Why do we have homework?

Aimee Tan explains how Barrow Hills has changed its approach to homework

I started on my homework

but my pen ran out of ink.

My hamster ate my homework.

My computer’s on the blink.

Ken Nesbitt

How many times, as teachers or parents have we answered this question, and to what extent are we satisfied with our answers? It’s easy to trot out stock responses: to consolidate your classwork; to help you develop good learning habits; to make sure we get through the syllabus…but are we sure that the homework our pupils and children are being set is a meaningful and effective learning tool? Is it supporting the work that takes place in class or simply encroaching on the valuable rest and relaxation time that every child needs at the end of each day?

In Finland, where children do not start formal education until they are seven years old and there is an increasing emphasis on a topic led or vocational curriculum, it has been proposed that primary aged children do not receive homework; CCTV reports: 

‘Primary schools may no longer set any form of written homework for students in grades one to six. Instead, schools should work with parents to organise extracurricular activities and after-school assignments, including museum tours and library study.’

All well and good, with many children already participating in after school clubs and activities but as one school in New York discovered when traditional homework assignments were abolished in favour of ‘family time’, reading and playing, for every parent who wishes their child had less homework, there is one who would like more. Kips Bay Principal, Jane Hsu, has come under criticism from her current parent body, with some fearing that the lack of specific set tasks will eventually impact upon their children’s progress whilst others worry about discipline.  One parent went so far as to tell the ‘New York Daily News’:

‘You can’t control kids of this generation without homework.’

Should homework be used as a tool to discipline or ‘control’ young children? Or as a means of setting parameters for their evening activities? Educators would argue that work undertaken at home should at the very least serve one of the functions mentioned at the start of this piece and at best should support learning, extend comprehension, ignite interest and motivate further study. Instead, all too often teachers and parents see children actively demotivated by the style or quantity of homework set. At primary age, exhausted after long days at school, children are often left frustrated by a perceived lack of value in the tasks they are given, overwhelmed by the complexity of instructions or the challenge of the task itself, and resentful of the impingement on their free time. Jane Hsu argues the result is ‘sadly for many, a loss of interest in learning’.

To counteract this trend, Barrow Hills School, is moving increasingly towards a ‘flipped learning’ approach with teachers setting homeworks that actively prepare children for their next lessons. This preparation may take the form of research, reading, watching short, instructive film clips or formative assessment.  Homework of this nature is generally lighter, gentler as it relies less on written output, and is easier to complete independently. Children appreciate its value and finds the work purposeful in preparing them for future learning whilst teachers recognise that by giving children opportunities to access topic content in advance, not only are they giving them valuable ‘thinking time’ but they are also able to dedicate more lesson time to consolidating and applying that learning through the practice and development of key skills.

Teachers are urged to set homework with clear, achievable objectives and success criteria, and time parameters. As in class, children should understand what they are learning and why.  When necessary homework should be differentiated for different learning needs and children should be able to complete their work in a specified time without the help of an adult. That said, parents and carers have a substantial role to play in guiding and supporting the completion of work. A positive approach to the task at hand – helping with the organisation of equipment and sometimes just providing a reassuring presence – will all go a long way to ensure productivity, whilst encouraging children to talk about their learning not only allows them to explore and consolidate new ideas but also validates homework as a worthwhile tool.

Homework, I love you. I tell you, it’s true.

There’s nothing more fun or exciting to do.

You’re never a chore, for it’s you I adore.

I wish that our teacher would hand you out more.

Ken Nesbitt

Aimee Tan is Deputy Head Academic at Barrow Hills School