September 10, 2018, by Rupert Knight
Homework – what is it and is this what we really want it to be?
Homework is an increasingly commonplace activity in the UK’s primary schools and thus in homes across the land. In this post, Rachel Lehner-Mear considers how homework is currently conducted and asks whether there might be a better approach.
Why are we setting homework?
As the new school year gets under way, the practice of setting homework for primary aged children will raise its head again in classrooms and households across the country. As teachers scrabble to locate or create tasks which can be sent home, parents will echo the communal cry “have you got any homework today?”
Although most of the current cohort of primary school teachers and parents will not have had formal homework themselves at primary age (aside from perhaps a school reading book), homework as a substantive approach to developing primary children’s skills and improving their learning has gained momentum since the late 1990s, embedded as it is within a range of debates such as the call for increased parental involvement in education and the performativity and accountability agendas now directed at all schools. Ofsted expectations that ‘outstanding’ schools ‘set challenging homework’ (Ofsted Handbook) and government policy which advocates parental responsibility for even the youngest child’s educational development, all play into creating pressures both for primary schools to set homework and for parents to support its completion.
Indeed, the Millenium Cohort Study, which tracks the experiences of 19,000 children born in the Year 2000, reported in 2010 that 98% of 7 year olds in the cohort were in receipt of regular homework. That’s a lot of children, a lot of homework tasks set, and a lot of additional pupil hours spent focussing on schoolwork outside the school day.
So, as a nation, we must be pretty sure that homework is really important and effective … mustn’t we …?
What is homework?
Despite the tide in favour of setting homework, as a practice it remains ‘woolly’. Because governments have always left the decision about what homework ‘looks like’ down to individual schools (indeed, in 2012 the reins were further loosened when the suggested targets for each year group’s time on homework were abandoned from official policy), often speaking more generally of its importance for encouraging parental involvement and developing broader skills like independence and self-motivation, typical primary school homework tasks can vary enormously in design, expectations, length and frequency.
Some schools set highly structured, school-like tasks such as spellings, worksheets and times tables; some offer a range of pick-and-choose tasks, or set projects on class topics; still others, have ‘farmed out’ homework to online programmes, like maths-based ones which require rehearsal and speedy recall of skills and facts. The purpose of each of these homework ‘forms’ varies widely, as do the resources and time required to complete them (and that’s before we consider the thorny question of whether they actually achieve what was intended). Even the level of expected parental engagement could be wildly different task-to-task. What counts as homework in one school, for one group of children and their parents, can be hugely different to that which is experienced by pupils and parents in neighbouring schools. This can even vary teacher to teacher, especially where Heads have devolved decision making about homework practices from a whole school approach down to individual teachers. Homework is both commonly practised and huge in its variation.
Research by Medwell and Wray (2018) which asked teachers what homework was for and then investigated what they actually set, revealed that across the profession there are discrepancies not only in what teachers think about homework, but in what they believe its function to be, with some professionals even stating homework’s purpose as one thing whilst setting tasks which cannot fulfil the outcome they are seeking. Homework is, then, something of a confused and confusing beast.
What is the confusion around homework?
On the surface homework appears simple and obvious: it is work set by the teacher, which, in the primary years at least, is carried out at home, often with parental support. Yet my own recent research into mothers’ views revealed a wide spectrum of beliefs about homework, to which mothers ascribed many different purposes. Some even claimed its absence from their child’s life would cause serious disadvantage in later years, both educationally and personally.
This confusion about what homework is for, or what it should look like, is underscored by social disquiet in the practice itself. Media articles about the value and appropriateness of homework appear periodically in both the popular and broadsheet papers, with emotive titles like ‘Homework Damages Primary Age Pupils’ (The Telegraph, 2014). Anyone who casually asks a group of parents what they think of homework cannot fail to notice the strength of feeling that arises, both from those in favour of it and those against. Homework is widespread and yet it is simultaneously contentious.
Here, then, is the conundrum: why do ‘we’ (governments, teachers, parents) think these many, varied and perhaps contentious activities will achieve such critical things? Homework is something we feel we should ‘do’ but we haven’t really decided what we want it to ‘be’.
So what does the academic literature tell us?
Since less research has been carried out into primary homework than secondary, the picture we have is somewhat incomplete, though what has been studied, on balance, gives homework a negative report. Respected names in the field tend to agree that primary homework’s impact, on academic outcomes at least, is highly limited. The ‘father’ of US homework research, Harris Cooper, in his book aimed at education professionals, The Battle Over Homework, concluded that primary homework’s effect on learning was ‘trivial’, whilst respected UK educationalist John Hattie told BBC Radio 4 programme The Educators that primary homework’s impact is ‘around zero’. (You can listen to his reasons in this podcast). Indeed, there is a wide and growing popular literature, some of it written by academics, which argues for the deathknell of primary homework altogether. (See texts by Alfie Kohn, Etta Kralovec and John Buell, and others). Yet still the practice continues, as though its relevance has been undeniably proved. It is as though we have all simply said homework? Quod erat demonstrandum!
As all those young children across the country settle down tonight at the kitchen table, in their bedroom, or kneeling on the living room floor, their books open and their pencils poised, let us as professionals give careful thought towards what we are trying to achieve with these daily, or weekly homework challenges. I acknowledge that, despite its unconvincing pedagogic standing, there are huge pressures on teachers to conform to expectations for setting homework. However, perhaps it is worthwhile taking hold of its current ‘non statutory’ status to make it work for children. In the absence of any data which shows that current primary homework practices have an impact on learning, let us stand aside from the downward pressure to set homework ‘for homework’s sake’ – because this satisfies only government policy, Ofsted expectations and traditional school practices – and instead protect the young minds in our care from learning only that homework is a chore. Let us use homework, instead, for something different, something that is, dare I say it, fun?
As practitioners who wish to develop young minds, and in the absence of a statutory obligation to produce a certain ‘type’ of homework, we can, I feel certain, devise tasks which will inspire children. After all, wouldn’t that answer the question of what homework should be?
If you have tried out innovative homework practices which have inspired the pupils in your class, please share them here!
Cooper, H (2007), The Battle over Homework, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
Hattie, J (2014), The Educators. Podcast. 20th August 2014. London: BBC
Lehner-Mear, R (under review), Good Mother, Bad Mother? Revealing Mother Perspectives on Primary School Homework
Medwell, J and Wray, D (2018), Primary Homework in England: the beliefs and practices of teachers in primary schools, Education 3-13, DOI:10.1080/03004279.2017.1421999
Ofsted (2018), School Inspection Handbook: Handbook for inspecting schools in England under section 5 of the Education Act 2005, Manchester: Ofsted
The Millennium Cohort Study website can be found here.