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.