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Homework needs a rethink: challenge, expectation, long-term memory and pupils who study.

It is that time of year again when teachers on edutwitter are discussing revision and generously sharing resources to help other teachers out (one of the best aspects of this amazing twitter community!) However, the yearly worry about whether pupils are prepared and what else we can get them to do for revision seems to me to suggest that we need to look further back and evaluate how we can cultivate pupils who 'study' continually, rather than pupils who 'revise' at the end.

I think this goes back to long established ideas of homework and what it should be.  Homework, in my opinion as a teacher and as a parent, has previously been the bane of my life.  As a teacher I have spent many a time setting something to make sure I meet the school requirements and to ensure there is something written in the planners, often whether the current work demands it or not and then adding the impending 'marking task' to my ever growing to do list.  As a parent I have supported, or at times cajoled,  my children into doing homework, sometimes having to shoehorn it into our busy daily lives and many times looking at the task and wondering what on earth is the benefit.  The EEF Guidance report for homework (primary) reports that there is 'less evidence of benefit at primary level' than there is at secondary level where 'benefits are likely to be ...up to two or three months progress on average if homework is routinely set' but that 'the quality of homework is more important than the quantity.'  It is the quality of work set that is paramount if we are to support pupils in their learning.

So what equates to useful homework and what doesn't?

Homework for homework's sake is never a good scenario but even when we think we are setting something purposely and for the right outcomes,  how do we know it is actually going to help pupils make progress?  A seminal text for me and also a defining moment in my quest to become research informed was Daisy Christodoulou's book 7 Myths About Education.  In this book Christodoulou writes about the importance of prioritising what we actually want children to learn and how the task we set is integral to this.  If homework, or classwork, is going to support the learning of our subject, then this should be at the heart of the task.  Christodoulou explains that if we want pupils to learn about Shakespeare for example, or to study a play, then the work pupils undertake should do just that.  Daniel Willingham suggests that 'memory is the residue of thought' and as such for learning to take place ( a change in long term memory) pupils need to think hard about the thing they are learning about.

In the past when teaching Much Ado About Nothing, for example,  I might have set a task such as to design or make a mask that Don John might wear to the masquerade in order to show understanding of character. However, Christodoulou argues that if pupils spend time designing such a mask (or a poster, or a model, etc.) then what they are actually going to be thinking about is what colour to use or what shape to draw or how to stick the scrunched up tissue to the cut out card mask.  Now there there is nothing inherently wrong in this, especially if what I want them to learn about is colour choices or drawing shapes, etc. but that is not the purpose of an English lesson or an English homework task, rather it would be better suited to an art task.  Many pupils will find it enjoyable, some not so much, but either way it doesn't help them to get better at English - or whatever subject I might be trying to teach them.

Case in point: my son once completed a homework task on rock formations in which he had to design an informative poster and I can tell you that much, much more thought went into getting the bubble writing just right (after multiple attempts as he loves to draw) than into thinking about rock formations.  If he had to self-quiz from a knowledge organiser, or to read a nonfiction explanation text and then create a mind-map, for example, then perhaps it might have been a better use of his 'thinking' time.   Some children might have got more out of this task than he did - the ones who are not so fastidious as he is regarding the perfectly rounded shapes and colours of the revered bubble letters!  However, essentially the problem is that the knowledge that was meant to be being reinforced was not the focus.

I have heard of many other examples of homework lately where, in the name of differentiation, diligent teachers are creating option menus for homework or setting tasks that increase in challenge and then allowing pupils to select the task that either is meant to suit their 'ability' (I'm annoyed at myself for even writing that) or to suit their level of effort at the time.   Here though there is a clear message being conveyed that not everybody is capable of,  or expected to do, certain tasks.

Listen and you will hear the sounds of effort and self-esteem crashing to the floor as pupils sit down to do their homework on an evening.

Interestingly yesterday on twitter Sean Hartford (HMI and Ofsted's National Director for Education) stated in relation to the Education Inspection Framework: overview of research that 'inspectors will not look for differentiation being done via the different work for LAPS MAPS & HAPS route.'  Surely it is time to put an end to these types of Nando's heat menu selection of tasks?

Earlier today I read a brilliant blog by Tom Sherrington in which he discusses a Bill Rogers concept: you establish what you establish.'  He goes on the explain that the 'pitch of the curriculum content and resources' is a major part of this and that 'high expectations take form in what you ask students' to do 'but if you don't expect them to be able to do it, they never will.'  This applies to homework uniformly as much as it does to lesson work.

One argument in favour of certain homework tasks is that they provide pupils with the time for deliberate practice.  Divisive issues arise from this though, in that the pupils who have mastered the work at school may benefit and as such make progress, but for those who haven't it brings the risk of  embedding misconceptions or perhaps more detrimentally of them giving up and knocking confidence.  In a recent Rain Waves podcast Dr Daniel Willingham explained this and suggested that the homework set 'really reflects school values .... and .... your best hope for what students are going to be doing.'  If our best hope for what students are going to be doing pre-exams is frantically revising and panicking over what they don't know then all of these types of homework activities probably serve their purpose.  But alternatively, if we actually want confident, knowledgeable students we might have to review the types of tasks we set.  Christodoulou writes that 'these types of activities fail in their ultimate aims, but because they are so time-consuming they also have a very significant opportunity cost.'   Whether we consider time spent in lesson or time working at home, it is all valuable and ought to work towards embedding knowledge over time and as such better serving our pupils come exam period.

All of these issues have been a consideration of mine since reading 7 Myths About Education and also since reading a blog post from 2017 which really struck a chord.  In the post entitled 'Why not make pillory? Pointless homework' it is adeptly suggested that impactful, useful homework 'either cements, acquires or applies knowledge.'  This to me is key.

We need to use homework to help pupils build their store of Tier 2 & 3 vocabulary for example, or of key subject knowledge and as an opportunity to embed things in long-term memory and expand schemas.  Myriad forms of quizzing and retrieval practice from specific sections of knowledge organisers or of key quotations/formulas, mind-mapping, active pre-reading of non-fiction, reading set fiction texts in preparation for a quiz, over-learning & memory dumps - all of these help build memory.   All of these tasks allow pupils to see themselves making progress in low-stakes quizzing at school and thus create intrinsic motivation.   In turn, they do not create marking!

Acquiring or applying knowledge requires careful planning of explicit tasks by the teacher.  So many times I see examples of pupils being asked to research something without clear guidance, or to write a newspaper article or a diary entry when the actual act of writing effectively is not being taught and ultimately bad habits are encouraged and formed.

Malone and Leeper suggest that an activity is intrinsically motivating when 'people engage in it for its own sake,' and they state that 'challenge' is fundamental.  If we build challenge and high expectations into our curriculum and see homework as an integral part of this, ensuring that we consider the 'spacing effect' (explained brilliantly here in the Impact Journal) and plan for 'desirable difficulties' then perhaps we might be offering our pupils the chance to study and consolidate the learning taking place over time in school.  We might free up time and headspace during exam period.

Twitter. @MissJoT


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