Cracking homework

Homework has been on my list of whole-school responsibilities for some time now.  In fact, this will be the sixth year in which I’ve been charged with leading on all things connected to learning outside of the classroom.  Other than revision that is.  Although that is partly me as well.

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So surely five years has been enough time to crack homework.  You could reasonably expect to see a school in which all staff set purposeful and meaningful homework that has watertight consistency across subject teams, students are intrinsically motivated to complete it and so do so without prompting, detentions are a thing of the past as every piece is handed in on time, to a high standard, and the learning train travels smoothly on towards its destination of brilliant outcomes for all.

Perhaps not.

However, while the homework utopia described above may be out of my reach no matter how long it remains my responsibility, I certainly feel we are much closer to it that we were when we started.  As one curriculum leader who will remain nameless said to my colleague: “We have gone from a school where students generally don’t do their homework to a school where they generally do.”

There are multiple causes of this positive shift.  The starting point was to improve the quality of the homework that was set.  Research evidence tells us that, for secondary school children, homework has a significant positive effect.  Sources such as the EEF Toolkit, Hattie’s meta analysis and Paul Kirschner all support this idea.  However, while they and others suggest homework is worthwhile, the huge and somewhat obvious caveat to this is that only good homework is worthwhile, rubbish homework is not.  Therefore the starting point for improving homework was to make sure that if students were being asked to spend their time completing it and expected to value it, then it must be high quality.

In order to achieve this lofty objective we asked departments to write homework policies that ensured that all homework set met one or several of the following four principles:

  • Embed – consolidate learning that has taken place in the classroom, e.g. revision for assessment or learning key knowledge.
  • Practice – refine knowledge and procedures learnt in the classroom based on feedback from the teacher, e.g. DIRT activities.
  • Extend – move learning beyond what has been achieved in the classroom, e.g. adding breadth to their existing knowledge.
  • Apply – use learning from the classroom to complete a specific task, e.g. writing a practice exam question based on content covered in a lesson.

These principles allowed leaders to articulate what was and was not purposeful homework in their subjects.  What it is has also led to is most departments developing generic and centrally produced homework that all teachers set at the same time.  Due to our curriculum focus being on the long-term retention of knowledge (both declarative and procedural) the majority of homework set tends to fall into the embed category.

Below is a typical example taken from a recent homework report I ran:

Romeo and Juliet revision Please focus your attention on Romeo and Juliet this Easter holiday. You must use the knowledge organiser (you can download a copy below) to create flash cards. You must use retrieval practice techniques to learn the content. We will do a test on this on the first lesson.

If you would like to watch a version of Romeo and Juliet, I have also included a link below.

Good luck.

In terms of monitoring quality and setting consistency we use an online platform called Connect.  This communicates homework to parents/carers and students and allows leaders to run reports looking at all the homework set across the school, within a department or by an individual teacher.  This allows for regular audits of the homework being set to ensure it meets one of the four principles.

Sitting alongside these principles is the problem of motivation.  One of the lessons of self-regulated learning as explained in the EEF Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning guidance report is that without motivation self-regulated learning will not take place.  In other words if they can’t be bothered and don’t see the point of homework they are unlikely to do it.  While intrinsic motivation is the gold standard we are unlikely to achieve this with the majority of our students and therefore have to rely on extrinsic motivation to get them on board.

The first step is to make them value homework and the see the purpose and benefit of doing it.  In order for this to happen we must make sure the output is as strong as possible.  In a recent blog Alex Quigley posed some excellent reflective questions for schools to consider when asking themselves whether the homework they were setting was good enough and students understood its purpose.  They were:

  • Are the students in possession of all the resources required to undertake the task independently?
  • What are the existing beliefs about home learning (students & teachers) that we need to recognise/challenge?
  • How can we best leverage parental support for home learning that is effectively communicated?
  • How do you plan to provide specific and timely feedback to students on their home learning?

I recently shared these with SLT for discussion and with line managers to take back to their subject leaders.

The final question is particularly pertinent and underpinning our principles is the non-negotiable that all homework must elicit feedback.  This can be in whatever form is most appropriate, be that peer marking closed questions, adaptation to teaching or detailed formative comments.  However, for students to value homework they need to know that the teachers place equal value on it.  Ensuring feedback is an essential facet of this.

Lastly there is the question of what to do about students who persistently fail to complete homework across several subjects.

The problem here falls broadly into those that are not willing and those that are not able to complete it.  For those not able due to a learning barrier or due to a chaotic home not conducive to completing work, we must provide support in completing it.  We run a support session once a week in our LRA (library) where biscuits, hot chocolate and support are offered for those students we identify as needing extra support.

For those that we identify as simply choosing not to do it we use tough sanctioning.  We want to create a culture where homework is valued by all and as such we must ensure that alongside all the work we doing on raising the quality and value of homework we must also send a clear message that not doing your homework is not acceptable.  As a result we conduct fortnightly homework sweeps on any incidences of missed homework logged on Connect.  Appearing on this sweep leads to increasing sanctions following each appearance.  Here we seek to support the classroom teacher as following up 6 or 7 students who have not done their homework is a huge drain on their time, which we want them to spend planning brilliant lessons.

The picture is still far from perfect, but is improving.  As I often tell our staff and students, homework is here to stay so we might as well get it right.

Posted by Chris Runeckles

 

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2 Responses to Cracking homework

  1. Brian says:

    Great post with lots of useful information.

    I find it counter productive to separate inschool work from homework. For me they are part and parcel of learning. The activities involved are varied but always support learning in school and are therefore always valuable and learners need to complete them to participate in school based work.

    For me homework tasks can be anything from reading, note making, assessment for reinforcement and/or diagnosis. Much homework for me is via automated self marking/diagnosing questions that require little overhead for marking/response. Although there are a few on social media who would describe me as “progressive”, all of my teaching is teacher directed/monitored even if learners are required to work independently.

    When I plan, I pick the best activities for learning and then simply allocate some to be done at home rather than inschool. I can’t see what all the fuss is about.

    I should say that I always explain the cirriculum and asessment to learners and justify why we are doing things as we are. I am yet to find a student who doesn’t buy in to the process, although some do require more encouragement, reminding and scaffolding.

    My guiding principle is therefore treat homework as any other work when planning and then just expect some of the work to be done at home. Sorted.

  2. Brian says:

    A asecond thought…
    You said…

    “Are the students in possession of all the resources required to undertake the task independently?
    What are the existing beliefs about home learning (students & teachers) that we need to recognise/challenge?
    How can we best leverage parental support for home learning that is effectively communicated?
    How do you plan to provide specific and timely feedback to students on their home learning?

    I recently shared these with SLT for discussion and with line managers to take back to their subject leaders.”

    This is a camel i.e. a horse designed by a committee. You are vastly overengineering this issue in my view, and I feel that is why most people struggle with it. KIS……….”this is bueaucracy gone mad”, as Weber must have said at some time in his life.

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