On homework

New(ish) research finds that the evidence on giving children homework is complex. In general, it seems that older, brighter children get more out of homework than younger, less able children. The linked article also says that:

Overall, the more complex, open-ended and unstructured tasks are, the lower the effect sizes. Short, frequent homework closely monitored by teachers has more impact…

I wrote a while ago that

lazy teachers would rather dump a poorly explained, confusing, pointless activity on their pupils than actually teach

and I’d say that’s even more applicable to homework than to in-class activities. If you’re over 25, cast your mind back. I can’t speak for everybody, but I remember getting lots of homework requiring independent research or creativity, sometimes even asking me to “go to the library and find out about…” despite the fact that the library closed long before I got home and the homework was due in the next day. (Other misery-inducing tasks included somehow building objects out of materials I didn’t have, or writing a short story in an evening on top of all my other work.) I worked out when I was about 13 that the teachers who set that kind of work weren’t hard taskmasters who genuinely expected the near-impossible from me; they were just sodding lazy. So lazy that they copied homework tasks from existing teaching resources without even bothering to read through them first and find out what they were asking us to do. (We all worked out eventually that with those teachers, there was a good chance they’d forget to mark the work at all, so it might be worth risking detention rather than attempting the impossible.)

Now, of course, the internet is your friend. You don’t need to live in a home with a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica or knowledgeable adults. You just Google it and copy/paste a Wikipedia entry. I find it amusing to imagine that my teachers in the 1980s and the 1990s weren’t lazy or stupid – they were just prophets who could see the internet age so clearly, they assumed it was here already. I also find it quite funny that now the teachers who don’t read the tasks they’re setting are matched by kids who don’t read the homework they’re “writing”.

But I think we’re asking the wrong question. Why are we having a debate about whether homework benefits kids or not? Why don’t we go right back to the drawing board, drop all our current assumptions about what education looks like and ask what’s actually best for kids?

To give just one example: the debate about homework is starting from the point that a schoolkid’s day ends around 3:30pm. We’re having arguments based on the idea that they’re only in school for about six hours a day, so the discussion becomes about whether that’s enough or whether they need “extra” work. Why? Why, when that actually makes no sense at all?

Firstly, the time a child officially spends in school is not the time they spend on school-related things. Maybe teaching starts at 9:30am, but you’ve got assembly at 9am and your dad needs to drop you off earlier on his way to work, so you’re actually in some kind of school breakfast club from 8:30am onwards, which means you left the house at 8am, which probably means you got up at 7am, which for teenagers is a stone-cold killer, fucking up your body clock and leaving you exhausted for the rest of the day. Then school ends at 3:30pm, but neither of your parents can pick you up then, so you go into an after-school club until maybe 5pm, and then your mum drags you to the supermarket because she can’t do the weekly shop any other time, so you actually get home about 6:30pm. Yes, even then you theoretically have a few hours to get your homework done before a sensible bedtime, but that’s assuming you’re a reasonably quick worker, you’re still capable of doing difficult or creative work when you’re tired and hungry, you don’t do any after-school activities like Scouts or music practice or sport, you don’t have to cook your own evening meal or wash up afterwards, you don’t see friends on weekdays, you’re not tempted to relax in front of the telly…

I mean, maybe you live in some beautiful Holland-like paradise where you’re trusted to walk or cycle to school and back on your own. Maybe you get to let yourself into the house at 3:40pm, eat some Nutella on toast and practice speaking six languages. But I’m talking about the huge numbers of kids who live in some stressed-out, unhealthy bit of England or Wales where driving everywhere and working full-time is the norm.

So, the “they’re only in school for six hours” thing is incredibly misleading, because it suggests that a child could get eight hours’ sleep, spend six hours in school and have ample time where they’re in a position to do homework. Which is obviously bullshit, because it ignores things like commuting and stress and tiredness and the fact that if you’re under 16, a huge chunk of your day is taken up with being dragged to places you don’t want to go and waiting in places you don’t want to be. It assumes that kids don’t see friends in the evening or do after-school activities or have any caring responsibilities. It assumes that every parent is ready at the school gates when school’s out.

But more than misleading, it’s stupid, because it assumes that’s the way things have to be. Why? Why have we set things up so that parents who work 9-5 have to run around organising childcare to bridge the gap between the end of their child’s school day and the end of their own work day? If there’s any validity in the argument that six hours of learning isn’t enough, why the hell are we booting kids out of school mid-afternoon? Why doesn’t that extra learning they supposedly need happen in the actual school?

Maybe the current situation is to do with pressure from teachers who want to “beat the traffic”, get into their little Vauxhall Corsa (or equivalent small, roundish, sensible little hatchback) and fuck right off out of there. And part of the reason they need to leave early is that they have all that homework to mark…

Or maybe it’s just because nobody’s ever questioned the current set-up publicly enough. I agree that teaching classes is the kind of full-on experience where you need a break after an hour, and eight hours of it in a day is unsustainable. But couldn’t we rethink the school day so that kids are there for eight hours without teachers actually having to teach for eight hours?

And couldn’t we rethink some other stupid assumptions too? When I was at school, there were rules forbidding pupils from doing homework on the school premises, and I think that was quite common. That turned the pre-school and after-school clubs into dead time where you were literally forbidden from doing anything education-related except possibly reading a book in the corner. Couldn’t we rethink school rules to stop them being anti-education, anti-time-management and generally batshit insane?

Conversations, research and media “debate” about homework are all starting from the wrong place. Let’s have a complete rethink about what actually benefits kids, their parents and teachers in the 21st century.

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