Puppets, debate and homework

31st January 2003 at 00:00
A village school in Stirling is aiming to break the mould with a radical approach to pupils' work at home. Douglas Blane reports

Homework is a contentious issue, and not just for youngsters forced to stay in while their pals are out playing in the sunshine. Parents get concerned when their children are given too much homework, or too little.

Teachers regard it either as a vital part of learning, or a source of endless aggravation. And politicians worry that too much might confer an unfair advantage on children with well-educated parents and settled homes.

Parents who want more homework for their children believe it develops independent study skills. But hard proof is lacking.

According to research commissioned by the Scottish Executive and summarised in The Homework File, there is some evidence that homework increases the effects of social disadvantage, but none that it achieves its deeper purpose of promoting "personal responsibility, lifelong learning and self-direction". But research has tended to look at quantity rather than quality.

Homework often consists of repetitive tasks that neither interest pupils nor advance their learning. To be engaging and effective, says The Homework File, it needs to have "variety, change of pace, shift of medium".

There should be choice and flexibility, and assigned tasks must exploit the range of intelligences and the visual, auditory and kinesthetic modes of learning.

At a village school near Stirling the management has been devising a homework model that takes all this into account. It aims to raise attainment for everyone while satisfying the demands of teachers, parents and pupils.

"We decided to create something much more detailed than our previous homework policy," says Joanne Scott, headteacher at Killearn Primary. "We are producing a resource that will provide teachers with all they need to set homework at every stage throughout the school year."

The resource includes essential tasks like reading and maths consolidation, but it also has a variety of assignments which will broaden children's experience, involve their parents and capture everyone's imagination.

"One of our units is called Shared Activities," says Ms Scott. "The options for Primary 2 include: tell a family member the story of your day. Ask a family member to tell you about their favourite holiday and tell them about yours. Primary 6 options include: get your family to take you on a bird-watching expedition. Keep a nature diary."

While some homework tasks are compulsory, many units allow pupils to select, say, five tasks from 20 to complete in a four-week period. Key elements of the new resource are self-evaluation and monitoring of activities by parents. So "marking homework" will often become a matter of checking for a parent's signature, or watching while pupils share the product of their work - a puppet, a model, a presentation - with the class.

The idea for the new resource arose from focus group meetings organised by the school for parents. One request the management decided not to implement this year was to make homework available on the Web. A number of schools are now taking this route, but it could aggravate the effects of social disadvantage by favouring computer-literate parents with Internet access, unless a comprehensive resource on traditional media, such as the new Killearn pack, is already available.

Now in her fourth year as head at Killearn Primary, Joanne Scott admits she has never seen a homework policy quite as ambitious as this. "But we are now at the detailed level where you can visualise how it's all going to work. I'm very excited and so are the teachers."


The new homework resource devised by Killearn Primary consists of the following components for each stage from Primary 1 to 7:

* An overview of the school year identifying the homework units to be used each term, matched to the work done in class.

* A folder of homework units which currently includes research, oral, design and make, geography, writing, personal reading, maths consolidation.

* A collection of activities within each unit, together with any necessary worksheets and useful background information for parents. In the oral unit, for example, pupils in P1 are asked to stand up and tell their name, address and hobbies to their family, then give the same talk in class. In P4 they prepare a book or film review and practise delivering it at home. In P7 debates in school are supported by practice at home.

In the design and make unit, P1 pupils are asked to design and make a sock puppet, P3 a mobile for a new baby, P6 an Advent calendar and P7 a bubblegum machine.

Homework is issued at the start of a week. Guidelines for the time pupils should spend on it per evening are:

P1-2: approx 10 minutes

P3-4: approx 15-20 minutes

P5-7: approx 20-30 minutes

The Homework File, University of Strathclyde, Scottish Executive 2001.

Tel: 0141 950 3168

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