The role of homework when we return…

Like the majority of curriculum leaders much of my thinking over the last 4-6 weeks has centred on ensuring we provide the best online learning experience possible for our students, however as time progresses my thoughts have turned more and more about what to do when schools do ultimately re-open. At the forefront of these thoughts has been how to address the inevitable learning gaps that will have developed during the school closures. Mark Enser spoke about these gaps earlier this week during in TES webinar which can be found here. In his talk Mark discussed how, despite our best efforts, gaps in learning will develop during this period of distance teaching, due to the limits of remote teaching, the varying independent study skills of our students and the extenuating circumstances surrounding our disadvantaged students. Mark goes on to talk about how important these gaps are, as they are likely to have implications for students understanding of threshold concepts and schema, while also practically impacting on exam content.

When I brought this topic up during our most recent virtual department meeting, the conversation naturally leaned towards the role that homework could play in supporting this. Conversations I have had with other leaders have also referred to the part that homework may or may not play in supporting that transition back into learning.

Whilst I do not doubt that homework will form a significant part of our return plans, I am fearful that we run the risk of overestimating the role that homework can play and putting it on a pedestal it cannot fulfil. The benefits of setting homework have been closely studied, with the EEF guidance indicating that homework can instigate 5 months of additional progress. There is a consistent picture that pupils in schools which give more homework perform better, and therefore homework will be a useful tool in closing the learning gaps. However the picture is more complex, as correlation does not necessarily mean causality. Although homework setting is likely to be having an impact there are lots of other variables that may influence achievement within those schools that set large amounts of homework. Furthermore below the average 5 month benefits identified by the EEF, there is wide variation in the potential impacts depending on the type and how the homework is set.

EEF homework

We have to consider that if students have struggled to learn the content through remote teaching, than simply resetting the work as homework for the sake of homework is likely to encounter the same barriers and achieve very little. So we therefore need to think carefully about how and what we are going to set as homework if we want it to have the impact we need.

Now, like most of us at this time, I don’t pretend to have the answers or silver bullet solution, and what I outline below is only what we have discussed within our team and between subject leaders at Durrington.

In geography we intend to initially use our homework to identify the gaps that have developed, and then secondly to target and fill these. The research behind homework suggests that targeted and focused interventions are likely to be more successful, and therefore identifying what is required will be essential. To do so we plan to set regular low stake quizzes (likely through google forms) and also asking student to self-evaluate their confidence/knowledge against topic checklists or knowledge organisers. This will then allow us to adapt our curriculum and teaching to address these, while also creating bespoke follow up homework tasks that target areas of concern that we/our students identify – homework will not be set for the sake of it! In addition as we begin to teach new topics, we also plan to create a spacing effect by maintaining at least some of the homework focus on the material covered during lockdown.

Finally, while we do not do things solely for the purpose of examinations, we also have to consider the loss of time and exam practice for our GCSE cohorts. The knee-jerk reaction would be to set lots of exam questions as homework tasks, however in doing so we have to consider the following; how can we model the self-regulation and metacognition required when answering exam questions and secondly the marking load this could create. As such when setting exam questions for homework, the geography team are also going to accompany these with a video of a staff member tackling the question or a similar question to guide student’s regulation and metacognitive thinking. An example of one of these videos can be found here. In regards to the marking load, while students will be expected to attempt some exam questions in full, we will also ask students to plan answers to some longer answer questions, where they will show their metacognitive thinking and the subject knowledge/content required to answer the question. This will give us a great insight into students understanding of the content/question and their thought processes without the need to mark an overwhelming 6 and 9 mark questions.

help marking

In Art & Design, Steve Bloomer and his team, have also been thinking about homework on our return. They intend to do something similar by creating checklists for students to review as part of their homework to identify gaps in their project work and where they need to gather more evidence of skills etc. These checklists will the form the basis and guide for the homework students will do subsequently. In addition to this the team plan to designate some of their SPDS (subject meetings) to regularly review sketch books identify gaps in student skills and then adapt their teaching and homework setting to address these. This is an excellent example of how these fortnightly SPDS can be used to support the necessary adaptions we are all going to have to make when we do return. In regards to their year 10 groups, the Art department have begun to consider how their homework norm may need to change. Traditionally the homework they have set has been around sketch book work, however during lockdown much of the teaching and learning they have been doing has had to focus on sketch book work due to it being more accessible to students. This has meant that larger/practical work has had to take a back seat, due to lack of specialist materials, equipment and space. Once students return the expectation of sketch book work may need to be reduced, and students given greater opportunity/time to work on their larger pieces. This point serves to emphasise how we may all need to think about how we have done things traditionally and how this may need to change.

Homework will most certainly play a part of addressing the learning gaps we know are developing during this time, but in the same way that our curriculum and classroom practice will need careful thought and planning, it is essential that we don’t just throw homework’s at the problem in the hope that something will stick.

By Ben Crockett, Head of Geography and Research School Associate, Durrington High School

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