In the face of a growing sense that homework is not effective for improving learning outcomes in primary age students, many teachers are facing the somewhat difficult question of what to do now. We take a look at the evidence, and the way forward from here.
Does Homework Work?
Evidence on homework is at best, unclear. Depending on your own beliefs and your search terms you can find evidence supporting homework, no homework or that shows no clear advantage either way. It’s not hard to see why as a teacher this isn’t helpful.
On the face of it, many of the techniques we know boost learning (recalling information, making connections and frequent practice) seem to fit well with the idea of homework. But there is very little to support the idea that homework can actually boost learning outcomes in Primary (Elementary) school children. There is some suggestion that it may help secondary school children when well designed and accompanied by feedback.
Increasingly, what seems to be apparent regarding homework is that ‘busy work’ with little value and that receives a check mark or letter/number grade doesn’t have an impact on learning. And in the face of this, the potential negative effects of homework (over-tired children, battles to do homework at home, learning being seen as ‘work’ and not enjoyable) are considered by many a good reason to reduce or completely remove homework.
Here are just a few examples of stories about homework, a quick google search will provide hundreds more;
Increasingly, in the face of no or limited evidence that homework is effective in primary school children there have been calls to change how we assign homework (and if we really ‘assign’ anything). But, this debate has stretched on for a few years now. As educators we strive to do the best we can for each child we teach. The rise of inquiry led learning, flexible seating, edtech, SEL and more show that teachers regular adapt, grow and change their practice to keep pace with changing expectations and understandings. So why is change on homework so slow?
Experience: Experience is a powerful influence in education, Tom Guskey points out that “… practices are not the result of careful though or sound evidence … rather, they are used because teachers experienced these practices as students…” (Guskey, 2018, during a workshop at AIS Kuwait). Guskey was discussing practice around grading but this statement holds true for a surprising amount of practice in education. Many teachers will remember being assigned homework as a child, and often teachers were successful students themselves. Carrying forward that experience we may apply it to our teaching, assigning homework because that’s what teachers do. These historic patterns can hold out for a surprisingly long time and it takes sustained focused effort to break those habits.
Families: Often when I ask teachers why the still give homework part of the reason is that families ask for work for their children. Again, past experience is a big factor here – parents remember getting homework as a child and are repeating the pattern. I think this also shows that we have some work to do as school communities to support our families to help their children learn without need formal homework.
Skill practice and Memory: As teachers we are frequently reminded that students need to practice skills repeatedly and over different time periods in order to build the memory needed for fluency. I think this is the hardest argument to rebuff; because yes, students do need practice. Especially those who struggle. But this for me is where the need to understand the difference between work and learning really comes in. Yes, a 6 year old may need some extra practice to successfully replicate spelling patterns and improve writing fluency – this doesn’t mean that a spelling list and rote practice accountable to a teacher is the only way forward though.
Accountability: We still have, as a generalised profession, a dependency on teacher led measures of accountability as a driver of learning. But if we’re raising independent learners with a sense of agency and purpose – I think we should be challenging this. Want to know if your students are reading at home? Ditch the reading log and use some simple questions to get them talking about their books. An important question to ask of any piece of ‘work’ your students complete is ‘what does this really tell me?’ – that’s a tough one for us to ask because the answer often reveals that it’s not as purposeful as we first hoped. Imagine a student who brings back a sheet full of spelling words spelled correctly. Does that mean they know the pattern or rule used to spell this word and can apply and transfer this learning to build literacy? Or does it mean they copied out letters?
Learning or Working?
As we look for a way to balance the desire to support students to become capable, confident learners we must first break learning from work.
The evidence against homework is showing us that structured worksheets, tasks and high accountability practice isn’t working. This knowledge needs to be held in conjunction with the idea that there is not one right way to learn something. And, that application and transfer of knowledge is deeper and more meaningful than memorising and replicating alone.
This leads me to firmly believe that we can support families to extend learning at home, without extending ‘work’ from class to home. Children are learning during almost everything they do, so can we find ways to extend learning, to help students retrieve important skills and understandings without sending worksheets, reading logs and spelling lists?
Letting go of conventional homework: Time to Grow
As a teacher I know the benefit of practicing key skills and building good habits, I’ve set homework to this effect before. Acknowledging that this wasn’t an effective use of my students time is hard. I was trying my best, I wanted them to do well, they got better! I want to be defensive about it, I want to point out that I’m a good teacher – I helped them. But, I also know that mistakes (however well intentioned) are okay, that I can both be a good teacher and have room to grow, and that I owe it to my future students to keep growing – after all, I ask the same of them. Whilst my students grew, I cannot say it was because of the homework I set.
As a parent I see the benefits for my young children of us playing games together, trying out arts and crafts, reading everyday etc. We talk about numbers as we see them, we play games that build fluency, we visit new places and explore them together. My little boy 95 years old) has learned double/triple digit addition and subtraction in the past month. We didn’t use worksheets or activities. He played Pokemon cards with his Dad – and then taught me how to play too. He had so much fun with both of us playing, and he’s learned and practiced a great skill. And no-one even graded it.
My children are developing the maths skills, the reading fluency, the ability to ask questions, the love of writing and more that conventional homework could never achieve. On top of this, and arguably more importantly, we’re building strong connections, we’re spending time together and I’m showing them both that we’re always learning and that we can balance ‘work’ with everything else in life (something that as an adult can be challenging!).
Moving Forward: Learning Partnerships
If we accept that ‘homework’ is no longer the way to help our students grow, then how do we also support them when they need a little time to process, a little extra practice, and to build life long learning skills? For me it’s about building learning partnerships between school, home and child. This allows the teacher to use their considerable expertise to suggest games, activities, books etc that will allow families to share learning together in ways which are informal, developmentally appropriate and help build skills in context and over time. Here are some practical suggestions for ways teachers can ditch conventional homework in favour of encouraging learning:
Reading: Ditch the reading logs in favour of helping parents understand how to read with their child (it changes so much as they grow!), what to ask and how to help them find books to read that balance fun, comfort and challenge. Support families to read at home by giving them book suggestions, questions to ask and more. i work with an amazing teacher who videos herself reading with a student and targeting skills they are working on. Then she sends the video to the family so that they can replicate it and extend it at home. To encourage kids to read, ask questions in class, use Flipgrid to let students do super-quick reviews, host a book-talk (like a poetry slam, but they read a paragraph from a favourite book and recommend it) and mostly, share what you read too – modeling is immensely powerful.
Games and play: Give families age appropriate ideas for games to play, ways to play with their child, questions to ask. Not every parent will have read about the benefits of play-based learning – they may need support to know how to start and how to see value in play. Encourage parents to use games to practice key skills – and differentiate this based on the needs of the child.
Let them lead: Without setting homework, ask children to share a way they spotted math in the world around them at the weekend, something they learned, a new skill they tried, etc.
Help children find the learning in the world around them – not just on the paper provided.