I’m a bit over this whole ‘homework’ debate! Research findings across the years seem to come to pretty much the same conclusion – there’s a good side and a bad side to homework. Nothing new here.

I’ve been a primary teacher for 25 years and avoided what I considered to be useless and time-wasting ‘fillers’ – consolidation of spelling and number facts have their place within the realms of homework, but tasks which aimed to stretch the student’s imagination  and creativity were much more in line with my view of homework. The quality of ‘at home’ tasks kids can produce when they are truly bitten by the learning bug is amazing!

Teaching content by way of giving it as homework is a poor reflection on our overcrowded curriculum – but it happens. Kids should be inspired by a world of knowledge they don’t yet have, and motivated to learn more….everyday. We know that doesn’t happen under our current structure and system of education – Sir Ken Robinson spends his life trying to convince us that we need to re-think our models of teaching and learning and, as a by product of that, how and why we give homework. It shouldn’t be a chore, but it is  – and more often than not the parents become either the task-master or the surrogate researcher or homework assistant. When parents are standing by the school gate talking about homework or an assignment that’s “too much”, we know we’ve got it wrong.

The most recent Australian research on parent involvement in homework confirms earlier research conducted in the UK  in 2008 on the more general issue of parental involvement and support of their children’s learning. The critical finding claimed that “parental involvement in their child’s learning is the single most powerful predictor of achievement by age 16.” The Australian study found, “…. where parents support their children’s autonomy and essentially try to provide guidance and assistance rather than being interfering and controlling, that’s beneficial for students.”

We could go on and on about the rights and wrongs of homework; the benefits and the disadvantages. But the one thing we don’t address nearly enough is the ‘culture’ around setting homework – there are many teachers who are made to feel uncomfortable if they set limited homework….often because parents expect more…. that’s the ‘culture’ we have created. Until we change the ‘culture’ we will always have divided opinion, regardless of what any of the research says.

I remember teaching a gifted and talented class a few years ago – these kids were guns! They (and their parents) lived and breathed education. With the exception of maybe three or four students, all undertook additional after-school tutoring – not to keep up with Year 5 and 6 work, but to push them ahead. Some of these kids were doing Year 9 maths at tutoring college and were under enormous pressure to achieve.

At the end of Term 1 these students were asking for ‘holiday homework’, so I asked them to take out their diaries and copy down my instructions. “Pick up a ball, take it to the park and kick it or throw it to someone. Find a book you want to read, and read it. Sit quietly in your room and imagine where you might be in 15 years. Listen to some music. Play a board game, not an electronic one. Go on a picnic with your family. Talk to your mum and dad about ‘stuff’ that interests you.” You could have heard a pin drop – the looks on their faces were priceless. “But where’s the real homework?” one called out. “That’s it”, I said. Within 24 hours, I had more than one parent question the homework – “but you can’t be serious”, said one. “Extremely”, I replied. They didn’t ‘get’ that this was indeed ‘homework’ for many of these kids – this was living – this was developing life and social skills.

We can argue about the quality or quantity of homework across all phases of education, but the one constant is this – homework is here to stay in some form or another, unless there is a massive upheaval of our current teaching and learning  models and ‘culture’ of expectations, both professionally and parentally. What we can, and should, encourage is the alignment of homework with developing life skills – if we can’t beat it, we need to find a way to make it as painless as possible.

If we want kids to make any kind of effort with homework, particularly in the high school years, we need to make it relevant and ‘real’ – something they see will benefit them beyond the school gate.

When I work with parents, and even students in their senior years who argue the point that the homework tasks they are set are ‘useless’, ‘pointless’ and have little relevance, I remind them of the life skills they are developing every time they do an assignment. I tell them to forget about the content – focus on the skill. At some stage they will have a boss who will ask them to complete a task. They will need to understand what the boss wants them to do; think about how long it’s going to take; do they need to do any background work or research before they start; what needs to be done first, second, third; how long will each little task take etc. Bottom line – if the job is not done on time, the boss will find someone else to do it.

The skills involved in completing an assignment are life skills. Understanding what is being asked, planning, prioritising, managing time, organising are as much part of a homework assignment as they are part of life itself. If we must insist on continuing with homework as part of our education system, at least let’s make it relevant….and let’s think outside the square a little better as to what kind of homework we are assigning our kids. If it seems useless, maybe it is on face value.

Our job as educators and parents is to bring some relevance and meaning to it all. Would we want to waste our precious down time doing something that seems pointless? I think not. Why should kids think any differently? Homework as such is not the issue – it’s the ‘culture’ that needs to change.