The homework debate, a week of reflecting

By June 14, 2015 Articles No Comments

A week ago The Times was good enough to reignite the debate about homework, thanks to its front page headline:

Times Headline 6-6-15

For those who didn’t read the piece, you should, it’s thought provoking, but – as one would expect, there was an immediate, vitriolic furore (isn’t Twitter wonderful?). However the crux of the article boils down to the following:

  • The headline makes it seem like homework is being banned at the school immediately, it’s not, a ban is being considered.
  • The reason it’s even being considered is that the Principal, Eve Jardine-Young, is trying to consider a range, “… of reforms to stem an “epidemic” of teenage mental illness…”.
  • As the piece says Ms Jardine-Young wants to put “…pupils’ well-being one a par with their academic grades…”

So my immediate reaction was what’s so wrong with that? Even The Times’ own opinion piece seemed to concur with that view

Times Comment 6-6-15

However, thanks to the Internet there was much harrumphing about the thought it should even happen. Some commentators even cited views along the lines of, and I paraphrase [accurately] “It’s alright for a posh school like them, but what about the others?”

Now clearly, thanks to my book, Unhomework: How to get the most out of homework without really setting it (Crownhouse Publishers) and the subsequent Inset and courses I provide through Independent Thinking Ltd (by the way, there is also another day course coming in October!) I have a vested interest. Immediately as I read the article I knew I would be expected to provide my view and I did, even promising to blog about it that weekend. But then, I did something different, I stopped, stepped away from the computer and decided to wait a week and have a more consider approach to the piece.

So, what did I gain by taking a week to respond? Well, as one would expect there was the usual comments from people who know little of education to read, though it does give a perspective of what (maybe) perceived  as, ‘the word on the street’. One glance at The Daily Mail comment section tells you a lot, and well done to the teachers on there defending Eve Jardine-Young, regardless of the type of school she leads. Unfortunately, the thread tends to prove this image all too true – though not only do they make the decisions, they comment too:

IMG_0385

Similarly, and somewhat depressingly, the responses from teachers ran along similar lines. Though perhaps, even more depressingly, teachers tended to cite that it had to be set and gave the following reasons (in Top 5 order, as I counted them):

  1. Parents expect it.
  2. It’s in the planning.
  3. There’s a policy.
  4. SLT expects it.
  5. It’s how things are done/ it’s part of childhood.

Much of which is summed up, as is so much in life, by Calvin and Hobbs:

routine

Now, I could turn this into my own vitriolic rant against homework, or into a massive push for more copies of my book to be sold and places on courses/ Insets to schools to be booked. However, I will sum it up in 7, simple words:

They are considering the children’s well-being!

So, why isn’t it as simple as that?

One of my old headteacher’s, Jane Winterbone ran ideas through a simple ‘so what?’ test. This meant, whatever initiative any of the SLT or middle leaders came up with we had to justify it in terms of the positive impact it would have on the children; considering the workload of the staff and communications, etc, etc all had their place. But the prime concern was the children – shouldn’t that always be the way? And that’s what, it appears to me, is the driving force behind Cheltenham College’s consideration of the place of homework.

So and with reference to a few past blogs:

I have to ask a few, as I see it, fundamental questions:

  1. What is education really for?
  2. Are so many people really so ignorant of the plight of so many children and the serious issue of mental health affecting them (see the lost generation blog)?
  3. Is, “We’ve always done it that way” really good enough?
  4. Have we really always done it that way anyway? (see below)
  5. Should we simply do things as parents expect us to?

NCLB comic

The issue of parents is an interesting one to me. Not too long ago I was debating the role of homework in schools, as a reflection on my book and was told by the person contradicting my view (or so they thought) that, ‘there isn’t an independent school that wouldn’t get rid of homework immediately’. When I pointed out that wasn’t what I suggested, but that they should do it differently and take a lead I was told; parents expect it, it would be suicide for the school to do it (slightly overegging the pudding somewhat) and – best of all, I sounded like a socialist! Ignoring the fact that I didn’t see the socialist accusation as a slur (having once been told I was to the right of Genghis Khan I saw it as having redressed the balance!) I noted with interest that the protagonist proposing this argument didn’t mention children once! No, apparently – and the recent response to The Times article is, we do it because of parental expectation and due to history!

Well, to me historical justification is the most pernicious, but let’s look at that history – from a personal perspective:

  1. I went to primary school in the late 70s/ early 80s, I can’t remember any homework I ever did – so it was either unforgettable, or I didn’t do it. (My parents can confirm apart from reading it wasn’t set!)
  2. I first remember homework coming at secondary school, though it was never too onerous, until GCSEs.
  3. Serious homework started with coursework completion at GCSEs, but then really kicked in during A Levels.

And, even if my personal recollections are skewed across time, is doing something because it’s always been done, or because it’s expected justifiable?

  • The cane/ slipper/ plimsoll.
  • O levels.
  • Writing with chalk on a slate.
  • Girls excluded from education.
  • Leaving school at 14.
  • Teachers smoking in the staffroom.

These are just a few examples of how things are always done, that (funnily enough) are not done that way anymore – and I know some people will be mourning some, if not all of those!

So why can’t it be the case with homework? Parents? Well, for most of them, their main experience of education comes from when they attended, not from a position of up to date, relevant knowledge – plus (and I am as guilty as any) parents want what’s best for their child, not the collective.

But let’s consider this; I’ve eaten the odd burger (or dozen), but I don’t think I can successfully run my own restaurant. I’ve even watched the odd episode of Casualty and even been in a doctor’s surgery, I’ve even experienced surgery, but this doesn’t make me qualified to practise medicine! (I think you get the point!) In fact, asking parents to decide the future of a school/ education as a whole is akin to what Henry Ford famously said:

henryford

No, education has to be in the hands of the professionals – not ‘experts’, Government ministers or even those with vested interests. So, should homework be banned? Honestly, I don’t know. As a child I hated it, it wasted my time for play. As a teacher, I dislike just as much, but I hate it most of all as a parent, especially as it takes up time that could be better spent, when worksheets/ ‘let’s set this because we have to’ work is set.

However, I think the parent argument is a convenient excuse. As I told Paula Middlehurst when I was interviewed on Sky News, the expectations placed on schools are now so high that extra time has to be found from somewhere and so homework fits that bill. Given how much mediocre homework is set, I don’t truly believe that most teachers truly subscribe to homework, but they just meet the expectations as they think they can’t change it:

"We don't have an exercise room here. You'll stay in shape by climbing the ladder, jumping through hoops, toeing the line..."

“We don’t have an exercise room here. You’ll stay in shape by climbing the ladder, jumping through hoops, toeing the line…”

But, it still boils down to one simple question. What about the children? Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth stated in October 2014 at a conference all about homework, “There are children in Britain today, thanks to homework, now working longer hours than their parents.” How can this be right? As I have asked recently in various posts, do we actually like children in Britain? As Nelson Mandela once said:

Mandela on children

Mandela on children

I wonder what people think of our country’s soul when they examine how we treat our children?

So, as the homework debate recedes again – which it will as it’s been a week since the article and will resurface when something else happens, at this time of year why don’t schools prepare for the new academic year reflecting on what Cheltenham Ladies College are doing? Shouldn’t we all have a long, hard look at the well-being of the children in our care and ask ourselves if we are doing everything for their benefit? This doesn’t mean doing what they want, but being prepared to do what they need and if things need to change, do it and be ready for September – ensuring developments are explained to parents. However, don’t stop there, keep using the ‘so what?’ mantra, as some changes will be longer term. Is something adding to, developing or supporting pupil well-being? If not, why is it being done?

It’s often been cited that teachers should have something akin to the Hippocratic Oath of doctors’, ‘Do no harm’ – a laudable sentiment. But, surely doing no harm is a basic. I would suggest, “Only do work to nurture the mind, body and emotions child” as a more appropriate sentiment of teaching. (I acknowledge there are probably others and better ones, but it’s a start!)

This approach may mean some things changing irrevocably in some situations, but if we are truly to focus on the well-being of the child, then why is this such a problem? If it’s the child, individual and collective, that we value as teachers then surely it’s worth it? Tough decisions may need to be made. Budget priorities may need to be re-examined. Tough conversations may need to be had; with staff and parents. Homework may even be seen as a benefit (though I hope this is not the case with worksheets/ word searches/ closed texts etc. Yes they are still set!)

But whatever happens, as we move closer to the third decade of this century than to the first, the following wise words from Einstein still resonate:

einstein - problems

So, when was the last time you re-examined your thinking, about homework, or anything else in your school?

Isn’t it time you should?

About M Creasy

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