How can we keep homework manageable and meaningful?

Homework develops knowledge and good time-management skills, but quality is better than quantity, urges Yvonne Williams

Too much homework

There are few topics as controversial as homework in the educational world. In the past week, media columnists have taken time to vent their spleen and the Twittersphere has resounded with lament about the stress caused to whole families, the pointlessness of homework and the need for children to be allowed time to enjoy their childhood. And, as a parent, I acknowledge that I am hugely relieved that my children are now beyond homework age. It was indeed a pressure on family time.

The pupil’s story

As a former pupil – though admittedly in a previous century – I have considerable sympathy with the notion that we should scrap homework.

And I have a confession to make: I rarely did any schoolwork at home until the last year of my A levels. It was at that point that I read historians on the civil war and Tudor period voraciously, and read at least one more text by each writer of my English literature set texts, as well as several novels in French. I had caught the bug, and it ceased to be homework.

When the purpose of homework was to get everyone to the same point for the next lesson, I made sure I finished the work in the lesson itself. This taught me efficiency and reduced any drive I might have had towards perfectionism.

I knew my limitations in graph-drawing for science; somehow the ruler always slipped and the pencil was too thick. Colouring blue shading around continent edges for geography may have reduced teachers’ marking and filled the space in the homework timetable, but it was one of the most pointless exercises ever invented, so I didn’t worry about getting low marks for presentation. Reading books was far more rewarding in the evenings.

I only came unstuck once, when my religious studies teacher caught me finishing off an English essay in her lesson and offered me a choice between a punishment from her or from the teacher who had set the work; I decided she had a better sense of humour.

The teacher’s view

These days, homework is necessary if we are to cover more content in the reformed qualifications.

Given the variable quality of written assignments (for those completing homework on the way to school, buses and trains tend to shake at the wrong moment and handwriting can become jagged), I’ve found it better to set preparation for the homework half-hour and give lesson time to writing. Written assignments at home should be timed.  This makes it much easier to monitor, as no one can go over the time limit. It’s good preparation for the final exams.

Different things are needed at different times of the year. With open morning rapidly approaching, teachers need industrial quantities of display work to be as accurate as possible, with an attractive layout.

But there are always computer viruses at the wrong moment and printers that give up the ghost on the handing-in day. So I try to book times in the IT suite to give students the opportunity to work productively and thoughtfully on the final drafts, which I can check in situ.

Like most English teachers, I recognise that reading is being squeezed out by social media; so I do want to set reading homework.  It’s very important to increase reading speed and comprehension of set texts (it’s the only way to guarantee the quality of the fiction). But I’m more than happy to give over half an hour (after the production line of open morning) for more pleasurable reading to encourage a lifelong retreat into a fictional world at times of stress. It’s vital for wellbeing and for future learning.

The school’s approach

My school is not one in which an “arms race” takes place, whereby departments outbid each other in quantities of homework set. It has a very sensible, pragmatic approach:

  1. If there is nothing to set after a lesson, then no pointless exercise should be created just to fill time.
  2. Time should be allowed outside school, especially in key stage 3, for students to have other interests. Many pupils enjoy dancing, horse riding and a whole range of sports, sometimes at a high level. Staff are asked to be tolerant of late handing-in when there are performances or competitions for which students need extra practice time.
  3. Students who are too ill to come into school are helped with catch-up work. Many are still not fully recovered when they return so it’s better to ease them back in. In KS3, this can be by photocopying work and giving summaries if the work is indispensable. Science and maths are subjects in which earlier knowledge is a foundation for later realisations in KS4 so there may be a requirement to read through more closely. If students don’t understand, then they can ask or go to relevant catch-up sessions.
  4. The time on the homework schedule should be adhered to – although this, of course, is tricky, given pupils' different work rates and the fact that it is done under different conditions.  This should reinforce the time limits for the overconscientious students. A few students try multitasking with a phone by their side, for example. This tends to prolong the task.
  5. Different kinds of homework are set. There is something very attractive in flipping the classroom: students come to the lesson with some ideas and don’t have to start from cold. It cuts down the start-up time. But does every student do the “invisible homework”? At the Inside Government event on curbing workload last summer, I was drawn to the way in which the pre-lesson registration could be used to ask individuals to answer a question, to test knowledge and improve recall.
  6. The school library is open and supervised by the librarian until 6pm. It’s easily possible to complete the standard 90 minutes of homework within that slot and still have time to read before going home or being picked up by parents.
  7. Three weeks before school exams, homework is banned so that students can revise.
  8. Homework is kept continually under review.
  9. No homework should involve parents, except to help their child check spelling, punctuation and grammar by listening to a final draft to be handed in the next day when written assignments are set. After all, the student is the one who needs to do the academic learning. And learning how to fit assignments into the time available is an important life skill to develop for the future when tackling tight deadlines in the workplace. I put down my survival in teaching to the lessons I learned from my homework strategy as a pupil.

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the south of England, as well as a member of the post-16 committee for the National Association for the Teaching of English

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