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Homework 16.09.16

Homework

The value of homework has been much debated in the world of education in recent years. I have noticed, as a parent, how expectations of younger children have changed since I was at school. I did no homework whatsoever before moving to senior school at the age of 11, but primary school children, whether educated in independent prep or local primary schools, are now expected to work at home in the evenings. This trend started in 1998 when Labour Education Minister David Blunkett issued recommendations for schools on the amount of homework their pupils should be undertaking. This ranged from 30 minutes in Years 5 and 6, 90 minutes in Year 7, up to 2 and a half hours in the GCSE years. These guidelines were scrapped in 2012 by Michael Gove, who felt that it was up to individual schools to make the decision as to how much homework their pupils should do.

Unusually, I find myself in agreement with Mr Gove on this matter. Recent OECD research indicated that British 15 year olds do an average of 5 hours’ homework per week and that this is bang in the middle of the international range. However, LGS in common with most independent schools believes that our boys should be doing rather more than these in the GCSE years if they are targeting the A*/A grades that will keep their academic options open at A Level and beyond.

There has been a lot of debate at the Grammar School about homework in the last 18 months, and my predecessor, Mr Fisher, wrote to parents on the matter a year ago. I would like to make clear that twenty years of experience in high-achieving schools convince me of the value of carefully-planned and varied homework tasks. Boys have very busy days at school and move rapidly during the school day (at least up to GCSE) between vastly different subjects. Homework helps them to stop, reflect and consolidate what they have encountered in their teaching in any given week.

At the beginning of term training days, the entire LGS teaching staff discussed the topic of what makes good homework. Ensuring that homework remains purposeful will be one of our key teaching priorities for this academic year and the Student Council intends to launch a survey of all boys towards the end of this term to get feedback on how successful we are with this aim.

The nature of homework tasks will vary and this variety is a critical part of their effectiveness; depending on the needs of different academic subjects, the type of homework will differ and, within subjects, students will be set different tasks over the academic year. Examples of homework tasks which will be set include:

  • Practice: exercises which allow boys to consolidate knowledge gained in class.
  • Extension: an exercise that takes learning in class to a higher level, and helps the teacher to understand how well the new topic has been understood in the context of previous learning.
  • Research tasks: using texts and the internet to support researching skills.
  • Occasional completion of classwork.
  • Preparatory work to be completed which allows accelerated progress in the subsequent lesson. This might include:
    • Making notes or a mind-map, problem-solving, watching an educational video
    • Revision for school tests

This last aspect is of particular interest to me. When I was a young Modern Languages teacher, we would teach the easy stuff (new vocabulary) in lessons and then set essays for homework when the expert (the teacher!) wasn’t in a position to help. This final bullet point above is termed ‘flipping’ in current educational jargon and has been widely adopted by teachers in recent years. The idea is that we reverse or ‘flip’ the learning process with boys putting in the groundwork by covering the basics of a topic by themselves in advance. The most challenging tasks are then done in lessons, where the teacher can support them and jump in to iron out any misunderstandings as soon as they arise.

As with many ‘new’ ideas, it turns out not to be new at all. Many schools call their homework ‘prep’ which, after all, is short for preparation – precisely what we are talking about. I would not want all homework tasks to be of this kind but, as with so many things in life, variety and balance are positives for our boys. It is therefore an acceptable homework if a boy is asked to watch a video or to read material and make notes. We understand that he have to ensure that the work is actually being done! When a traditional homework task is written, the evidence is there in front of us in the exercise book. Teachers are fully aware that the next lesson must contains tasks that make it clear to them that this ‘flipped’ homework has been done. As parents, if you are able to engage your sons and to ask them to explain briefly what they have read or watched, it will be very beneficial to their learning.

Tutors are often asked about the amount of homework that boys should be doing on a daily basis. Interestingly, three-quarters of our recent Parent Survey responses said that the amount of homework was ‘about right’ and the remainder was split equally on either side. The instructions given to teachers can be found in the grid below:

Daily homework expectations

Y6 Y7 Y8 Y9 Y10+Y11 Sixth Form
Approx 30 mins total per day 3 subjects 3 subjects 3 subjects 3

subjects

Boys are expected to do around 15 hours of work outside the classroom per week. This should include their ‘study’ periods
25 mins each 30 mins each 35 mins each 40-45 mins each

In many cases, there will be 4 subjects set on Friday evenings.

I would like to emphasise that the length of homework is an imprecise science; a task that one boy rushes through in 15 minutes may take another an hour. Please communicate with your son’s tutor if he is consistently at one of these extremes. In some cases, boys need guidance in how to avoid over-complication, while others require advice on showing greater attention to detail.

How can I support my son’s homework?

I hope that the list below will provide some useful pointers for parents:

  1. Keep a designated homework area at home. Experience shows that routines help to produce effective working. Your son should work consistently in the same area of the house. Practically, this means that all of his equipment is to hand and time is therefore not wasted looking for what he requires. It also helps to create the discipline needed to work effectively day after day.
  2. Help him to keep hydrated. Research has shown that a majority of us do not drink enough water, so a water bottle to hand is a good idea. Also, think about offering a small, perhaps edible, reward once the first or second subject has been completed.
  3. Your son should work in a quiet environment. Very few people can work effectively with music blaring out. There is some evidence that listening to Mozart boosts brain capacity; there is no evidence that listening to Taylor Swift or Kanye West does the same. Homework should certainly not be done on the bus! A little reading on the bus to consolidate learning in class or to set up homework is acceptable, but if you hear “I’ve done all my homework on the bus”, intervention is certainly required!
  4. Please refrain from completing your son’s homework for him. If he is ‘stuck’, by all means give help if you can, but it is detrimental to his future progress if you do it for him, as his teacher will believe that he understands the topic perfectly. It is much better if the piece of work reveals his misconceptions so that his teacher can intervene to help.
  5. Please try not to get stressed out by homework or by your son’s attitude to it. This will always be counter-productive. Try to find every opportunity to praise and encourage!

 I hope that you find this first blog post informative and useful. My topics will vary week by week, but I will usually focus on educational matters, rather than celebrating achievements or bringing your attention to future events. I would welcome any feedback, or alternatively requests for future subject matter at [email protected]

 

Heron