How to set homework in a Strictly Positive way

It is a requirement in UK, in common with many other nations of the world, that teachers “set homework and plan other out-of-class activities to consolidate and extend the knowledge and understanding pupils have acquired”.

This is a tricky concept for me, as it accepts as fact that homework will, by its very nature, ‘consolidate and extend… knowledge and understanding’. But I can tell you as a parent as well as a form tutor that a lot of homework is set for its own sake, does nothing of the sort, and is nothing but a tedious, pointless chore. So if it is to be useful, the nature of homework a teacher sets needs to be considered very carefully.

We all have our private feelings about homework. It’s probably the element of teaching which is the most onerous, involves the teacher in more work, and necessitates more follow-up than any other aspect of teaching. Homework needs to be set for all. It needs to be collected from all, and then arrangements made for extensions or sanctions for those who have not done it. It needs to be assessed and feedback needs to be given. A massive burden for all, and especially egregious for those of us who have read John Hattie’s Visible Learning and noted that research suggests that the effect on grades of homework is at best small; at worst negligible. In Finland, one of the ‘educational superpowers’ of the world visited by Lucy Crehan and discussed in her book “CleverLands” there is no homework. Instead students are advised to go home, play football or anything else, read a book, climb a tree, be with their parents, talk, learn to be part of society. More and more, analyses of the state of the world nowadays and the malaise of many societies around the world suggest that such an approach would be useful; that an important part of a young person’s education should be to help them engage with other people, of different generations, with books, with their peers in a team environment.

However, we live in Britain and in quotes above is one element of the OfSted criteria for becoming a qualified teacher, one which dictates that at the end of a school day, students should go home or to their library and continue the day’s learning with work set by a teacher, to ‘consolidate and extend’ what they have done in school. Students know that they are expected to do homework and most have been doing homework since they were in primary school.

Some of them accept it, welcome it and sometimes enjoy it even, and they probably have parental support at home, at least a schedule and a routine and a quiet place to do their homework, at best active participation of a parent or carer in the execution of that homework. In this situation homework can represent a productive way for parents to involve themselves in the academic lives of their children and can indeed be a bonding experience for the family.

Many students, however, have none of those things and need to shoehorn their homework into a chaotic and busy home life, trying to reclaim time from the family demands, to find a calm place to focus on a History essay plan or get time on the family computer to do their MyMaths problems. Some simply have no interest in doing homework at all when they get out of the school gates and have no adult interest at home in whether they do it or not, and they accept the resulting sanctions as a part of their school days, along with many of their mates.

The problem then with homework from a Strictly Positive perspective is that you have no realistic control over whether or not students do their homework; that is almost entirely down to their domestic situation. You have an immediate division in your classroom between those who make faster progress because of no virtue of their own but because they have support at home, and those who don’t. And those who do do their homework are better equipped for the next lessons, and those who don’t aren’t; we thereby set in motion two separate paths – the fast track and the slow lane, and it has little if anything to do with ability or motivation.

So for a Strictly Positive Teacher the question is: how do you minimise the negative impact of setting homework on some students, and maximise the benefit to all students? And the answer has to be in the nature and quality of the tasks.

Learning:

You may gather that I’m generally not a fan of homework, with one significant exception – learning, and yes, I mean learning by heart. If I introduce 10 French words in a year 7 lesson, homework will be to learn 10 words and then there will be a vocab test at the start of the next lesson. This is an area in which students can harness technology to make homework work for them. In any MFL lesson students will meet new vocabulary, grammar and structures and it is in the nature of the subject that success requires that they internalise this material. There is no quick way of doing this except rote learning. Luckily for us, the internet provides many websites which will help students to do just this, some of them available as apps, so that students can learn on the bus, or in the car, or sitting around at lunchtime. And in addition they can turn learning vocabulary into a competitive sport. So just about any homework I set will be learning and points will be awarded for progress. The same is true of the vital elements of just about any academic subject. Definitions of learning tend to include some reference to permanence or semi-permanence, which is why it is not really possible for learning by heart to take place in the course of a second lesson. My son knows the order of the kings and queens of England because a teacher got him to learn the rhyme which begins”Willie, Willie, Harry, Ste…” He can still remember the order. My daughter can still remember how to describe herself in Spanish because she learned it off by heart when preparing for her GCSE. I remember the planets in order from the sun, because some wise teacher told me to LEARN it. You can really only learn things thoroughly in solitude. Which makes it a perfect homework topic.

There are many cross-subject websites which enable students to learn material. These provide the mechanism for teachers to construct with relative ease study sets for their students which they can access in a number of ways. Quizlet introduces material in an automated flashcard mode, tests spelling and matching and then provides games which students use to refine their mastery. It’s a model which works exceptionally well. Memrise started out as being for MFL but has expanded as other disciplines recognised that they could use it to their advantage. Youtube is also excellent for learning, with a host of clear and engaging videos on all manner of subjects. Students especially enjoy videos by their own teachers! These are only a few options.

Flipped Learning:

Flipped learning means that students do preparatory work at home for their class, and thereby do some of the research they need independently. The idea is that this can be done in a quiet focused situation, and the hard work – manipulating and practising the material – can then be done in a supported situation with the teacher available to correct any misapprehensions or address omissions. This is particularly advocated when working with students further up the school, in preparation for GCSE and A Level. In principle it works very well, but it is predicated on the fact that students are motivated and engaged enough to work with the material in order to understand it. In practice I have had lessons derailed when one student says to me as she comes in the door; “I didn’t ‘get’ the homework, Miss.”

Another student “Same!”

Me: “What did you not get?”

Student: “Any of it.”

And then I have three choices – press ahead and give the two who haven’t done the preparation time to catch up but no time to practise; assign those who have done the work to explain it to those who haven’t; or spend valuable time recapping and going over what should have been done at home.

With regard to flipped learning, my advice would be, as ever, to proceed based upon your knowledge of your own students. If you are confident they will all do the work, flip away; if not, think twice.

Research:

In these days of easy access to the internet, research becomes an easy task to set. Research can be individualised so that each student or a group of students, research a different element of hat you are teaching. Or you can set a research task to a group and they will divide the burden between themselves. The downside of the group tsk is obviously that if one or two members of the group do not do the research necessary for some follow-up classroom activity, then they will be very unpopular with the rest of their group.

Another consideration of setting research as a task is thinking about what you want students to do with the results of their research. Try to guard against the tendency of some to find some material that approximates to what they should be learning and then cutting and pasting vast unfocused, irrelevant tranches of text into their presentation or essay. It is probably worth spending some time with a class giving them criteria for their research methods, so that they get the most out of the process.

Homework Menu:

To get around some of the challenges of setting homework, you may elect to set a homework menu, which allows students a choice in the way in which they manipulate the learning material.

A homework menu does not have to be a complex thing. It may contain a task with not much writing, a creative design task, a writing task and perhaps a performance task.

So, for example, back in year 7 English, after a lesson on Shakespeare’s Globe, the homework menu might look like this.

Choose from one of the following tasks:

• List the parts of the Globe theatre in your books, along with a short explanation of the function of each.

• In your exercise book, draw, colour and label a plan of the Globe theatre using the keywords for different areas.

• You have just come back from a visit to the Globe to see Mr Shakespeare’s latest play in the 16th century. Describe the experience in a maximum of two pages of your exercise book.

• Record a short audio tour of the Globe for a modern-day audience, focusing on how the theatre was used in Shakespeare’s day. Keep it to a maximum of two minutes. Email the recording to me.

Homework no-nos:

Tasks which should never ever EVER be set as homework:

• anything which relies on students or parents buying anything

• anything which relies on assistance to construct

• anything which is so open-ended that conscientious student will spend hours on it and those who are not conscientious will spend work on it for all of 90 seconds.

• anything which does not pertain either to what you have just done or what you are about to do.

Add to that tasks which should be avoided out of kindness to teachers

• open-ended tasks which require lots of marking

• complex tasks which require a lot of explanation and will probably go wrong anyway

• In short, anything which involves you in extra work

Homework yeses:

• Set something which either builds on this lesson, or prepares for the next one

• Be really clear about what the purpose of your homework is

• Give simple, clear, concise instructions

• Give a time limit

• Have a way of checking that homework has been done – a test or a task, or work taken in

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