Homework: what is it good for?
By Joel Turnbull
What value does homework have? How can we justify assigning it in school? This was the topic of discussion at the latest Philosophy in the Pub session.
We started by discussing some of the potential problems associated with homework. If students are given a task that they cannot complete by themselves, what can follow is discouragement and a distaste for the subject. Most parents are not equipped to give the sort of help that their child might need, which becomes a source of frustration for both parties. Some students have their parents do their homework for them, which seems to completely defeat the purpose. Finally, children and young people need free time to play. It is so vital for their development that, if they have too much homework – or homework that is too difficult – then they are not able to engage in free-time activities.
So, why is homework so appealing? There are many reasons why we assign homework – some better than others. One reason is that parents expect to see their child doing something assigned by the school, because it reassures them that learning is taking place. However, most parents are not educators, and are therefore simply unaware of what constitutes good learning. Many teachers seem to have a similar attitude to homework: we can know that our students are learning because they are complying with the tasks we give them – no matter what the task is. But surely there’s more to learning than simply doing what you’re told! Sometimes we assign homework when students are unable to complete the tasks we give them in class; the “finish it at home” approach. This approach, at least in some instances, seems to fail to take into account why students may be unable to complete tasks in class. Is it because they don’t understand what to do? In which case, homework will not help. Is it because they simply take longer to get the work done than other students? Then is homework like a punishment for them? There seem to be few reasons to endorse this approach.
Is there any such thing, then, as “good homework”? In our discussion, we arrived at five criteria for good homework, which we submit now for your consideration. Good homework – we think – needs to be purposeful, attainable (which may mean minimally demanding), focused on genuine learning, relatable (to the subject and to the students themselves), and involving some student agency. It seems to us that these criteria describe legitimate instances of homework. Wonderings about these criteria are as follows. Firstly, is each of these criteria a necessary condition for
good homework? In other words, is it possible for good homework
to lack one or more of these criteria? Secondly, are the criteria jointly sufficient for good homework? That is to say, is it possible for an instance to fulfil all of these criteria but still not be good homework? Thirdly, is there a better way to conceive of the list? Should something be added, subtracted, or re-conceptualised for the sake of clarity or precision? Fourthly, how can this list be helpful to teachers in generating, assigning, delivering and assessing their own homework? Finally, how does this list of criteria interact with established research on the topic?
In reflecting on good homework, we generated some examples of homework that seem to be good homework – they fulfil all (or at least most) of our criteria. The first is rote-learning vocabulary for a language class. The purpose of this homework – if it made clear to students before they have to do it – is quite strong. Another example of good homework is free drawing for an art class. It seems to be attainable; as long as the teacher ensures that the students all have access to the necessary materials, they can all take part in this activity. Thirdly, a music teacher assigning the practising of scales has a clear learning focus. The learning in this instance is active and bodily, but it seems that other types of learning would be legitimate as well, including passive learning and cognitive learning. The fourth idea of good homework is for students to watch a video, read a text or play a game as a stimulus for discussion or classwork. This is very relatable, in the sense that it connects directly with what is going on in class, but also that students should be able to engage with the stimulus in a personal way. Finally, an English teacher may insist on students reading for pleasure at home. While there is a sense of compliance in any instance of homework, this example seems to involve a significant amount of student agency, given that they have a choice of what they read.
What do you think about these examples of good homework? If our criteria are more-or-less correct, then is homework appropriate in all learning areas? For example, can we justify assigning maths problems for students to complete at home? If not, what can maths learn from the arts and humanities regarding good homework? What value is there in school homework “policies” that require a certain amount of homework to be assigned each day? How does our conception of homework comport with our understanding of the role of the teacher, given that the teacher is not there to help the student with homework? And how does homework cater to the needs of the child (as opposed to the needs of the parents, teacher, school, educational body, or curriculum authority)?
I encourage you to reflect on your own homework practice and to use our discussion as a stimulus for a discussion with your school about how to do homework in a way that is helpful to your students.