Is the traditional structure of homework still working?

Dr Julian Murphy, head at Loughborough Amherst School, argues the case for rethinking traditional homework methods which are no longer fit for purpose

No matter how enthusiastic a student is, or how supportive their parents are, homework can be a constant battle. At the end of the working day, adults are exhausted while children would quite often prefer to be playing games, watching films or doing anything other than reopening their textbooks.

A pre-pandemic survey found that only 11% of parents in the UK spent an hour a day helping their children after school, while as many as 62% would do so in India.

Clarifying what homework is for

Beyond being a frustration for parents and pupils alike, I believe that current homework processes – doing summative written tasks with all of their books open – isn’t a beneficial way to monitor a child’s progress, build their knowledge base or hone their examination technique. Instead, it’s simply an indicator of how engaged their parents are, or how good their access to resources and time is.

When it comes to curriculum content, the core challenge is supporting students in getting what they’ve learnt in their long-term memory. In terms of examination technique, the core challenge is getting students used to working under timed and closed book conditions. The traditional approach to homework doesn’t do much to help achieve either of these goals.

So, for homework to really be effective in achieving what it should, we need to rethink its structure.

Homework and mental health

We aim to create a learning culture that fosters efficient working practices and supports mental health. This aim is embodied in our Minerva programme, which is underpinned by four different pillars: learning environment, knowledge and confidence, learner mindset and articulation.

While all four pillars play a role in nurturing an effective and happy student, the second pillar – knowledge and confidence – is specifically concerned with reducing extrinsic cognitive load and maximising the transfer of knowledge into the long-term memory.

However, getting homework right is also important for general mental health and wellbeing. Evidence suggests that traditional homework practices often manage to fail in their academic goals while also contributing considerably to student stress.

In fact, a recent survey by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner found that homework and exams cause more stress for children (66%), than worrying about what other people think of them (39%) and bullying (25%). Feedback to Ofsted also found that over a third of parents don’t think homework in primary school is helpful to their children, calling it a “huge cause of stress” for families.

We’re taking active steps to remove negative ‘emotional heat’ in our school, which is echoed in our approach to reports and our policy for language used to describe behaviour – the two of which help to encourage self-belief and prevent teachers putting pupils into categories such as ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Rather than being ‘soft’, we’re stopping our pupils from feeling unhelpful emotions such as guilt and staving off the vicious cycle of anger that can follow – emotions that can, when left untreated or unsupported, derail a student’s progression.

Homework has long been a topic of heated debate among academic professionals, but recent feedback from parents and children shows why now really is the time to change.

Eleven per cent of parents in the UK spend an hour a day helping their children with homework, according to a survey


The solution

Current homework tasks require pupils to complete written work with all their notes in front of them. Instead, as our default style of homework, we encourage the practice of ‘split homework’. Here, students spend half of their time revising. Then, for the second half of their homework, they’re set a brief written task to complete under timed conditions with their books closed.

The benefits of this approach to homework are threefold:

● It encourages students to revise as they study, rather than leaving revision to the run up to examinations.
● It enables students to routinely practice working under examination conditions.
● It forces students to retrieve what they have just learned, which aids genuine understanding and, most importantly, helps transfer knowledge into the long-term memory.

In addition to these benefits, the split homework approach also provides teachers with a much more accurate assessment of progress, as well as providing an early ‘alarm bell’ regarding any issues individual pupils may have with the examination process.

With this split structure, homework serves a real purpose. It helps move schools away from the unhappy situation where homework is something teachers feel they must set and students feel they must complete, but neither really experience much practical benefit from it. It moves homework from being a piece of extrinsic cognitive load – ie an unhelpful burden – to being a genuine intrinsic cognitive load – ie a challenge that builds student knowledge, skills and confidence, and provides teachers with genuinely useful data.

Concentrating on what really works rather than on what is expected

What this, and everything in our Minerva programme boils down to, is putting genuine effectiveness over doing things because they are expected or are perceived as the right thing to do. When I shared my views on finding the use of the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ unhelpful when dealing with pupil behaviour, the national press had a field day – as did various known commentators ranging from Piers Morgan to David Mitchell.

This as a classic example of perception (and lazy thinking) trumping a rational consideration of what actually works toward the goal of nurturing the hard working and happy adults of the future.

The media angle soon switched to one that argued whether I was ‘woke’ or a ‘traditionalist’. This distinction between progressive and traditional education styles is spectacularly crude, out of date and unhelpful – instead, I’d prefer to debate the distinction between what we might call ‘rationalists’ and ‘behaviourists’.

In that debate, I am firmly on the side of the behaviourists. That is, I believe that learners’ mindset is improved by altering their environment and habits rather than by lecturing them about how they should be working and thinking.

I had exactly the same experience a few years ago, when we abandoned traditional reports in favour of stripped down progress cards that provide brief but to-the-point information on where the student is performing in relation to their personal targets and SMART targets on what they need to do over the coming half-term. At the time I was criticised for taking the ‘warmth’ and ‘personal touch’ out of reports, but my point was that a teacher and a school who rely on reports to convey a sense of warmth have already failed.

At Amherst we convey warmth by sending personal emails to students and their parents congratulating them on their personal achievements. When it comes to reports we focus on their proper function, conveying crystal clear information on student progress and SMART targets for next steps.

In a society that now places such a great premium on individuality and free expression, where do schools sit in this aim? For the last few decades, educators have worked harder than at any point in our history on nurturing creativity, resilience and happiness in our young people, and the results so far are not broadly encouraging.

We need to do things differently, and that means moving from a learning culture that simply exhorts students to be more creative and confident to one that examines every aspect of its working practices in order to create systems and routines that actually create more impressive learner behaviours.

We’re pleased to say that our Minerva culture is already showcasing heartening results, and the ethos behind the programme has certainly got academics and psychologists, parents and celebrities talking!

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