Homework that misses the mark

24th March 2000 at 00:00
Formulaic approaches to independent learning can do more harm than good, argues Rosemary Westwell

A recent Ofsted report praised my local primary school for its standard of teaching and leadership, and the attitude of pupils.

But it suggested one area of possible improvement - homework. "Independent learning", it said, needed to be used more "consistently".

But would consistent use of homework and independent learning necessarily improve pupils' learning? If a school blindly took such criticisms on board, it could easily start imposing homework for its own sake rather than being motivated by the need for a second look at classwork.

Homework, especially at primary level, can be an enjoyable added learning experience, but it can also be a nightmare hanging like a black cloud over a tired, resistant child and equally tired parents.

Some people even believe homework, especially at the primary level, is unnecessary - that it should be a voluntary extension of what has motivated a pupil in the classroom. After all, if a teacher is a good teacher and the lessons have been inspiring, absorbing and memorable, homework becomes no more than an added bonus.

Why should "independent learning" have become an important issue. If we want to know something or learn a new skill, most of us would ask someone else. Learning is an interactive process, rarely something you do on your own.

Even if you are reading a book or using computer software on your own, you invariably need input from another source - even if it is asking someone what a word means, using a dictionary or understanding how and where to manoeuvre within the programme.

Perhaps homework policy should be reviewed and homework for younger pupils become simply an encouragement to recall what was learned in the day's lesson. If the pupil remembers and understands the lesson ell, the lesson was obviously successful, the pupil is reinforcing the work and the pupil's friendmentor parent guardian will be reassured not only that the school is succeeding, but that the pupil too is gaining confidence and increasing the ability to learn. If the lesson was not under-stood, it should be reassessed.

People often assume all learning must be progressive - you cannot learn B until you have learned A. But some learning can involve combining several approaches until an idea or concept is grasped. Pupils then come to understand the concept in a more informed and rounded manner.

One prime example is learning the multiplication tables. More than one method can be used. Learning to repeat the tables sing-song fashion seemed to work years ago, but so does playing around with numbers. For many a pupil, stumbling over the nine-times table, the way suddenly becomes clear with the realisation that each step involves increasing the tens by one and decreasing the units by one.

To return to the homework issue, perhaps a learning diary could fulfil the requirement of "consistency" - but only if the pupil is motivated to do it. The method of recording may need to vary for individual pupils - "consistency" in application would defeat the purpose.

And, to use something consistently in education does not guarantee success. Yes, some things can be learned through constant repetition, but much more can be learned by applying a variety of learning techniques within and outside the classroom and at times when the pupil is ready to learn.

What is important is that the learning process matches the motivation and aptitude of the pupil - certainly not that some learning is expected to be completed at home on a nightly basis for the sake of being seen to be "consistent".

Rosemary Westwell is a private tutor in Cambridge

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