I have explored issues with homework in various different posts. In particular, the research into homework by John Hattie is covered in detail in this post: Homework: What does the Hattie research actually say?
I’m a firm believer that homework has an important role to play in providing a great education and fostering independent learning, as I expressed in one of my earliest posts Homework matters: Great teachers set great homework. In this post, I want to suggest what might constitute a sensible, effective diet of great homework.
To begin with, here is a diagram I produced several years ago for a post called Journeys
I was trying to capture a sense that a learning journey doesn’t only take place during lessons. Lessons are building blocks or stepping stones but successful students don’t stop thinking when the bell goes; lessons are just part of the flow: building schemas, exploring ideas, practising. Teachers have an important role in setting up activities for students so this ‘between lessons’ time is used as constructively as possible.
However, we have to take account of the research evidence that suggests that homework is more effective for younger or less confident students when homework builds confidence and fluency. This requires tasks to be tightly defined, well scaffolded and focused mainly on practising things students can already do. The more confident learners become, the more scope there is for more open-ended and challenging tasks.
Based on my experience as a teacher and parent, I would suggest that there are two main purposes of homework:
To provide opportunities for extended practice: Giving students tasks that enable them to improve their fluency and confidence; tasks that support deeper and more fluent recall. Lesson time is not enough on its own and students need structured guidance to support their practice activities.
To develop students’ capacity for independent learning: This includes giving students tasks that encourage them to explore subjects in self-directed and/or creative ways, to develop a sense of responsibility for their own learning and to prepare for lessons so that teachers’ input is optimised given the time constraints.
My sense is that, as with the forms of lesson activities I describe as Mode A and Mode B teaching, there is the need to provide a diet of homework that blends these different opportunities and purposes:
Lots of Mode A Homework: Practice, revision, pre-study, questions, exercises.
Some Mode B Homework: Research, open-ended projects, creative product-making, choices.
In general, students need Mode A homework to be the main staple; the routine. However, Mode B homework in important and should be woven in from time to time. If I use my son and daughter as case-studies, without doubt, their success at school has been supported by a strong core diet of routine Mode A homework. Their teachers have done a great job teaching them how to study effectively in each subject so that, by the time their exams came around, they knew what to do with any study time they had. A key factor here was that a high volume of routine homework year on year helped them develop good study habits. It was normal for them to study; no big deal, just a part of the process of learning, of being at school; not tacked on, not separate- just an integrated part of the whole.
At the same time, their school lives were enriched massively by occasional set-piece Mode B homework tasks: tasks that lit a fire; that allowed them to experience deep-end challenge, to broaden their horizons, to get stuck into a topic in ways that gave them a great sense of satisfaction. These are the things they remember.
Mode A Homework:
Here the emphasis is on practice and consolidation. This means students need question and task types they are familiar with in sufficient quantity to constitute sustained practice. At higher levels, this can and should become more extended including essays and longer, more challenging question sets.
Mode A homework might include:
Routine questions similar to those practised in class. Better to do lots of fluency-building questions than a few ‘challenge questions’ because of the pitfalls when students get stuck with no one to help them. Ideally students can check their own answers to save teacher marking. Online systems are good provided that they provide the repetition needed and don’t reward guessing to move from question to question.
Knowledge retrieval: vocabulary, spellings, factual recall, practising explanations – a whole host of self-assessed retrieval practice tasks, along the lines described here: Students need to be taught the methods and then be tested in class to check that what they’ve learned. (Sometimes these are called ‘learning homework’ which is rather confusing because surely that’s true of any homework!)
Pre-lesson prep: reading ahead, note-making, prior-knowledge reviews. This is more relevant with older students but should certainly be a routine expectation for GCSE and Alevel, L2/L3 students. Again, the relevant procedures need to be taught and there needs to be a form of accountability so that students get into the habit of doing this well.
I firmly believe that students who do really well at school will have learned how to study. They’ll know how to practise maths, English, music, art, science, French, history… by themselves. And that will be because over the years they’ve had a sustained diet of solid Mode A homework. When it’s all panic stations and intervention-central in Year 11, it’s because those habits never formed.
Mode B Homework:
I’ve explored this extensively in this post from the Pedagogy Postcard series. Instead of me repeating it, take a detour and dive in for a look. I’ve got some fab examples and non-examples! Students need to learn to make good choices if they are ever to have the confidence and experience to guide their own learning with any level of rigour. They won’t do this if they’re never given the chance. Plus you really don’t need or want everyone doing the same thing all the time. One of the worst lessons you can have is where you (foolishly) asked a whole class to make powerpoints and then you have sit through them all. It’s just so dull and you tend to pull back from any short-run feedback processes that might make them much better – because of the time pressure. If you engineer open-response tasks such that you get a diverse range of responses, then life is more interesting for all concerned and it’s easier to re-run things that need improvement.
One of my all-time favourites are these responses from a couple of Year 7s when I taught RE. In the Intro to Islam unit,
- They asked: can we make a website?
- I said – I don’t know; can you make a website?
- They said – `Of course; we did it in Year 5 at primary school.
So they made a website: Embracing Islam. It was brilliant – showcasing their knowledge and understanding, with embedded videos galore. They were so encouraged, the next term they made a website called ‘Embracing Christianity: From the Award-winning creators of Embracing Islam‘. Joy!
Structured Research/ Projects
Just once or twice in a year – a few times across the curriculum – it’s great for students to have the opportunity to get stuck into a piece of work that requires a few hours of extended focus. I’ve seen countless examples of superb outcomes from this. Good projects need structure – a focus. It’s no good just saying ‘off you go, do a project’ with students for whom that’s a recipe for mediocrity or floundering. But, with some structure, you can students producing lovely artefacts, writing products – all kinds of ‘labour of love’ responses.
A simple idea is to extend your curriculum reach – to venture into the hinterland – but asking students to undertake the study of a Person/Place/Book/Event – of their choice, in the relevant subject. I loved the history version shared on twitter: ‘Meanwhile elsewhere’ – the study of a period of history in a country running in parallel to the UK theme at the time. If you establish the format and model the standards, you get student bringing interesting artists, discoveries, books, stories, ceremonies, living organisms, historical figures, cities… into the classroom.
The Mode B Spirit: ‘Dazzle me’; ‘Have fun with it’; ‘Have a go’, ‘Go as far as you can’
I think it’s important that Mode B homework is regarded as a way of providing students with opportunities without them becoming unwieldy mandated teacher-crucifying albatrosses of excessive marking. It’s possible to set these things up so that students do great work, enjoy themselves and receive appropriate teacher validation -without any marking of any kind. You just need to do it in the right spirit. And if students opt out? Well, that’s their loss and that’s how they should feel.
I sometimes feel that people overplay their angst over excessive parental input or placing demands on children to find resources. Of course, you need to check that students have the tools to do the job without it costing lots of money. But, at the same time, it’s important not to strip out good activities in the name of equity: it’s better to just explore how students will access the digital or physical resources they need. And so what if once or twice a year, parents have to get involved making something with their kids? I enjoyed making my daughter’s Year 4 Tudor house with her. It wasn’t a contest; we had a good time sticking it all together and we still talk about it.
Mode A: Mode B Homework Split?
You decide. I’d say maths could all be Mode A – with maybe one annual homework on a famous equation or mathematician. Science might be one Mode B homework per half-term. In general I”m not a fan of mandating rules for these things with teachers and I don’t believe in homework timetables – because you get all kinds of nonsense objections and inauthentic homeworks set just to match what the diary says.
Far better, in my view, for school leaders to ask each teacher team: What diet of homework do you think is needed to maximise learning in your area? Ok! Do that – just keep it up. Don’t set up expectations you can’t sustain – including the idea that all homework must be marked by the teacher – that’s the kiss of death to authentic homework right there.
At the same time, whether it’s ‘little and often’ or just a solid chunk at once, I do think high volume is important, increasing with age and confidence – that’s my bias. As a parent the teachers you trust are those who, amongst other things, set a ton of high quality homework with a nice Mode A/Mode B split. Lame and/or infrequent homework raises questions. Why would you want to be that kind of teacher? And if either you automatically associate setting more homework with having more marking OR you dismiss the amount of learning that can happen outside of your lessons, then you’re doing it wrong!
Have fun with it! Great teachers set great homework. Yup – I said it!