Get their minds in gear

31st January 2003 at 00:00
When setting homework, teachers should make sure tasks have a sense of purpose, writes Jackie Sherman

Why is it that at 10 o'clock at night I have to drag my 11-year old son away from his computer, where he is putting the finishing touches to a PowerPoint presentation on mythical beasts? Or shout at my 14-year-old to stop playing the chords he has taught himself to accompany a mournful rendition of "The Long and Winding Road" on the guitar? And yet neither of them can find time to do their "homework".

If designing a computer presentation, or learning a Beatles lyric were set as homework, would they feel the same?

Sadly, homework is rarely interesting enough to be attractive in its own right. The activities children are asked to perform at home commonly fall into the following categories: "finishing off", which offers nothing to the fast workers and in Year 7 is often simply colouring; or "sheets" taken out of context from various schemes that have clearly not been worked through by the teacher andor do not relate in any visible way to work going on in the classroom, nor to pupils' different skills levels; or "revising for a test" that is always set without any structure, so that children don't develop good study habits but will simply read their books - so that those with the best memories get the best results.

The way homework is treated at school tells you a great deal about why children dislike and avoid it so much.

Often it is given out in a rush at the end of a lesson, with no time for children to write down the details of the work, discuss it, or even be clear about the exact deadline.

On many occasions, when children do take the trouble to produce attractive work, it ends up not being marked or commented on. It rarely extends the brightest pupils and is often simply boring, repetitive, or just silly.

Perhaps one problem is that teachers, unsurprisingly, do not want the burden of marking 30 books a night, and so they either don't give out any homework at all or provide one of the activities listed above just to make their lives easier.

The answer lies with us as a society. Do we want and value good quality homework? And do we really believe that this work is a way to encourage self-directed learning, to challenge and extend pupils, to consolidate learning, to develop partnerships between home and school, and to ensure that children make the best use of ideas, resources or ways of working that are not available to them at school?

If we do, then we need to encourage schools to take homework more seriously.

Some homework policies are unrealistic: for a school to lay down that 13-year-olds should do nine hours of homework a week, for example, is ridiculous and can never be sustained.

Instead, a reasonable goal might be half an hour in Years 7-9 and one hour for older children on each schoolday evening, with at least two days before the hand-in deadline and time at the weekend for children to do the work if they are busy on some evenings doing other things. This would be more reasonable and achievable.

Teachers need to stick to the homework diary so that there is no clash. For example, to have three pieces of homework set on one night with a hand-in deadline the following day is quite unacceptable, even for the most conscientious child who will sit up half the night trying to finish the work.

More homework should be set that does not have to be marked by class teachers: for example, research projects that children can present to the class or make use of later; work that can be self-marked or which pupils can mark for each other; work that can be used in group projects to produce a finished poster or a joint piece of writing; or test questions and quizzes that can be written by individual pupils.

With fewer pieces of work to set and mark, homework could be transformed into something that is enjoyable, genuinely challenging and supported by children, parents and schools.

Jackie Sherman lives in Oxford and teaches ICT to adults

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