It’s one of education’s oldest debates and for every impassioned response or perspective for one side, there is an equally engaging one for the other.
I have read many reports and research articles published, most of which emanate from Europe and the USA, into the value and worth of homework. I can’t promise any definitive resolution to this heated debate, but at the very least let’s take some time to explore both sides of the argument.
What are the arguments for and against?
Proponents of homework have always emphasised its academic benefits, particularly with respect to:
- Deepening content knowledge
- Embedding key skills and competencies
- Developing sound study habits
Supporters also suggest the opportunity for parents to engage with their children should not be overlooked - perhaps something more pertinent for the younger years of primary and junior secondary up to Year 10.
On the other side of the fence, opponents to regular homework tasks argue that it creates and adds unnecessary stress, anxiety and pressure. They also dispute its academic benefits and suggest the time spent on homework tasks could and should be better spent on acquiring and developing other more important life skills. As for parental involvement, opponents argue that homework more often than not in most households actually fuels the fires of discontent and stress, rather than providing or leading to an idyllic sense of engaging parents in the learning process.
John Buell (2004) states: “…for a practice as solidly entrenched as homework, the scholarly case on its behalf is surprisingly weak and even (at times) contradictory.”
A book published in 2012 by two academics: Associate Professor Richard Walker and Professor Michael Horsley, Reforming Homework, summarises the confused state of things fairly nicely for us:
'Researchers have variously concluded that homework is beneficial (Cooper et al.) or harmful (various), that homework has no effects (Kohn), that it has complex effects or that the research is too sparse or too problematic to be able to justify the drawing of strong conclusions.'
So, is there any place for homework?
Probably... if it’s done correctly.
Professor John Hattie, of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education in Australia, has suggested that there is a place for homework tasks in a secondary context which aim to reinforce what has been learned, as opposed to tasks designed simply to learn new content:
“The worst thing you can do with homework is give kids projects; the best thing you can do is to reinforce something you've already learnt”, says Hattie.
All well and good, and few would probably argue against the benefits of repetition and practice as opposed to monolithic projects designed more-so to keep students busy.
It is also noted that teachers who provide regular feedback and map their students’ progress through homework tasks are more likely to have compliant students who regularly complete all set tasks. While that in itself is not surprising, we all know how difficult it is to maintain the enthusiasm and commitment for targeted feedback.
A burning question often follows though - if I do, how much homework should I set?
How much is too much?
While OECD data suggests an average of 4.9 hours per week, it also suggests that school kids in the UK get more homework than many other European countries (just a tip - don’t let your students know that!) While many institutions and individual schools set guidelines as to how much homework is appropriate, there is inconclusive research to advise schools. Much of it is based on local knowledge and context. In one of my past life experiences I set this as the expectation:
- Year 7 - 8: 60 minutes
- Year 9 - 10: 90 minutes
- Year 11: 2 hours
- Year 12 - 13: 3 hours
Looking back I realise now that this was all about quantity and had nothing to do with quality. Knowing what we know now about differentiated learning needs and how different each individual learning experience is, it all seems rather inadequate, with no thought given to the outcomes expected.
With a little more curriculum leadership under my belt I worked out that homework tasks in Mathematics or Science where formulae are best learned through practice, have a greater relevance and worth, as opposed to say my subject area - History, or English, where the best learning is through feedback on writing tasks.
Are we wasting everyone’s time?
Interestingly, the following points were made in a 2011 inquiry, ‘Are we wasting our children’s time by giving them more homework?’ It’s worth a read if you’re still sitting on the fence:
- Successful schools see education as a collaborative process between the student, parent and the school, and consider parents to be ‘partners’ in their children’s education. Schools that assist parents in providing support to their children tend to have better educational outcomes.
- Homework can reduce the amount of time available to pursue other activities and interests which may have equal or greater long term benefit.
- Measuring homework by the time spent doing it is an imprecise and inadequate measure that does not take into account the quality of the work, the ability of the student or, increasingly importantly, student access to technology.
- Feedback on homework is a crucial step in the learning process and without timely feedback some of the learning benefits of homework may be reduced.
So the debate continues and whilst we are hesitant to come to a definitive conclusion it’s clear that we should seriously consider whether the way we have been doing things is necessarily the way we should be doing things.
Buell, J. (2004). Closing the book on homework: Enhancing public education and freeing family time. Temple University Press.
Eren, O., & Henderson, D.J. (2011). ‘Are we wasting our children’s time by giving them more homework?’ Economics of Education Review 5(30).
Horsley, M., & Walker, R. (2013). Reforming homework: practices, learning and policy. Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan.