Homework is complicated

20 Oct 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 20 Oct 2020

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash
Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

Can homework plug the learning gap? Work from Parenting NI indicates the benefits of homework are complicated – and there is no one perfect policy.

It’s Parenting Week. This year’s seven days celebrating the role of parents is, like everything else in the pandemic, the most unusual version of itself in a long time.

Schools are closed and therefore most children are off for what is technically an extra-long half term but is truthfully an effort to save Northern Ireland’s hospitals from being overwhelmed by Covid-19.

Moreover, it is questionable schools would be closed if Stormont had broader powers to tackle the virus.

The NI Executive stated weeks ago that keeping schools open was its number one priority, and closures would be a last resort. Indeed, shutting almost anywhere else would be a preference.

However, Stormont simply does not have the financial wriggle room to implement its own furlough scheme or to offer enormous packages to support businesses (while several schemes have been put in place they would not on their own compensate for major lockdowns) – meaning MLAs are circumspect about the immediate economic impact of any shutdowns they impose.

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland’s R number is high. The rate of new cases is skyrocketing. Left to run, this would swamp the health service (and it might do so anyway). Reducing R means reducing the number of close contacts between people. And, so, schools have shut their doors.

This is an immense source of frustration for parents, children and indeed politicians, who desperately want to avoid more educational gaps after most schoolkids missed months of classroom time in spring and early summer.

Many mums and dads will be thinking again about how to plug those gaps as best they can.

Homework – and catch up

In September, Parenting NI published a short paper looking at homework, and what we know about its effects, benefits and drawbacks.

The picture is demonstrably unclear. Polar opposite approaches – either lots of homework, or almost none – are seemingly among the most successful in the world.

According to Parenting NI: “In the end, there is no easy answer with regards to homework. This is because it cannot be properly removed from the wider educational system and examined without context.”

It’s important to note that homework is that it is not the same as remote learning. In fact, the kind of en masse remote learning local children may face over the coming months (albeit hopefully not) is something we know very little about.

While homework might have some obvious parallels with remote learning (especially from the point of view of parents, and the role they have to play in learning), an analysis of one cannot be taken as an analysis of the other.

However, with months of learning already lost, and perhaps more to come, wouldn’t it be great if homework could help children catch up on lessons that were missed?

Local approach

Northern Ireland’s schools are allowed to set their own homework policy. Each school should share this policy with parents, including information such as time expected per night, how to respond if children are set too much work, and what the school will do if children do not meet the expected standards.

The stated aims of homework can vary school to school but, in general, most settings want homework to help keep parents informed of what their children are learning, provide chances to reinforce that learning at home, and to encourage independent study.

A survey in 2018 found local children spend on average 6.3 hours a week on homework, the highest in the UK, with a quarter of local kids receiving four or more pieces of work to do per day.

The biggest natural divide is probably between primary and post-primary schools. For a range of reasons, post-primary schools tend to set more homework. Despite the evidence base for homework being complex, this is one area where such a distinction is backed by research – albeit plenty of subtlety remains.

“There is some evidence that homework being set and done in secondary schools has a positive impact on GCSE results.

“Research has also found that for older children homework was linked to better test scores and outcomes. Additionally in the NI system, both GCSE and AS/A-Level work often requires independent work at home…

“What about primary level? This is more contested, with some educators arguing that primary school homework does not improve academic outcomes and causes stress to both children and their parents. In fact, one American research analysis found that for children aged under 11, there was no link between homework and improved academic achievement.

“While some schools and parents have argued this should mean no homework ought to be set for primary school children, the issue is more complex. If we consider again the objectives of homework laid out in the homework policies of primary schools, it is clear that at least in Northern Ireland the “point” of homework is not only better test scores.

“It is meant to engage parents with their child’s learning and provide students an opportunity to develop useful independent study skills. The solution found by many schools and districts that have “done away” with formal set homework is to instead ask that parents and students do other relevant activities at primary level. This might mean reading or other tasks that are related to the work the child is doing in school.

“Research has found that it is the quality of the task, rather than the quantity that is important for homework.”

Finland and Singapore

Parenting NI examines two countries that both have hugely successful education systems, and which have very different approaches to homework – Finland and Singapore.

Finnish children have far less homework than children in the UK, and spend less time per day in school.

“Many experts put the success of the Finnish system down to the quality of teaching, and the esteem with which teaching is viewed as a career.

“Therefore, while less homework is one aspect of the Finnish system, it is not the central component nor the crucial element to explain its success. However, opponents of homework have pointed to the Finnish model as proof that homework is not necessarily required to achieve good educational results.

“Some researchers and experts disagree with the idea that homework is not necessary. Prof Susan Hallam from the Institute of Education argues that homework has a strong influence on the success of children in the British educational system.”

Meanwhile, in Singapore, school days and academic years are similar to those in the UK, but the homework burden is much greater, with children spending around 9.4 hours per week working at home by the age of 15.

“An OECD study found that 78% of Singaporean students were afraid of the impact of academic failure on their lives – compared to an average of 54%.

“In addition, Singapore’s focus on more traditional routine style learning (including lots of homework) has raised questions about the efficacy of the whole system and critics argue that students become very good at taking exams, but not necessarily being creative independent thinkers.”

Moving forward

It would be useful to have a clear and simple picture as to how homework affects children, knowledge of its benefits and disbenefits, and be able to construct policies in line with this knowledge.

But reality isn’t always clear or simple and it seems the truth about homework is very complex.

Per Parenting NI: “Homework presents an unusual challenge for parents. It has been a fixture in education since the earliest days of standardised teaching. It has been around for a very long time – the British Museum has an example of a 2000 year old homework book.

“Like many things that have been around for a long time, it is possible that parents, children and teachers take it for granted that it is still important or necessary.”

When it comes to filling in the learning gap that exists for children due to the great upheavals of 2020, upping the amount of homework children take on over the next months and years is seductive in its simplicity.

However, any such plan should come with some caution. Parenting NI cites a Stanford study found that 56% of students considered homework to be a “primary source of stress” that can lead to sleep deprivation and which leaves less socialising or extracurricular activities (both of which are also very important for child development, and both of which have also been hamstrung by the pandemic).

The bottom line, insofar as there is one, is that Northern Ireland should have a homework framework that best suits Northern Ireland. Drilling further down, individual schools should have policies that work for them.

Parenting NI concludes: “While a child in Singapore might benefit a lot from 9 hours of homework, a student in the Finnish system might do worse. When looking at changing and improving educational outcomes and personal development via homework, parents, schools and policy makers should take a careful approach.

“Still, there is a strong argument that the current system could be improved. NI students, particularly those in Primary school are being given more homework than their peers in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. We know that this can cause stress, and that outcomes are not necessarily improved by giving them large volumes of work.

“While it is understandable and reasonable that every school sets its own homework policy, it might be worthwhile for a full review of the current system to take place. That way, parents will know what to expect, and schools will be provided with a yardstick to measure their own homework policies and have access to best practice.”

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