Tags: Classroom Teacher | Curriculum Development | Homework | Teaching & Learning | Teaching & Learning Coordinator

Knowing what to do – and knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do – are essential parts of the learner’s toolkit. Dr Patrick Hazlewood questions the validity of ‘homework’ as an instrument for effective learning.

In January 2005 several national newspapers, BBC and Sky TV and various media across the world, carried the headlines along the lines of ‘The Head who Banned Homework’. Sensational news! No longer would children be required to give up leisure time to undertake boring, repetitive tasks set because that’s what parents expect. This was also a huge relief for teachers, who no longer faced the prospect of countless books to mark, albeit with cursory glances. No longer the battle at home surrounding the ‘homework monster’; the regular dialogue, ‘Where’s your homework?’, ‘I haven’t got any’, ‘Why not?’, ‘…wasn’t given any’, banished forever!

I have never failed to be amazed by the ability of the media to take a section of a sentence and create an entirely false representation of the actual context. The ‘true story’ emerged during an Information Evening for parents about the detail of the St John’s Community College alternative to the National Curriculum (headline in 2001: ‘The Head who Threw Out the National Curriculum’!). This curriculum, detailed in several previous issues of TEX, challenged students to take responsibility for their own learning, to develop core skills/competences including learning how to learn, managing information, managing situations, relating to people and comprehending the global community.

During the Information Evening, I raised the issue of homework.Traditionally it is set according to a timetable that recommends 20 minutes per night for up to three subjects. Why? The usual answer is that it reinforces work from the day’s lessons, encourages positive study skills, revises concepts, provides practice, aids learning and so on. However, there is relatively little evidence, if any, that this is actually true. Certainly as examinations and related courses emerge over the horizon, there is a need to supplement class/taught time with additional work at home. The evidence that homework is of benefit in the earlier years of schooling is scant, particularly in terms of real learning and motivation for learning.

In these days of constant pressure to raise standards and achieve ever higher results, the balance of a perspective that defines what children really need, is tilted. Play has always been understood to be one of the most effective learning strategies that humans have. In the world of education, in this country and in others, play has been supplanted by the ‘working all hours’ concept. There is a major problem with this; the most effective learning is probably that which the learner owns or undertakes because it has meaning and relevance to them personally. Imposition of work, or indeed anything at all, very often provokes a negative response.

This is in large part why homework becomes a centre of conflict for many children at home and school. In homes where parents are concerned to help their children to do their best, the act of doing homework takes on the status of a major issue. In reality, the parent is relatively helpless if the child doesn’t divulge what the homework is and it therefore becomes a parent/school conflict! At school the conflict continues. If homework isn’t done, admonishment, detention or extra work all become synonymous with a failure to comply. Conflict between student and teacher invariably flows with a feeling of resentment on the part of one and irritation on the part of the other. The scene is set for further and deeper conflict, which brings its own cycle of de-motivation for the child and overwork for the teacher… and we still haven’t established the validity of ‘homework’ as an instrument for effective learning!

There is also the matter of differentiation by quality of parenting. Whilst schools strive hard to give all children equal access to the curriculum and educational opportunity, the perspective at home is very often at odds. Busy, overworked parents, or parents in disadvantaged circumstances, may find the idea of homework acceptable, but supporting it and ensuring its completion is an entirely different matter.

Imagine a world in which children went home and continued to work because they wanted to, because it was their choice and they determined what it was that should be pursued. Homework in its traditional sense refutes this model because of a pre-determination of learning content (the National Curriculum) and yet, if the learner is to be stimulated and motivated to learn in breadth and depth it has a compelling logic. More so if it is given a contextual structure that asks the student to prepare for the lesson tomorrow in a way that not only suits them but also ensures an effective contribution to the lessons ahead.

This was the challenge for St John’s as we considered further developments of the curriculum. The alternative approach to the curriculum, described as ‘rather like opening a book and being captivated by the story’, emphasises coherence, continuity, integration of ‘subjects’ and all teachers who teach the child knowing what has been covered. This approach recognises no barrier to the learning experience. In theory, the lesson has neither beginning nor end. When the end of the day arrives there is no reason why learning should end. For the learner, the question becomes, ‘What do you need to do tonight in preparation for the learning tomorrow?’ For each individual that can be the same or it could be different. Most importantly it is a question owned by the student not imposed by the teacher.The emphasis on teamwork,relating to people and collective responsibility for learning, also places the onus on the individual to prepare properly in order not to let one’s peers down.

Part of the experiment involved collapsing whole days for students to work at home; this included holiday time. The outcomes were truly amazing. Not only did nearly every child (248 out of 250) complete the task, but also the creativity and quality of these ‘extended tasks’ surpassed anything we could have expected. High levels of interest and motivation, involvement by parents caught up in the enthusiasm of the child, quality of work beyond the child’s normal level were all outcomes. We also received parental complaints but this time they were to do with too much homework (even though we hadn’t set a minimum or maximum expectation) and the fact that several of the children wanted to continue with their research rather than go out with parents or friends.

The work was brought into school for tutor groups to appraise and praise each other’s work. Peer assessment emerged as a very powerful motivator and as inspiration for many. The display of completed work filled the first floor notice boards and many parents came to share the experience. Interestingly, not because they wanted to see their own child’s work, but because they wanted to see everyone else’s!

We have tried several approaches to ‘work at home’, including setting a suggested programme for a six-week period and setting no formal homework at all. These have been largely successful, although the latter proved to be ‘a lot’ rather than ‘none’. There remains an inherent problem however, and that surrounds the use of the word ‘work’. Work implies something that has to be done, that is somehow laborious, possibly tedious and certainly tiring. What we aspire towards is learning being fun, active, invigorating, fulfilling, compelling and engaging. It is primarily a personal thing, even though others may share or contribute to the learning situation. There is no doubt that it will sometimes be hard and frustrating, but the skills and competences derived from our Alternative Curriculum emphasise strategies that can solve problems and manage such situations.

Homework has proved to have a deep effect on the psyche of many generations of learners, both here and across the globe. In the days following the headlines of last year, I received many emails and letters applauding my courage and recounting memories of homework past and wasted time. I felt rather fraudulent in that I hadn’t advocated ‘banning homework’, but rather expressed the view that learners in the 21st century needed to be precisely that. Real and effective learning must have a significant element of personal commitment; the classroom or learning environment must therefore emphasise mutual collaboration, personal responsibility and critical self-analysis. Knowing what to do and knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do, are essential parts of the learner’s toolkit. Imposition of work, either at home or school, does not ultimately encourage these skills; far better to engage the question ‘what should we study tomorrow?’ and ‘What do you need to do to prepare yourself?’

It may sound heretical, but it works very effectively and throughout the age range! TEX

Dr Patrick Hazlewood has been the Headteacher at St John’s School and Community College in Marlborough (Wiltshire) since 1996. He was previously Head of Pool School and Community College in Cornwall for five years. Dr Hazlewood has a PhD in the effective management of secondary schools (Exeter University 1994) and has been involved in Curriculum Innovation since 1983, including Global Education and Science Teaching (University of York 1983-1992). He has been a Fellow of the RSA since 1994 (Opening Minds 1999 to date). www.stjohns.wilts.sch.uk

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