put together guidance for a departmental policy on homework and in so doing we have realised the enormous potential our subject has for meaningful, relevant and easy to organise homework: it is an opportunity, not a problem.

Lack of resources has been a longstanding difficulty, for example taking a textbook or other school resource home is often not feasible. However, with imagination and ingenuity, resources outside the classroom can be identified and exploited. Pupils have easy access to television and radio. Local newspapers, usually delivered free, are a mine of information. Telephone directories, bus and other timetables, utility bills and local council publications are useful for tasks ranging from working out spheres of influence to assessing the impact of water meters.

The local environment is there for all to use, rural or urban, for sketching, mapping, assessing (for example, environmental quality) and monitoring (for example, traffic counts). It can provide the start point of numerous geographical investigations ranging from simple questions such as "What do you like andor dislike about the place where you live?" to more challenging tasks such as "How do you think this area will change in the next 10 years, and why?".

Geography lends itself to a variety of activities. Traditional tasks such as writing essays, revising and background reading can be supplemented with more creative work such as putting together a scrapbook of news items, interviewing friends and family about a topical issue, designing word games and making models.

Geography stands to benefit from a strong homework policy. Pupils who have become independent learners at key stage 3 will be more successful with GCSE coursework. Many aspects of geography, for example the application of skills, are time consuming: well-directed homework tasks develop these skills. Above all, homework can allow pupils to relate their work in the classroom to the world outside, for example by investigating a topical local issue.

Homework allows parent-school links to be developed. Parents, and home, are an excellent source of geographical information. A migration survey could be carried out - where were you born? Why did you move? Where were your parents born? Or an energy audit; or a trade links survey - where were our electrical goods made? Involving parents yields tremendous benefits and is far better than only getting in touch when there is a problem.

A geography department has to operate within the school's homework policy. However, a departmental policy should deal with issues such as frequency and timing, links with classwork, resources, possible activities and differentiation. It must also set out how homework is to be assessed and what rewards and sanctions are to operate. A detailed policy helps ensure consistency within a department, which will benefit pupils.

Managing homework requires careful consideration, if for no other reason than that we are not there to help pupils when they do it. Time has to be allocated to explain properly what is required. Deadlines must be realistic and clear. Work must be checked promptly, marked regularly and discussed as a matter of course. In this way, homework becomes valued work.

Geography does not stop when pupils leave the classroom, it starts. The subject can only gain from exploiting it's rich potential for stimulating and interesting homework.

The GA's secondary education section committee workshop at the annual conference on April 3 will explore homework issues in greater depth and preview guidance material Keith Grimwade is head of the geography department at Hinchingbrooke School, Huntingdon and chair of the GA's secondary education section committee

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