This week’s topic is a bugbear for many parents where nights are spent helping a tearful child cope with homework in the form of a sheet of activities that need to be completed by the end of the week. The activities usually include some Mathematics and English questions as well as small puzzles. Your child usually doesn’t want to do the sheets and it becomes a point of contention in the household. If your child happens to be coping well at school, the homework sheet may be completed quickly on a Monday night and then there is no ongoing homework for the remainder of the week.
So why do we have these sheets coming home from the school each week? There are many reasons. Here are 3 of the main ones:
- The traditional notion of homework that came from an era of rote learning. After just a single generation, it was accepted that homework was a part of school life. Now it is so ubiquitous that a school that does not set homework can be perceived as not doing their job properly.
- Most schools still use an approach to learning that is very much about following a process ( I will look at the positives and negatives of this approach to learning in a future article). This means students are taught a set of steps to completing a task (e.g. short division, or structuring a persuasive piece of writing). The students practise the steps until they can do it without thinking. Such an approach means that these processes need to be revisited regularly (It’s called “spaced repetition”). One way to make this happen is to provide the repetition through homework sheets.
- There just isn’t time for teachers to produce better homework. This is a big issue for teachers and schools. Teachers typically spend at least 50 hours a week preparing and running classes. For them to produce a better quality of homework tasks can easily add another 3 – 4 hours a week. It is no wonder they reach for the generic homework sheets produced by third party companies.
I am not a strong believer in these homework sheets and believe there are far better ways to support the learning of children at home. I have concerns with both the structure and effectiveness of them as an aid to learning and believe that they can actually have a negative impact on learning for many students. Outlining these concerns is beyond the scope of this blog but it is worth doing a brief examination of the homework sheet through the lens of the students who need to complete them.
To keep it simple let’s look at homework sheets as experienced by just 3 levels of students in a typical class as follows:
- The underachievers (those that find the work easy – they could be going a lot further and so are underachieving).
These students complete their homework sheets quickly – sometimes even completing it at school. The homework is rarely challenging and is seen as a busy task for them. Such students get no value from the content of the homework. They may get a small benefit from habit of completing it each week.
- The Baby Bears (From Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Baby Bear had everything just at the right level for Goldilocks.)
These students get the best benefit from the homework. The homework is challenging without being impossible and they need to work hard to complete it. In a typical class, this would account for around half the students.
- The downcast ( these students are often at a level lower than their peers. Because of this they have a poor view of themselves as learners.)They get very little benefit from homework and, in fact, it is likely to do more harm than good. These students have low opinions of themselves as learners and have little motivation. Getting homework questions that are usually too hard only serves to reinforce their poor opinion of themselves and increase their sense of failure.
From the above groups, the homework sheet is only effective for about half the students in a class. This seems a fairly low return and I believe there are far better ways to give students homework. What do you think?
Next week we will be looking at what can be done at home to assist our children with homework. What do we do when we don’t know what to do ourselves?