There is much debate about homework. Is it useful, is it effective?

The opinions on it broadly fall into two camps:

  1. those who support it, who argue that ‘repetition is the mother of all learning’, that the setting of homework reinforces the lessons learned in the classroom, that it teaches that the skills of application and perseverance. And that it leads to the acquisition of a love of learning.
  2. Those who oppose it, who argue that there is good evidence that shows it doesn’t work, that it is a significant cause of stress in children, and that it can lead to health problems, and disordering of the work-play balance in childhood.

I am firmly of the view that homework is a good thing. And for the following reasons:

  1. there is good evidence to suggest that ‘repetition is the mother of all learning’
  2. I frequently come across children in middle secondary school who have not acquired the application and perseverance needed to keep up with the academic curriculum. This skill deficit profoundly influences their education, and hence their life’s trajectory
  3. the peer-reviewed evidence that suggests homework is ineffective I believe relies upon studies in which homework has been poorly administered
  4. the work-play balance of childhood, and the child’s health and emotional well-being are matters that are the province of the child’s parents. In any individual child, it ill behoves the child’s school and his/her teachers to usurp their authority in these matters
  5. again, the criticism of homework is usually from an ideological perspective
  6. and further, I disagree strongly with the notion that a school’s principal is not bound by a self-imposed set of standards consistent with educational research and society’s expectations. In the practice of medicine, doctors are not permitted to experiment at personal whim on their patients, and rightly so. So should it be in education.

There is good evidence to suggest that early short frequent repetition is the most potent and effective memory aid.

I believe that:

  • homework should be set daily
  • by the teacher
  • based upon the content of today’s class
  • to be performed the night it is set
  • and reviewed at the next class, to ensure it has been done
  • and this should be re-interative process

Therefore, class work is not homework. Performing class working class is class work. Performing class work at home is the completion of class work at home. Setting homework as the completion of classwork is a mistake. Children who complete class work in class are then denied the learning opportunity of short frequent repetition that comes from homework. And therefore, they miss out on the benefits of homework that is properly set.

What Is Homework?

I use the term homework to describe (i) the repetition of skills taught in the classroom (ii) performed at home the evening of the class. The term homework is applicable from high primary school, to early-to-mid secondary school. Homework is not:

  1. practice of reading and number skills at home in the early primary era
  2. academic study (as opposed to homework) in the late secondary error

Where is homework best done?

In high primary to early secondary school, homework should be done under supervision. It is best done either on the kitchen table, or the dining room table. One of the parents should be present. In high primary years, the parent should provide the child with close supervision and support. By that I mean sitting next to the child, watching what he/she is doing.

This intensity of support should be faded as soon as the child can cope without it. The support should be faded, stepwise; not all at once. The parent should remain present, ready to respond immediately to requests for assistance. Eventually, parental supervision of homework should be simply the parent’s presence in the immediate vicinity.

In practical terms, what winds up happening is this; the child performing homework on the kitchen table whilst the parent prepares the evening meal.

By mid-secondary school, the child should be moved to his/her bedroom, performing homework without the parent in the immediate vicinity. The homework space (desk, bookcase etc) should be set up appropriately.

When does homework end?

By the senior years of secondary school, the student should have outgrown the need for the teacher to set homework. The student has entered the phase of independent study.

This independent study should be structured. Goals must be set, and a study program to achieve those goals established. There should be time horizons. Parents should be involved, and should be monitoring the student’s progress in the study program.

My child is very resistant to commencing homework. What do I do?

Efficient transitioning is the key. The efficient transition is based upon adequate previewing. Previewing is … reviewing in your own mind the steps you will take in doing your homework. Get your child to follow the following steps.

Step 1

One of your chores is to put your school bag in the right place (I recommend that should be the child’s bedroom). Unpack the school bag – take your homework out and put it on the bed. In your mind, walk through what you must do for homework tonight – this should take less than a minute.

Step 2

Formal previewing. Do this on the kitchen table or on your desk, in the 5 minutes before you start your homework. Budget this time, and stick to the budget.

Set up your work area properly; so there is no need to get a pencil sharpener, go to the toilet, find your other textbook, tell Mum something (these are, of course, all avoidance strategies). If you are using avoidance behaviour, you have not previewed properly.

In your own mind, walk through the process of doing your homework

  • your 20 maths problems …
  • the science question sheet …
  • english comprehension from Chapter 2 of the class novel.. etc.

Decide what you will do first, second and third.  Establish an idea of how long each task will take.

Step 3

Having previewed properly – start doing the homework. Start with the first task.  Report that you have started to Mum/Dad. Use your parent as a sounding board – have them check your work, after you have completed each subject. The proceed on to the next step, the next subject. You should finish each subject, and all your homework on time – not before – not after. Do not dawdle. Get on with it. Do not allow yourself to be distracted.

Step 4

Having completed your homework, you are not finished yet! Repack you bag! When you do, you will discover something is happening .. you are previewed the next day’s class work!

Homework Refusal

The child refusing to do homework is common in late primary or early  secondary school. It has a number of features:

  1. avoidance behaviour (the need to sharpen pencils, get a drink, go to the toilet, bounce a ball, telephoned a friend)
  2. disengagement (passive aggressive, no effort, no application)
  3. anger (‘I can’t do it’, ‘it’s too hard’, ‘I don’t understand’)
  4. non-compliance (simply refusing to sit down at the desk and starting)

It is a common problem, with no readily evident solution. Many recommendations exist, from many points of view. Some are valid recommendations, but they focus on second order issues (not the primary problem):

  • properly set up home workspace
  • have the books and the homework diary ready to hand
  • the child needs to understand the reason for homework

My view is this:

  1. homework refusal is often (but not always) a phobia of the discomfort experienced by the child when applying the effort to do homework (ie the effort-full expenditure of effort)
  2. a phobia is a fear which is disproportionate (when one considers the object of the fear)
  3. in homework avoidance, it is the fear of the discomfort/suffering they must experience in doing homework

Almost all children are capable of tolerating short-term discomfort for medium-term gains in some domain in their lives (eg sport)

The general principle applied to the management of a phobia is to desensitise it. Exposure to the trigger of the phobia results in the development of tolerance. Exposure by incremental increases over time in the dose of the trigger, starting low but building relentlessly, results in the child developing tolerance to the exposure without decompensation.

In homework, this exposure should begin in the late primary years.

The process is incremental. Set the expectations low to start with, small steps, gradually increasing, relentlessly.  

Rewards successful exposure without decompensation. Begin with rewards that are tangible but fade them quickly. The real reward is the child’s growing sense of capability. He/she develops the confidence that he/she can successfully complete a task set before him/her. The sense of capability in children is fundamental to the development of self-esteem.

Soon, this reward is reinforced by the teacher, in the classroom in front of the class. The child is a successful student, and when questioned, not only can return the correct answer, but has the confidence to do so.