This week’s blog post is based on Chapter Four of Jared Cooney Horvath and David Bott’s book entitled 10 Things Schools Get Wrong: And How We Can Get Them Right. This chapter forms part of our blog post series which is based on the Teaching and Learning Reading Group, based here at Eton.
This chapter begins by emphasising the sheer number of hours students spend doing ‘homework’, citing that, in Australia alone, students collectively complete approximately 350 million hours of homework per year. Therefore, homework comes at a significant opportunity cost. When students are spending time doing homework, they are not spending time doing things such as socialising, reading, playing football etc.
With such an investment of time and energy, it seems reasonable to assume that there is a clear evidence base for setting homework. However, alas, this is not always the case. Among academic and educational communities alike, research exploring the value of homework is highly polarised and ranges from those who call to increase the amount of work set, to those who plea for it to be abandoned altogether.
Nevertheless, the significant majority of schools set homework and Horvath and Bott argue that this is based on a number of key assumptions:
- Assumption 1: Homework is an essential part of school.
Dr Cathy Vatterott (2009), a US educationalist, suggests that ‘Homework is a long-standing tradition that, until recently, has seldom been questioned. The concept of homework has been so engrained in US culture that the word homework is part of the common vernacular’.
The same can be said for the UK education system, so much so that even employers set homework for new or prospective employees, coaches set work for athletes and therapists set work for their patients in between appointments.
Horvath and Bott claim that this compulsion to set homework is to do with its historical association with ‘rigour’ and therefore, an assumption develops that ‘rigorous’ teachers set more homework, whilst ‘lazy’ teachers set less.
- Assumption 2: Homework helps students develop self-regulation skills.
This assumption rests on the idea that ongoing homework leads students to develop study skills and time management skills, and to become better independent learners. However, whilst this sounds like a legitimate assumption, there is a distinct lack of research to support or refute this notion.
Since 1986, there have been relatively few published papers on the impact of homework on self-efficacy. Only one showed significant improvement to a student’s ability to self-regulate; however, the homework tasks for the experiment were assigned explicitly to improve self-efficacy (H. Stoeger & A. Ziegler 2008). Ergo self-efficacy was not the by-product of completing the homework, it was the homework.
- Assumption 3: Students must accept obedience in the real world.
As adults, we must regularly complete mundane tasks and so homework mimics this. The problem with this assumption, Horvath and Bott argue, is that there is a clear distinction between failing to complete tasks in the adult world, for example, not renewing our car tax on time and receiving a fine, and the consequences for students when they fail to complete theirs.
- Assumption 4: Homework boosts learning.
Again, research into this area provides us with a broad spectrum of potential viewpoints on the impact of homework on learning. Whilst there is more extensive research on this, studies are diverse and explore the impact of homework on a variety of age ranges, subjects and contexts. That said, there is a general consensus that homework has a broadly positive effect on learning. Where they differ, is in terms of how much is set, the type of activity and how it is assessed.
From this research, Horvath and Bott claim that one of the most relevant findings from the research is that the correlation between duration and outcome is not linear: more homework does not necessarily mean more learning. In fact, after a certain time point, more homework can impair learning. However, the majority of schools exceed these homework limits which needlessly pushes students and potentially harms their learning. This practice also reduces the time students have to undertake other personally meaningful activities, which may support wellbeing and other forms of social, emotional and personal development.
What can you do as a classroom teacher?
Although homework policies are largely dictated by a school’s senior management team, there are some things that a classroom teacher can implement themselves.
- Try to set homework activities which cultivate a love of learning. Psychological research has focused on identifying predictors of academic performance, with intelligence and effort emerging as core determinants. However, intellectual curiosity can expand on these predictors. (von Stumm et al. 2011). Encouraging students to feeling curious about particular aspects of their subject can boost their memory even when it comes to information they may not find so cognitively stimulating.
- Set activities which requires collaboration between students and their parents, siblings or classmates. Collaborative homework activities can help to improve students’ social and team-working skills. It can also help to improve students’ motivation to complete the homework activity because of the potential for them to foster personal relationships.
- Set short activities for homework which have a clear and demonstrable learning purpose. The benefits of these activities should outweigh those which might be gleaned from other activities and should not push students beyond their learning limits.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics qtd. in J. Horvath and D. Bott, 10 Things Schools Get Wrong: And How We Can Get Them Right, (Woodridge: John Catt, 2020), p.51.
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