About homework

The research says that homework at primary school level is not effective in improving learning. (At lower secondary levels, it is claimed to have ‘modest’ benefits while at upper secondary  levels it has ‘definite’ benefits.) Against this, some argue that homework plays a role in helping children to accept personal responsibility about learning, and that it helps to create study habits and discipline.

Yet parents will say that homework is a huge source of parent-child conflict. Family life is much more frenetic these days: often both parents work and children play sport or engage in other extra-curricular activities after school. Simply finding the necessary time to do the homework becomes problematic.

And the nature of the homework can cause further stress. Where children are asked to work on large-scale projects at home, sometimes without adequate scaffolding, it can be the parents who assume the burden of research and completion. A question of equity arises here, too. Clearly if you’re the child in the middle-class, educated family then you will have access to resources that a child in another kind of family might not. Teachers face an ethical and practical dilemma when presented with work that they do not believe the child has completed without assistance. Do they simply turn a blind eye rather than risk a confrontation with the parent who has been so involved?

If homework is set and then not completed by the children, this sets up another conflict situation as teachers have to ‘follow through’. Worse, of course, from the child’s point of view, is when completed homework is not checked or reviewed by the teacher and seems, therefore, to have been a complete waste of time.

So given all the associated angst and doubtful value, why do primary schools persist in setting homework?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that parents, paradoxically, demand that their children have homework and are anxious if none is set. They somehow think that the more homework that a child has to do, the more it is clear that this is a school which values academic rigour. Of course that is not necessarily the case. It all depends on the kind of homework that is being set.

The challenge for teachers is to make homework meaningful, to make it consistent and connected with the learning that is happening in the classroom. Asking primary children to spend some home time reading and practising tables might seem a generalised kind of approach, but the benefits of time spent in both of these activities is well documented and will have flow-on effects in other aspects of learning. If the school policy states that other homework has to be set, the activities – like the activities that occur in the classroom – need to be differentiated and able to be completed within a comfortable period of time.  What that is, is up for argument, but most educationalists seem to agree that around 30 minutes of homework for a child in Years 3 – 6 is manageable.

Ideally  the completion of these activities, as well as being seen by children to be worthwhile, should also yield useful formative assessment information for the teacher.  Planning for homework, therefore, will result in a carefully  considered and scaffolded activity that not only provides the child with a degree of challenge but will also reveal information about what the child knows, understands and is able to do, in relation to the learning that takes place in the classroom.

From the parental point of view, conflict can be alleviated by the establishment of a homework routine that includes being clear about when and where the homework will happen. Parents can talk with their children about their reading, ask questions and use some of the well-documented comprehension strategies such as predicting and visualising.They can also inject some fun and variation  into the learning of tables. Where learning a spelling list is the set homework, parents can engage students in activities that go beyond rote learning in order to improve the likelihood of children actually remembering the spelling beyond tomorrow’s test. See my previous blog on this topic.

Buzz words in education: what do they mean?

If you’ve been reading any education blogs and tweets lately, you will no doubt have encountered these buzz words, but what do they mean? Here is a (very quick) guide.

What’s an infographic, for instance?  Essentially, this is a visual summary of an issue, a process or an idea.  They’re popular because of their ability to summarise concisely, but also because they tap into the fact that we know many people are visual learners and prefer their information delivered to them in this form.  Some teachers are not only presenting information like this, but they’re also encouraging their students to use infographics to present their own ideas and information. When the latter happens, they work like graphic organisers and reveal the extent of the student’s  understanding to both the student herself, and to her teacher. Have a look at this (rather detailed) infographic on education in Australia, produced by Edudemic.

Gamification is another buzz word.  It refers to the process of using the elements of games – badges and rewards, a quest, an avatar etc – in curriculum areas as diverse as English, Maths, Humanities and Science.  Essentially gamification is a way of engaging and motivating students, but is also seen to have benefits in terms of strategising and problem-solving.  Gamification needs to be linked to learning intentions in order to be an effective learning tool, and the learning involved in the ‘game’ should be transparent for students if it is to be transferred to other contexts.

Personalised learning is a term that has been around for a while, but seems to be getting increased attention of late. It is a pedagogy that focuses on individual needs, abilities and interests, and shapes the curriculum accordingly to facilitate individual learning. Individual students might have a personalised learning plan, which specifies goals and strategies to be used to achieve them. Personalised learning is closely allied to differentiation which sees teachers planning and using different pedagogies for different groups or individuals.  The teacher might also vary the resources and the assessment activities in order to cater for a range of abilities in her classroom.

Back-channelling occurs when students are engaged in one activity (for example, watching a video or a presentation) and are, at the same time, sharing their thoughts, impressions and questions about that activity with others – via a program such as TodaysMeet.  It’s all pretty exciting!  Check it out here.

BYOD is the acronym that stands for Bring Your Own Device.  Born perhaps out of economic necessity and dressed up later, this is the practice of students bringing their own laptop or, more likely, ipad or tablet or smartphone, to school.  Instead, that is, of the school providing such devices. The practice has some strong advocates.

MOOC is another acronym.  This one stands for Massive Open Online Courses.  MOOCs provide access to free university (and other) courses to an extent hitherto unimagined.  They represent an access to education for many who would otherwise be excluded.  They do not, however, result in a diploma or degree, and recent comments have focussed on the huge numbers of students who drop out, compared with the huge numbers who sign up.

The flipped classroom is one in which, essentially, the delivery of content occurs at home instead of at school.  The teacher prepares a video lecture, for example, and the students watch it at home. Then, in the classroom, the students apply their learning and the teacher – so the argument goes – has increased time to attend to individual needs. This practice is gaining popularity in some parts of the US, although it’s not without its problems:  questions of equity, for example, in terms of the technology that students have access to at home, and the age-old problem of getting students to do the homework.

Social and emotional learning stems from the recognition that if students are not happy, not coping with life in general, then it’s very difficult for learning to occur.  Many schools are teaching social and emotional skills, both separately, via specific programs, and incorporated into the usual curriculum. Their aim is to equip students with a sense of wellbeing that fosters engagement and understanding of themselves and others.

What other buzz words are worth knowing about?

More poetry, please.

How often do you  read a poem to your class?  Daily? Weekly? Less frequently?

A  good poem offers so much pleasure : that feeling of awe when reading a poem that expresses a complex idea with incredible economy of language; the unforgettable imagery with which a feeling is conveyed; the  clever use of an extended metaphor; the comfort of re-reading a well-loved poem; the joy of sharing quotes with someone else …

These are fairly sophisticated responses to poetry, granted, but even quite young children enjoy rhyme and rhythm, and the sounds created by alliteration and assonance.  They enjoy the way in which poetry can tell stories, make them laugh, and create pictures and ideas.

As short texts, poems offer many learning opportunities in the primary classroom. Students can

  • practise using reading strategies to construct meaning – visualising, predicting, using language clues, making inferences …. (Poems are effective texts to use as part of a literacy lesson.)
  • learn the necessary metalanguage to be able to talk about the features of a poem and how a poem differs from other texts. (Develop and extend student vocabulary.)
  • learn to recognise various poetic forms such as haiku, limerick, shape poems and free verse.
  • learn to recognise different rhyming patterns. (But also be sure to show students poems that don’t rhyme.)
  • notice how punctuation is an important way of constructing meaning in a poem. (Reading poems aloud helps to demonstrate the importance of punctuation. Remove the punctuation and see how much more difficult it is to understand the poem.)
  • learn about figures of speech and discuss their effectiveness.  (Move on from identification to analysis.)
  • learn about grammar by analysing the poet’s choice of, for example, nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. (Why does the poet choose this word rather than another?  What would change if he had chosen a different word?)
  • share and discuss with partners and groups. (Encourage students to express and support their opinions of the poem.)
  • create their own written, artistic, musical, digital or oral responses to a poem.
  • write their own poem, using another as a model or inspiration. (Move on from acrostics and diamond poems.)

But don’t always make a poem the basis of a lesson.  If you have a few minutes before the bell rings, or you want to settle the children between activities, simply share a poem with the class.  Do this regularly, express your own enthusiasm, and children will soon be interested in further exploration.

Display short poems around the classroom and invite children to display their favourites, too.  Make poetry an integral part of the classroom experience.

Here is an excellent source of poems for students in years 3 – 5, with lots of ideas and links to further resources.

Start enjoying!