Do We Need to Re-think Homework?

09/09/2016 10:36

We wake, bleary-eyed, in darkness, and fumble for the alarm clock to put an end to its incessant whining and return to slumber: too late. Its screeching and screaming has done its job and we are forced to rise, unsteadily, and make our way to the bathroom. Washed and dressed, if we are lucky enough to have the time, we breakfast, then ready our things and head out the door, en route to a day of work. We're used to the journey; to the jams, delays and cancellations. We arrive at work tired, already exhausted by the marathon we were forced to take part in to get here; not to mention the weight of our lunch boxes, our books, our PE kits, well, no, a handbag, a briefcase, a rucksack with a tablet or some documents, maybe, but not, proportionately or otherwise, the weight that children have to carry.

We're no longer straight-jacketed by the 9 to 5 but that remains the ideal of the average 35-hour week. For our children, it's not dissimilar; an 8:30 start, a 3:30 finish - an hour shorter, yes, but then there's the completion of work not finished in class, detentions and the enrichment provision; the sports, arts and languages clubs - fantastic opportunities that make up for that hour's discrepancy.

Of course, some adults take work home with them. The difference is that most children do because of homework. They're younger, they tire more easily, they go to bed earlier - they have less time to recharge their batteries before repeating the same pattern the following day. It means fewer hours of quality time with family, fewer moments of daylight to learn informally. Should we then scrap homework? Should we give our young people greater opportunity not to be burdened by demands, by responsibility, given the demands and responsibilities that will be forced upon them when they reach adulthood?

Homework can be hugely beneficial. When a teacher sets homework as revision for a test, it's exactly the reminder less-willing students need and the encouragement the enthusiastic crave. When it's a longer-term project; encouraging students to develop their talents and ideas, it's enriching and valuable. We set homework, confident in the widely-held belief that more homework means greater exam success. We hope that homework is representative of a willingness to invest in the future, in the nation's economic prospects. But the best homework is about more than the realisation of exam success; it is set to foster an independent work ethic, develop critical thinking skills and solve problems without undue support. These are the skills we must encourage amongst our young people if they are to leave school with what they need to thrive.

Academic research on homework doesn't paint a clear picture as to its benefits. One research brief on educational and developmental outcomes states that students who typically do two to three hours of homework each night are more likely to achieve better GCSE results. Given the average number of lessons in a British secondary school equals approximately five hours each day, two to three hours of homework each night means students are doing an extra two to three school days' worth of hours each week. The evidence is not clear as to whether these extra hours have the same educational benefit as two to three days in school and, if they don't, should we be restricting our children's leisure time with tasks that give a proportionately lower return on their investment? At primary level, the benefits of homework are even less evident. A Norwegian study found no association between homework in primary education and success in high school. So the argument that homework is necessary is at best questionable.

So why do schools set homework? Parents are often considered in favour, sometimes seeing homework as an indicator of how good a school is. There is a belief, as Professor Susan Hallam notes, that if you want to 'raise standards', you give more homework. However, the OECD, which conducts the standard-setting PISA tests, concludes 'that the average number of hours that students spend on homework [...] tends to be unrelated to the school system's overall performance. This implies that other factors, such as the quality of instruction and how schools are organised, have a greater impact'. One study even suggests that homework can amplify existing inequalities as higher educated parents are more willing to help with homework than parents who are less well educated. Rønning's 2011 investigation supports Francois Hollande's claim that educational equality cannot be achieved when homework is set as it can help to reinforce such socio-economic disparities.

With a myriad of factors such as quality of teaching, socio-economic background, class size and classroom environment to consider, the precise benefits of homework remain, at best, unclear. Doing more work is generally beneficial, but when does more become too much? At present, the setting of homework is too casual. It has too much of an impact on young people's lives to assume that what we've been doing is right and it is overly simplistic to claim more homework helps students achieve higher scores. Perhaps we should borrow from the skill set we ought to be encouraging amongst our young people and critically consider a new set of questions. How much do we learn through formal education away from school? Is homework limiting our opportunities for informal learning and thus counterproductive? We must remember that our students are children and, curriculum burdens asides, they have to be at the heart of any decision we make. If we want them to enjoy their youth and not have to grow up too soon, we must prepare them for, but not force them into, the work patterns we must follow as adults.