Homework Ills, Free Wills & Summerhill


My most recent post, on homework, has sparked more discussion than almost anything I’ve posted. I’m very grateful for all your comments. There were many great points and, predictably, I had to explain that I wasn’t against students learning at home – far from it. The post was originally sparked by hearing students talking about their learning at home only in the context of homework. In fact, it was only when I explained to them that they probably did lots of learning outside school (which wasn’t homework) that the penny began to drop – football coaching, social networking, volunteering – they associated those activities with having fun, while they associated homework with compulsory learning.

It  just seemed, well, sad, that for so many young people, the spectre of homework looms so large that it’s equated with drudgery, and clearly diminishes their love of learning. So, that was my prime motive – simply to point out the joylessnes in it all.

Some of the comments, seemed to underline Surowieki’s point about people spending more time justifying the way things were than thinking how things could be different. Homework, apparently, cultivates students ability to work to deadlines (if this were true, unviversity students would be handing their essays in a week early); that they’ll get better by repeating work – practice, apparently, make perfect (anyone who’s played golf for any length of time will know that this is clearly not always the case – bad practice inculcates bad habits). No-one seemed to be able to provide conclusive evidence of homework’s effectiveness in raising test scores.

It was the general absence of comments about the effects upon children’s love of learning that I found interesting. There was a telling comment about the confrontation which homework sets up (‘don’t set up a fight you can’t win’ – this from a teacher with exceptionally good exam results who has not set homework for years). And this is where the question of willfuness  comes into it. I firmly believe that you can’t force anyone to learn something – you can perhaps get them to retain some information for as long as might be necessary to pass a test, but deep learning? I don’t think so. For that to happen there has to be some desire, some motivation, some real engagement with the task.

Cliff Manning pointed me towards the Facebook page ‘CTRL C + CTRL V…..homework done;)’, which has over 230,000 ‘likes’ from young people, and it’s hard not to read the comments without recognising the cursory way in which young people (and I was one of them once) have a need to get it out of the way as quickly as possible – perhaps so they can spend more time googling the stuff they’re really interested in learning about?

I was especially grateful to teacher David Didau, who reminded me of two quotes from Phil Beadle’s ‘How To Teach Book’:

‘Father: What’s all those books then?

Son: That’s my homework dad.

Father: You know what son, if they can’t teach you all the stuff you need to know during the day, they can’t be very good at their jobs can they?’

…and Beadle’s own position:

I set the kids homework, letting them know that it was entirely at their discretion if they did it. If they did it I would mark it with a degree of passion and interest but if they didn’t, I wouldn’t chase them up for it. This spared up acres of time, relieved a substantial plop of unnecessary stress and affected the kids’ attainment how much? Not one jot.

If we’re being really honest with ourselves, we’d probably have to accept that the main reason we set homework (assuming we have some free will in the matter) is because we can’t be sure the kids have absorbed what we’ve been teaching them, possibly because of a resistance to learn on their part, therefore we give them more of the same, and just hope some of it sticks. In a sense parents shouldn’t be viewing teachers who set homework as the dilligent ones, but rather, it’s the ones who don’t set it – because they’re confident enough in their own abilities as a teacher – who should be lionised.

Underlying many of the comments was a fear that, left to their own choices, kids just wouldn’t do the work needed to pass their exams. And it’s an understandable fear. But the report, published this week, of the UK school’s inspections agency, OFSTED,  on Summerhill school, should really give us pause for thought.


For those who aren’t aware of Summerhill’s history, it was established by A.S Neill in 1921, and has run as a democratic school ever since, allowing kids to study only that which they choose, in following their interests. In more recent times Summerhill have been at loggerheads with OFSTED, so they must have felt some vindication at this week’s report. As the report say’s ‘Pupils are free to choose whether or not to attend lessons. When not in lessons, pupils can be involved in whatever activity captures their interest. These include making films, organising and performing in musical or dramatic events, and learning different languages.’ What, kids choosing to learn a foreign language as an alternative to attending lessons? Surely not!

More shocks: given the option of taking exams or not, ‘ almost all pupils choose to take GCSE examination’. The praise from inspectors is striking, awarding ‘outstanding’ in many categories, including the ‘spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils’  and remarks that ‘pupils have an extremely deep understanding of work-related learning’.

Admittedly, Summerhill is a very small school, but I don’t believe kids who attend there are that different to kids attending state schools. Given thechoice, most kids will want to study – even after school. As a number of teachers have shown through their comments, giving students the choice to do homework or not, doesn’t seem to affect pass rates, and as Summerhill has shown, kids do want to learn, and have their learning validated through national exams.



Perhaps if we did get better at teaching them all the stuff they need to know during the day, the business of teaching (and learning) would be a lot less fractious?

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4 Responses to Homework Ills, Free Wills & Summerhill

  1. Steve Smith says:

    Hello David. Me again. I am surprised you still maintain that practice does not improve skills. I am a former golfer who needed to do a good deal more quality practice and teachers are capable of setting quality practice!I did look into a little of the research on the issue of homework and the Australian study I linked to did provide evidence ofnraised achievement.I accept that in an ideal world we would enjoy all the work we did, but sometimes repetitive practice, whilst not necessarily stimulating, can make you better and we may happily accept that the end justifies the means.Finally, I don’t go along with your claim that we set homework because we feel students haven’t mastered what we have taught them in the classroom. We can just as easily see homework as a natural extension of the classroom and an opportunity to improve.

  2. Robert Wells says:

    It’s interesting that you’re talking about homework, I’ve been having various discussions about this, in relation to online learning. Don’t know if you’ve come across the Khan Academy, which is an online set of learning resources? Schools in Los Altos, California have been using these as ‘homework’ tasks, and using the classroom as the space to re-enforce this learning.

  3. David Price says:

    Steve,i looked at the Australian study you linked to – it doesn’t provide specific evidence that student attainment improves. Overall, we’re left with an unclear picture. All of the meta-analyses seem to say it can improve test performance, but only in certain subjects, with certain ages ranges, and under very specific circumstance (too much is bad, parental involvement can confuse, etc). At best there’s no clear evidence which justifies the widespread use of homework – that was all I was saying. Imagine, if you will if homework were a medical treatment. After many clinical trials, there was only slight evidence that it might work on some patients, under some conditions.For other patients it had no impact, or, worse, made the patient sicker. Would we put everyone through it? I don’t think so.You said that you’d played golf. Well, I’ve played golf for 30 yrs, and there was a period when I was getting lessons, where I was given repetitive drills to do, which I dutifully did for an hour a day. My golf game got worse, I almost gave up on a game I love. This was following the instruction of a PGA coach, and I was just training myself to swing the club badly. Improvement only came when I began to look for the swings and drills that were right for me. I began to own the learning, and really understand what I was doing. I now love practicing because I’ve learned how to learn the game of golf. I think there are parallels in setting worksheets and drills for homework. But finally, don’t you think it’s wrong that the average 16 yr old in the UK puts in a (minimum) 6 hr shift at work, and then has to do an average of 2 hrs EVERY night? Here’s a comment from a parent I got today: ” I know homework has left my family living in a war zone, my nine year old collapsed and said she could not cope with school after repeatedly being kept in over break and lunch to catch up with work sometimes she missed most of her break, she has two disabilities dyslexia and a sleep disorder that in effect leaves her brain on jet lag mode as her body stopped producing its own Melatonin and use to only sleep for an hour at a time. She was called lazy, unwilling to learn and slow by her year 5 teacher, he should try going work for five years with his brain on jet lag mode then see if he can say she is lazy, unwilling and slow. My daughter went to school after only four hours sleep after singing in a school concert the day before, as the head teacher expected all the children to be on time. Us parents found that the teachers who went with them were allowed to arrive late. So yes ban homework as it is never how long the school says it is going to be, you never get feed back on how well they did it. 90% of parents end up completing the work for the child.”Your comments have been really informative, but you’ve never addressed, so far, the human toll of homework. Isn’t that important?

  4. David Price says:

    Robert:Where are you, and how’s your trip? I know you’ve been too busy moving to look at other posts, but I have written about Sal Khan’s Academy in previous posts. Its use, particularly in ‘flipping’ classrooms, is very impressive.Predictably, some educators are starting to turn on Khan. I wish, as a community, we didn’t resent such breakthroughs. They’re not compulsory, and we should accept that online learning can do things face-to-face learning can’t. It’s not an either/or, but I refer you to my earlier Surowiecki quote!

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