The issues surrounding homework have been the subject of lively debate and discussion for many years. There are a multiplicity of views encompassing the full range across a spectrum from absolutely no homework to ‘the more the merrier’ where ‘time on task’ is regarded as the criteria of success.
In our School community, parents and staff have high expectations for their children and want them to do well. All parents have their own school experiences that are drawn upon. Education/teaching is one of the few professions where nearly all those who deal with us, be they older children or parents, have years of experience in interacting with our profession. This is not the case for doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, nurses, media et al. That brings a familiarity that is occasionally frustrating and usually a Godsend.
I trained as a teacher over 35 years ago and at that time my training included nothing about the neuroscience of how children learned. The growth in this area over my career has been astronomical. It now drives much of what is done in good classrooms and is the subject of much pure science research and research associated with its application in learning situations. It is beginning to enter the popular community culture through the works of authors such as Malcolm Gladwell and Matthew Syed; the latter being the author of Bounce. As a result of much of this research being so new in a relative sense, many people struggle with the tension created between the cultural norms they experienced at school and what the research might now tell us is or is not so appropriate.
The example I am interested to discuss in this piece is homework. The research has become clearer in recent years.
Proponents of homework suggest that homework is positive as it leads to:
Better retention of factual knowledge
Better study habits and skills
Parental involvement with their children regarding learning
Parental involvement with teachers regarding their child’s learning
Improved time management
Greater levels of inquisitiveness
Greater independent problem solving
Opponents of homework point to the following negatives aspects:
Loss of interest in academic matters through overload
Physical and emotional fatigue
Denial of time to pursue other skills, interests and activities, especially in recent times, physical activity
Builds undue pressure to compete and perform well
Leads to parental confusion as to how best support their children
Low supervision can lead to copying from others or cheating
As educators and school leaders, we (TKS staff) are driven by good research. It is always treated with the practical scepticism that experienced teachers and educators bring to the situation. We are knowledgeable at what can work in a school, sometimes opposed to the theoretical purity of the research and thus are aware of the rewards and risks involved in homework. The key to maximise the rewards and minimise the risks is in the preparation, careful setting of, and feedback on homework in the context of the age and developmental stage and needs of the child.
Professor John Hattie from Melbourne University and currently Chair of the Board of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership has conducted an analysis of over 160 studies on homework, incorporating over 100,000 students in a number of countries.
The conclusions from these studies show clear trends but these trends are not necessarily what is appropriate for each child. Only parents and teachers can determine what is ‘just right’ for a child or a group of students. They are however, indicative of what is generally appropriate.
This analysis by Hattie of these 161 studies shows that positive effects can be gained for secondary students. Hattie describes an ‘effect size’, (the efficacy of the item under analysis) of less than 0.2 as small, between 0.3 and 0.6 as medium and above 0.6 as large. The effect size found for homework was 0.29 overall. It was higher for high school students and lower for primary school students.
One of the studies that Hattie considered was a major analysis by Cooper, Robinson and Patall (2006). They found that high school students gained an effect size of 0.5 for homework, describing high school students as less likely to be distracted completing homework and to be more likely to be old enough to have been taught good study habits and to have developed better self-regulation and monitoring of their time and work. Therefore it is important that parents and staff work cooperatively with students to ensure that students build the skills and attitudes of a growth mindset, (a focus on quality practice, improvement and effort) that will see them successful at study, both at home and school.
The research for younger primary-age students shows a low effect size for homework. Homework as it has traditionally been done (and thus reported in Hattie’s analysis of the 161 studies) has not been especially effective when looking across large groups of students. This is not to say that homework is ineffective for all students, nor ineffective all the time, just that the overall effect is low.
This is a finding that provides us all with an opportunity to review what we do and work to build better opportunities for young students to learn successfully at home and school, to interact with important adults outside of school and to build the skills, knowledge and attitudes of growth, improvement and focus that will see them successful in secondary schooling and beyond.
Alanne, Naomi & Macgregor, Rupert. (revised by Macgregor, Isabelle): 2009. Homework: What are the upsides and downsides? Available at: http://www.familyschool.org.au/files/1913/7955/4766/homework090710.pdf
Hattie, John AL: 2012. Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge