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Publications:Homework: what is it good for

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Publication date: 28 April 2017

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“I'm learning skills I will use for the rest of my life by doing homework...procrastinating and negotiation.” ― Bill Watterson

According to the recent OECD PISA 2015 data, 15-year old pupils spend on average 17 hours per week on activities such as homework, additional instruction and private study. Data from the Eurydice publication on instruction time tells us that the average length of a school week in Europe for the same age group is around 26 hours. The two together add up to a total of 43 hours of formal learning per week – more than a normal full-time job. But is all this time spent on school related work really worth it?

The debate around homework often seems quite binary – you either support it or you oppose it. But what lies underneath these positions?

Those supporting homework naturally claim that it has a positive impact on student achievement, but is there solid evidence for this belief? Research seems to show mixed results on the link between homework and better (school) learning outcomes. The OECD PISA 2015 publication even states that education systems where students spend more hours on homework, additional instruction and private study actually tend to perform less well.

Other research suggests that we need a more nuanced picture. Professor John Hattie points out that, while there may be marginal learning benefits of homework in secondary education, there are no significant benefits at primary level; little homework can be more effective than a lot, while students from low-income households gain less benefit from homework than their better-off peers.

Pro-homework supporters claim that it allows parents to get involved in school life and engage in their children's' learning process. But in their book The End of Homework, Etta Kravolec and John Buell, argue that the burden of homework causes significant family stress, including parent-child conflict, reduced family leisure time, and overly tired children. A large field study found out that when they help with homework, parents' anxiety about maths can have a negative impact on their children’s achievement in the subject.

Another favourite argument is that homework has non-academic benefits such as increasing responsibility, the capacity to manage time, develop study habits and skills, and complete tasks. Some research seems to endorse this argument, although other work casts doubts on such findings. But whatever we may think of research findings, homework is not the only way to develop such skills. For example, children playing together in a group will also develop negotiating and time management skills, and out of school situations generally offer plenty of opportunity for learning.

Arguments for and against homework seem to have a very specific kind of homework in mind – essentially a continuation of content taught in class. An American review of the research on homework confirms this picture, showing that most teachers assign homework to reinforce content presented in class through practice. It is less common that homework focuses on using content in other contexts, applying multiple skills or being creative. It is also based on individual learning rather than team-work.

So shouldn't we start to think differently about homework? Rather than being for or against it, could we be more sensitive to the contextual elements that influence outcomes, such as age, socio-economic background, or the role of parents? The bulk of research currently available on the impact of homework is based on a model where learning is measured in terms of school achievement, which although a useful starting point, is only part of the educational picture. For our own understanding, shouldn't we at least try to measure the learning outcomes of non-school related activities? We could then find out if homework had a more or less positive impact than, for example, practising the guitar, or communicating on mobile phones.

Could we also be more innovative with homework, for example using the model of the flipped classroom? Here time at home is spent watching lectures prepared or selected by teachers, while school time is used to practise knowledge, often working in collaborative projects. Lastly, could we also try to think about how to recognise a wider variety of learning? The European funded project GRASS has developed a way to grade soft skills, and homework would certainly have a very different meaning in such a framework.

Finally, however homework evolves, should we not recognise that 17 hours a week is too much given the lack of evidence on its usefulness? Maybe it's time we trusted our children to do something else for a few hours a week…

Authors: Peter Birch and David Crosier