This week I worked with some terrific students at the Oasis Academy in Enfield. We were working with them on the Learning Futures Engagement Diagnostic, which we’ll be making available to schools next year. The purpose of the process is to gauge the level of student (and school) engagement. The school’s head teacher, Paul Hammond, was clearly pleased to hear that his students were highly engaged and clearly motivated about their learning, and there’s a great relationship evident between teachers and students.
However, one, somewhat surprising, response was their attitude to homework – these students didn’t seem to mind getting it. Any parent (or teacher) reading this, will know that, generally, students loathe getting homework, and fail to see the point of it .
And, frankly, I don’t either.
I became convinced of, not just the detrimental nature of homework, but its lack of effectiveness, when I read Alfie Kohn’s ‘The Homework Myth: Why Our Children Get Too Much Of A Bad Thing‘. I can really recommend this forensic dissection of all the sacred cows surrounding homework: that it improves student outcomes; that it inculcates ‘study skills’; even that it develops time management and self-discipline skills.
Homework has a monolithic quality about it – it seems like it’s always been with us, and always will be. Except that repeated studies, going back as far as 1897, show that there’s precious little evidence that it does any good. In 1901 the California State Legislature passed a law, banning homework for under-15s. But by the time of the early 60s, we saw successive nations, afraid that their prosperity was at risk from their competitors, crank up the amount of homework given to their kids, in the deluded belief that it would improve test scores. To be clear: there is no clear causal proof that links homework to improved student outcomes at secondary level, and absolutely no evidence that it ‘works’ at primary level. So, why do we persist with it?
Most of the ‘explanations’ were laid bare a few days ago, on a radio discussion between Alfie and Professor Janine Bempechat. It really wasn’t a fair fight – you knew that when Prof. Bempechat, who’d earlier acknowledged that there is no clear evidence showing improved performance through homework, argued instead that it was useful for kids to learn how to ‘endure boredom’, that the jig was well and truly up (you can hear the whole discussion here). It forcibly brought to mind something James Surowiecki said in The Wisdom of Crowds: “It’s easier for individuals to create explanations to justify the way things are than to imagine how they might be different”
While no-one seems to be able to provide a really compelling reason for continuing with it, it’s still a brave school leader who’ll abandon homework, so much have we invested in this myth. In an era where we’re all urged to implement ‘evidence based policy’ in education, we need to take a hard look at the evidence, and stop putting our kids through this cruel, pointless, nightly ordeal. Set aside the lack of evidence of improved outcomes for a minute – why do we put family harmony under such strain by fuelling endless rows between parent and child, when kids could be using the time to read, relax, play music or sports, or just be a kid?
And here’s one final thought: if a parent comes back from a hard day’s work, and is praised for refusing to bring work home, because time with the family is sacrosanct, how is it acceptable to ask a child to work 6 hours at school, and then forsake time with the family, to do another 2-3 hours at home?