Father: What’s all those books then?
Son: That’s my homework dad.
Father: You know what son, if they can’t teach you all the stuff you need to know during the day, they can’t be very good at their jobs can they?

How To Teach p170

Homework. The word clangs with leaden dread, doesn’t it? I hated it when I was a kid and I’m not too keen now I’m a teacher. Parents seem very keen on it and are quick to let schools know if an insufficient quantity of it is being sent home on a daily basis. Clearly, this is one potential strength of homework; it encourages a certain amount of parent-teacher dialogue. But is this reason enough to continue setting the stuff?
Phil Beadle, has this to say: “Our workload is absurd enough without the existence of homework. Homework tips the work required from a teacher somewhere beyond the absurd into the abject, the surreal even.” Quite.
As an English teacher, I find that the demands of homework can be particularly onerous. The thought of marking 32 essays per class per week is enough to give anyone the heebie geebies. So what are the options?

  1. Set it, mark it, go mad.
  2. Set it but don’t mark it properly
  3. Set ‘thinking’ or ‘research’ tasks that don’t require any marking
  4. Don’t set any

OK, let’s have a look at these positions:

  1. This is only an option if you teach a subject like maths where it’s easy to get students to peer assess their work. In subjects like English, history etc. the workload involved in formatively assessing extended writing properly is crushing. Something has to give – don’t let it be your sanity.
  2. I think this is the very worst option. Ticking and flicking students’ work devalues it and shows a lack of respect for the effort the little loves have put into that 27 page story they’ve lovingly laboured over. This is a surefire way to switch off your students. If you can’t be bothered, why should they? This is clearly supported by the findings of Marzano, Pickering and Pollock who spell out the detrimental impact of unmarked homework. So don’t do it!
  3. Now this one has possibilities.It does, however, beg the question of whether you’re setting homework simply for the sake of having set some homework. If you work under a regime where your setting of homework is monitored and failure to comply results in metaphorical beatings from the homework Stasi then this might be the best option for you.
  4. Gasp! No homework! Heresy! Well, interestingly, educational researcher, John Hattie was seeking to identify factors which had positive impact on children’s learning: guess what he found? Homework has no significant positive impact at all. There is “zero evidence” that it promotes time management or study skills and while there can be advantages for the most able, it actually has a negative impact on the less able, reinforcing their negative self-esteem. In addition he hammers a nail into the coffin of homework in a primary setting stating that, the younger the child, the less benefit and more potential harm there is in doing homework.

Interestingly, the amount of homework a student has to do seems to have a direct impact on how effective it is. Cooper, Robinson and Patall say that if too much is set any ‘positive relationship with achievement diminishes’.
Homework also throws up the age old chestnut of what to do with the kids who don’t do it. The traditional view is that the blighters should be punished with a swift detention. This is turn adds to the beleaguered teacher’s already groaningly ponderous workload.
Phil has this advice to offer:

I set the kids homework, letting them know that it was entirely at their discretion if they did it. If they did it I would mark it with a degree of passion and interest but if they didn’t, I wouldn’t chase them up for it. This spared up acres of time, relieved a substantial plop of unnecessary stress and affected the kids’ attainment how much? Not one jot.

And this is the approach I favour. And I’m always amazed at the number of students who decide to do it. Most importantly perhaps, the quality of what you do get handed in is far superior – there’s simply no point to scribbling it on the back of the bus. If the optional homework’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.
In my faculty we have moved towards Independent Learning Tasks which are published at the start of the year with deadlines, success criteria, resources etc. Students are given a choice of tasks ranging from writing a story, to research a topic to making or drawing something. The idea is that there is something for everyone which will hopefully make it more engaging. This fits with what Hattie says we should be doing if we are going to set homework (or homelearning as it has now been rebranded).
So, with September upon us, now seems a good time to decide on what your homework policy for the coming year will be.
Related articles
Alfie Kohn – The Homework Myth