The homework debate – when is enough, enough?

Students at Hastings School, a Cognita school in Spain

In the wake of a ‘homework strike’ in Spain, the debate about whether homework should be regulated arrives in Spanish Parliament this year. Gary Cook, School Support Coordinator at Hastings School in Madrid, sifts through the research to find the actual impact of homework.

For generations, appropriate homework has formed part of school life and part of a student’s journey towards autonomy. But there is growing unease in Spain, above all regarding the amount of homework set. This is a debate that becomes all the more heated when we consider that much research highlights the limited impact homework has on young children’s performance (in contrast to the proven impact it has on Sixth Form students).

Appropriate homework

Much has been written about the recommended amount of homework for different key stages.  Harris Cooper, Doctor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, has spent decades investigating the impact of homework. He concludes that tasks set to practise something that has already been learned do lead to better test results, whatever the key stage. A small amount of homework enables primary school pupils to develop good study habits and may include:

  • Independent practice of a newly-learned procedure – beneficial only for a few minutes
  • Learning key facts (multiplication tables or spelling patterns) in short but regular bursts
  • Researching the subject they are about to study in class, getting parents involved in their search for knowledge and thus boosting motivation
  • Developing a love of reading every day – reading alone, reading together, and listening to others read
  • Finishing a task they weren’t able to complete in class, so long as they have agreed this with the teacher. The pupil knows what has to be done and wants to finish it, so that they’re ready to tackle the next challenge confidently. In any case, when a pupil has been working at a task for 20 minutes without success, the best thing for everyone concerned is to stop and write a note to the teacher.

Secondary age children more often come across creative and challenging tasks. Homework to reinforce learning is also important here, particularly before exams and tests, which help to ascertain a student’s level of competence, and serve as a tool to guide future instruction.

Examples from other countries
There has been a great deal of discussion recently about the Finnish education system, where students are set relatively little homework compared to other countries. This country made sixth place in the OECD Maths and Science ranking.

There are other countries that recommend little homework, particularly for younger learners.  The U.S. National PTA, for example, insists that up to Year 3 homework should not exceed 20 minutes a day, rising gradually to an hour in Year 7.

No doubt we all want to learn from the best models and we believe in a holistic education that includes free time to play, helping our children grow into balanced, independent, confident adults. But we shouldn’t lose sight of each country’s cultural context. The success of Finland’s school system is normally attributed to reforms made in the 1970s and the long-term vision which has lent stability to their educational model and earned teachers the respect of society.

The parents’ role
Homework can promote both independent learning and personal responsibility. But it also offers parents a valuable insight into the work done at school and an opportunity to express their positive attitude towards learning.

Here John Hattie identifies a key factor in his synthesis of research: parental support for students’ autonomy improves academic performance, whereas parent intervention in the form of instruction can have a negative impact on performance.

A wealth of research in this area shows that when parents have high expectations for their children (and as a result the students have high aspirations), this has a much greater impact on their performance than supervising or monitoring homework.

And here lies the key, something that Carol Dweck called Growth Mindset, or changing to a more positive way of thinking. The pupil has to be made to see and feel that hard work brings improvement.  This improvement is within their grasp so long as we show them that we believe it is, through good communication at home and guidelines for improvement from teachers.

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