Is there a holy grail of homework?

Should it require parental input? Does it need to be marked? Emma Kell is still struggling to set the perfect homework

Is there such a thing as perfect homework, asks Emma Kell

For me (and I doubt I’m alone), the word “homework” is enough to bring on a kind of atavistic nausea made up of a sense of inadequacy, and that unique stress that comes with feeling that you really should be doing something but you can’t remember what. 

It sparks memories of the Antiques Roadshow theme tune as a child and, later, as a parent, the experience of battles over delayed playdates, and mealtime tensions as we try to ensure homework is done well and on time. 

As a head of department, I’ve had homework in every single blooming development plan I’ve ever written and, if I’m honest, have never really cracked it. I’ve known teachers who’ve had homework on the performance-management objectives every single year – naturally, to be ignored and forgotten about until the end-of-year review. 

Teachers often start the year with fierce resolve and the best of intentions, but a few missed homework tasks here, a few detentions there, and a growing unmarked pile of homework tasks glaring accusingly from the corner of the classroom often lead to a lapse in routine and, eventually, a sense that giving up the battle might just be the way forward.

Homework: what's the point of it? 

There is, of course, an argument that, if I hadn’t developed those homework routines as a pupil, then I might have missed out on many achievements further down the line. There’s also an argument that not everybody was as lucky as I was, to have a bright red fold-down desk and parents willing – indeed, fiercely intent upon – drilling me on quadratic equations and Shakespeare quotes to the detriment of my social life. Resentful then, I thank them now. 

I’ve been talking to teachers and parents about homework. I can’t help, if not questioning the very point of it, then at least wondering if it simply perpetuates social inequalities and makes the vulnerability of some of our students even more pronounced. 

We seem to be in a bit of a Catch-22, where homework that children can complete with absolutely no support at home is deemed of minimal value, but then the capacity of some parents to support their children (for all sorts of reasons) is minimal. So depending on parental support is simply not something schools can do.

Parents are human, too, and I include myself in the group that absolutely dreads any kind of creative, crafty homework involving glue or sticks or “make it out of whatever you like”. I know that at least half the class has a subscription to the local craft store, and will produce a hand-knitted piece of pure brilliance. Thank goodness for a husband and dad with a penchant for PVA glue…

And yet, that Anderson Shelter was a thing of such brilliance, and the father-daughter bonding over that weekend so special, that it’s a task she’ll never forget. And if we don’t start teaching children how to manage their own time and tasks without teacher intervention, are we really equipping them properly for the future?

Homework timetable

And still schools persist, valiantly. My own 12-year-old came home with an intricate and beautifully presented homework timetable yesterday, detailing exactly which subjects will be setting homework on any given day in the two-week timetable. 

With my parent-hat on, I welcome this and it has pride of place on the fridge. With my teacher hat on, I know the hours it must have taken to produce, and salute the author. With my manager hat on, I think, yikes – we’ve really got to stick to this now, because (parent hat), if the art homework doesn’t get home on Tuesday of Week B, there will be high levels of parental indignation to deal with. 

The danger, as pointed out by one secondary-school teacher, is that homework can become a tick-box exercise: set for its own sake, with little thought behind it and ultimately pretty meaningless. I can think of thousands of teacher hours spent on and around homework, from literally stopping children in corridors to blatantly plagiarising fast-food menus in the name of consumer (student) choice – to little demonstrable effect.

And then I gave myself a good talking to and started wondering about homework that IS actually effective. Second daughter, who’s 9, left the house today proudly brandishing a brand new deodorant stick. “It was homework!” she said. “Our teacher said we’re starting to smell and we have to show it to him.”

Lifestyle homework

Several teachers have offered similar lifestyle homework ideas, which sounded great. Here’s an example from a Year 3 teacher: “Every year I set the homework in September of tying a tie and tying shoelaces. It makes such a difference to my life and saves me hours. When parents protest (and some do), I ask them if they want their teenager to only be able to choose Velcro shoes.”

Not only does it require no marking, but I’m guessing this sort of homework with relatively young children also helps the teacher to identify those who, for whatever reasons, might be in need of some extra support.

It’s an interesting (and rather serendipitous) coincidence the pretty much all the examples of great homework cited by teachers and parents involve little to no marking. I love Chris Chivers’ ideas around “talking homework”, such as bringing in a picture or item to discuss during the following lessons. 

I was inspired by another teacher who, in a similar vein, managed to spice up a potentially rather dull topic, promote creativity and enhance relationships outside school: “I set a homework task for a Year 5 class whose topic was 'water' to find songs about water. Got them talking to their parents/grandparents (history), listening to songs they might not know (music), thinking about different aspects of water (geography/science) – it was fab.”

Reading, reading, reading

Learning tasks are also popular with teachers and parents – learning poems to recite by heart (the best are performed in assembly), or learning times tables, sometimes by using online competitive games. 

Long Stratton High School, in Norfolk, has suspended all marked homework at key stage 3 and focuses instead on homework as a means of consolidating the learning in an approach it calls “read and revise”. For older students, using homework time to plan and prepare presentations for the rest of the class is also cited by teachers as being very powerful.

If teachers have one message for parents, it’s that reading, reading, reading is pretty unanimously the most powerful homework there is. Reading alone, reading together, reading aloud, talking about books

In fact, I think a homework diet of pure reading sounds positively blissful. 

I’d love to hear more ideas on homework – what does and what doesn’t work from both parents’ and teachers’ perspectives? Post below, or contact me on Twitter at @thosethatcan

Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching. She tweets at @thosethatcan

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