Homework Truths
TES|October 25, 2019
With some studies claiming that homework has little or no impact on pupil achievement, schools have been tempted to cut back on it or ban it altogether. But we shouldn’t write homework off, warn two gurus of UK education research. Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major argue that the evidence on homework has been misrepresented – and out-of-school study can, in fact, have a major impact on learning outcomes
Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major
As the wind blows across the playground, whipping play bark from beneath the climbing frame into the green wire fence, a group of parents huddle in a sheltered corner. They have formed a circle and it is only as you get close that you can see what they are busy protecting at the centre: 27 cardboard models of the London skyline, some as big as the children who made them, have been neatly placed in rows.

The weather soon worsens. Each gentle lift of PVA-ballasted cardboard prompts twitches and gasps, and the circle moves ever tighter. Their desperation grows: “Where is the teacher?” they mumble. “We can’t hold out for much longer...”

You recognize the signs; you’ve been there yourself: it must be homework deadline day in Year 2.

Homework has always been dogged by doubters: it is too often a pointless task unconnected to learning; it takes up valuable family time; it highlights the haves and the have-nots; it leaves children feeling distressed as they have no teacher guidance on hand; the parents just do it for them; and you get ridiculous scenes like that described above on autumn mornings for no apparent benefit.

It’s true that homework is a risky teaching strategy. There is no qualified teacher present. That means little control over who completes the tasks that have been set and little help if the child encounters problems. Potential distractions multiply with every new generation of mobile phones and digital devices – the perfect attention-grabbing machines. Homes can be frantic places with little space for quiet study.

It’s also true that the impact of homework on classroom achievement is patchy – some studies have found little or no learning gains, particularly for primary-age pupils.

Putting all this together, many schools are now banning homework or cutting it back to simple practice-and-retrieval tasks. But we would argue that is the wrong approach. Because homework is being misrepresented: the research is not as negative as some suggest, the benefits are wider than we might imagine and there is, in fact, a lot of advice from academia about how to set homework that will result in a significant boost to pupil achievement.

The pendulum swings

Homework comes in and out of fashion so frequently that it can be hard to remember whether you are supposed to be for or against it. For example, it was popular in the US during the late 1950s amid growing paranoia that American students were falling behind the standards set by rival nations. Then, from the mid-1960s, as the civil rights and countercultural movements took hold, homework came to be perceived as unduly oppressive. Similar reactive patterns of support and criticism have been the norm in other countries, too.

The current situation in the UK, and in the US, is of escalating levels of homework, amid rising expectations of what schools must do to improve education standards. From our youngest students upwards, working outside school hours has become the norm.

Consequently, we are on the cusp of the pendulum swing in the other direction – the backlash has once again begun, with plenty of schools and individual teachers seeing an abandonment or curtailment of homework as a positive stance to be taking.

And yet, it is one that the research would indicate was problematic.

While, as mentioned above, some studies have found that working at home has only a minimal impact on academic outcomes, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

For our new book, What Works? Research and Evidence for Successful Teaching, we present evidence for the possible benefits of learning in the home environment.

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