Classroom practice - Redefining homework to enable real learning

6th December 2013 at 00:00
Keep kids engaged even when they're not under your watchful eye by setting thoughtful, tailored tasks that challenge constructively

It is January 1929. The codes, conduct and character of life are largely unrecognisable to modern eyes. And yet the following appears on the front page of TES on 19 January: "In the face of all that the modern world has to offer.can the claims of homework to an hour or more of every evening be pressed . Are the evil effects of homework greater or less than its advantages?"

The article (read it at bit.lyHomework1929) presents a sentiment that would sit just as happily in these pages today. Despite the passage of nearly 85 years, it seems we are still putting homework on trial with the same defence and prosecution arguments that have always been used.

Asking the right questions

What may surprise many, though, is that the long-running debate has a fatal flaw at its heart.

"The quality or type of homework is rarely taken into account in studies assessing its effectiveness," writes Susan Hallam, professor of education at the University of London's Institute of Education, in her book Homework: the evidence.

And it is not just studies. Whatever the context, the issue is always talked about as though "homework" was of a single type and quality. But the term covers myriad tasks, activities and tests. Asking "Is homework effective?" is like asking "Is food nutritious?" - a nonsensical question. Far better to reframe the debate. Rather than asking whether homework is effective, a better question would be: "What does effective homework look like?"

To find an answer, you first have to define what homework is. Hallam's definition is as good as any: "Any work set by the school which is undertaken out of school hours for which the learner takes the primary responsibility."

Next, you have to ask "What is homework for?" Hallam suggests its purpose is to promote academic learning and family communication, to assist the school by, say, easing time constraints on curriculum teaching and to foster home-school links.

Richard Walker, author of Reforming Homework: practices, learning and policies and associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Sydney in Australia, adds that homework also helps to build a skill set that is not easy to acquire within the classroom.

"Working at home can create self-directed learning skills, things like time management, emotional regulation, finding a place to work, focusing attention and so on," he says. "Likewise, it develops enquiry learning skills. While schools may believe they are doing both these things, in reality the majority of class-based tasks are still directed and regulated by teachers."

These multiple objectives are tackled through various types of homework. Hallam cites a study of Scottish teachers that uncovered four "common" homework tasks - finishing off work, work separate from classroom topics, project work and preparatory reading or research - alongside a number of other less frequently used activities, including visits and experiments. A study of what teachers in Malaysia were setting, meanwhile, unearthed 28 different types of work.

When homework is broken down like this, you can see how redundant it is to try to assess the concept as a whole. Fortunately, although Hallam is correct in saying that studies of this type are thin on the ground, a few brave souls have taken on the task of trying to ascertain what makes it effective.

The academic who has arguably done most in this area is Harris Cooper, professor of education at Duke University in the US. In his analysis of studies on homework, Cooper found that students who learned new content or reviewed content from previous lessons (distributed homework) outperformed those who received homework based on that day's lesson (same-day content). In essence, doing background reading before starting a new topic was generally more beneficial than practising what had been taught that day.

The success and rapid take-up of the "flipped classroom" approach would seem to support Cooper's findings. This involves the knowledge acquisition part of learning - remembering and understanding, in the language of the revised Bloom's Taxonomy - shifting to a homework task. This is usually via video lectures, although it has also been adapted for reading tasks. The higher-order applying, analysing, evaluating and creating elements of learning then take place in the next class.

"Currently, we are sending kids home to do the hard stuff," says Jon Bergmann, one of the pioneers of the flipped classroom. "If you look at (the revised) Bloom's Taxonomy, we are sending kids home to apply, analyse and synthesise. And we are doing knowledge (remembering) and understanding in the classroom. If you flip the classroom, you can work on the higher- order skills in class."

The approach was reviewed by George Mason University, which concluded that "teachers who are flipping their classrooms report higher student achievement, increased student engagement and better attitudes toward learning and school".

Sticking points

Yet before you rush off to find a video camera, these findings do not necessarily mean that all other types of homework are ineffective. Walker, for example, has reservations about the use of flipped learning for humanities subjects, arguing that this sort of predetermined teaching is problematic when dealing with something as subjective as a novel or a piece of music. He admits, however, that flipping a science or maths class is superior to the practice tasks usually set as homework, which he claims do "not lead to any cognitive growth or development".

Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia in the US, also praises flipped learning but agrees that it is not the only effective homework option. He believes that more traditional homework tasks such as practice, research and project work are still valid - they just need to be carefully guided.

"Students need to be taught the skills to cope when they get stuck with homework. You cannot just expect the student to have them naturally," he explains. "A teacher should say, `Here's your goal, it is going to be tough, you are going to get stuck, but I want you to note down when you get stuck and how you tried to get around it.' And then the first thing the teacher does in class is talk through where everyone got stuck, what they did, and then they offer other things the students could have done."

So are all kinds of homework potentially effective in the right hands? Not necessarily, Walker says. He points to a factor that few studies have looked at in depth but which has a substantial impact on effectiveness: students' socio-economic background.

Some young people may not have parents with the knowledge or time to assist with homework; some may not have access to the resources required to complete a task - for example, a computer or money for a trip to a museum; some may simply not have a space at home in which to learn.

These are not easy problems to overcome but studies hint at a possible solution. From the work of Walker, Willingham, Hallam, Cooper and many others, it is clear that homework of any type is more effective if it is planned in advance and thought through properly, rather than being ad hoc tasks or class content overspill. Just as a teacher makes judgements about content and delivery for a class, the same careful consideration has to be given to the content and type of homework, Walker says. This includes considering what it will be possible for the students in the class to complete at home.

Could it be, in this age where teachers' input can be lost amid a cacophony of government directives, rankings, research and student voice, that effective homework is whatever the teacher deems best based on their relationship with their class and overall plan for conveying the curriculum? So long as you provide students with the skills to complete their homework, the answer would appear to be yes.

What else?

Time to call a halt to homework? This article rehearses the pros and cons. bit.lyScrapHomework

Is homework a waste of time? One children's author believes so. Read her comments here. bit.lyHomeworkWasteTime

Find out how flipped learning works and get tips on turning your class topsy-turvy. bit.lyFlipYourClass

Flipped Learning Network


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