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Battle over Homework is False Dichotomy

by on 2013/11/06

Guest Post by Neil McLennan.

At the start of October, an age old debate which the media have previously fueled, reignited over the impact of homework on student’s learning. This time the spark was Edinburgh head teacher, Rod Grant (Clifton Hall School) who was quoted as calling for a ban on homework. In an article titled Edinburgh headmaster calls for homework ban, the Scotland on Sunday, quoted him as saying, “Do we really believe that homework in primary school results in greater likelihood of our five years old ending up in a profession? Because I really do not.” (13 October 2013).

The article then referred to research by the Institute of Education/University of London, The Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education Project (EPPSE), which has been following some 3,000 children since 1997. Two things need to be interrogated here in the approach taken by the media. Firstly, the study that was used to counterbalance this debate was focussed on 15-year-olds. While they are clearly products of primary school education, they are by that age in secondary education and thus the study cannot be used to counterbalance Mr Grant’s claims. Furthermore, Mr Grant used the likelihood of students ending up in a profession as the end point. The study in question simply uses raw attainment results and aims to measure the impact homework has on these. There would need to be a further longitudinal study of the impact of homework in primary school and how it relates to positive destinations (and in particular positive destinations into a ‘profession’) before this debate could be fairly set up.

Other studies in this area worth considering include the Sutton Trust “Toolkit of Strategies to Improve Learning: Summaries for School Spending the Pupils Premium by Professor Steve Higgins, Durham University and Dr Dimitra Kokatsaki & Professor Robert Coe, Centre for Evaluation & Monitoring, Durham University (May 2011).

This research shows that homework gives an approximate potential gain of five months maximum  advantage over the course of a school year than an ‘average’ student might expect when this strategy is deployed. It summarises that homework gives “moderate impact for very low cost“.

This compares well against Information and Communication Technology (ICT), which has “moderate impact for high cost”, and one-to-one tutoring, which has “moderate impact for very high cost”. The only strategies to give high impact were early intervention, peer tutoring/peer-assisted learning and meta-cognition and self-regulation strategies. Meanwhile, effective feedback was noted in the CEM/Sutton Institute report as having “very high impact for low cost”, thus affirming educators’ belief that effectively deployed assessment strategies are perhaps the most productive input they can focus on. Reducing class sizes shows a “low impact for very high cost”.

The reports concludes on homework :

It is certainly the case that schools whose pupils do homework tend to be successful schools. However, it is less clear that the homework is the reason why they are successful. A number of reviews and meta analyses have looked at homework to explore this issue. There is some evidence that, when homework is used as an intervention it is effective in improving students’ attainment (an effect size of 0.60). Overall the benefits are likely to be more modest.

The research strongly suggests that it is more valuable at secondary school level and much less effective for children of primary school age. There is also an optimum level of between 1&2 hours per school day (longer for older pupils) but the effects tail off as the time students spend increases. Pupils also benefit from feedback on homework and effective integration with teaching in lessons.

Further information: The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in the USA has a useful summary.

So perhaps Mr Grant was correct in his original assertion and decision which French President Francois Hollande suggested as part of his educational reforms last year. However perhaps the media, Mr Grant and Mr Hollande have all taken part in a meaningless debate. Should we not be looking at how education raises aspirations and promotes a joy in lifelong learning. Learning does not just take place in schools or educational establishments and should be encouraged to take place any time, anywhere. Homework which inspires students to actively and enjoyably take part in learning out of school hours should be encouraged and promoted. Here another Edinburgh senior teacher provides the inspiration. During my time as a trainee teacher I watched in awe and amazement as a well respected history teacher’s S1 and S2 (first years of secondary education after primary school) classes turned out homework 100% on time, every time over a prolonged period of time. What was his secret?: enjoyable active learning tasks which both consolidated class learning and developed further curiosity in the subject and topics and furthermore which had clear criteria for success and where effective feedback and next steps was given promptly after completion of the tasks.

Maybe further research should be focussed on how this sort of inspiration for lifelong learning has raised aspirations, increased attainment, resulted in positive destinations and put students on a path for lifelong learning. This sort of good news story would go a long way to raising standards than the false dichotomy of “to remove or not to remove” certain aspects of our schooling systems.

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