The Abolition of Homework? by @BST_Principal

Perhaps not… but is it time for a re-think?

Meditation sessions, long walks between classes and no homework? It sounds like most children’s dream education. This was the opening to a recent article in the UK’sDaily Mail written in response to a rather loose interpretation of a view expressed by Eve Jardine-Young, the Head of Cheltenham Ladies College in an earlier piece forThe Times. It appeared under a headline seemingly designed to convey incredulity:

Top girls’ public school set to ban homework – because it’s making teenagers DEPRESSED

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Brian Christian and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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Given The Mail’s reputation as a tabloid with a rather reactionary readership, some of the comments the article inspired were just a little predictable:

‘Designed to ward off anxiety?’ So why bother to teach them at all? Why not just have them chatting all day with a spot of shopping and a trip to the nail salon?

Wait a few decades & they’ll close all schools as it will be too much for children waking up early in the morning! Might be better to ban Facebook and twitter and let them concentrate on real life.

Goodness help us – more pampering for the poor little darlings. Post 1980 generations would never survive the deprivation, demands and stress of a war like our parents and grandparents did.

Much more surprising perhaps was the fact that a good number of those who took the time to express a view were essentially supportive of Ms Jardine-Young’s supposed objections to the idea of burdening her young charges with hours of additional study. A Scottish reader, calling herself Dakota, was sympathetic:

There should be homework but in moderation. Children spend all day in school so not all of the evening should be spent doing additional work (and this applies even to senior pupils). We all need time to chill.

While an Australian reader, JusticeNow, writing from Sydney advocated a balanced approach:

It doesn’t have to be one extreme or the other! Both extremes are damaging! Obviously teens need education and structure, but they need more down time too. Instead of homework, there should be more structured recreational activities, such as school clubs, sports, and social activities after school.

I would like to see changes to the education system to scale down educational demands during this period of rapid growth, while still maintaining a habit of study. Pounding kids with too much work is both damaging and counter-productive.

In truth, of course, Ms Jardine-Young had never suggested that a homework ban was imminent – a point she later had to make clear to her pupils who might otherwise have been tempted into premature celebrations. The argument she had actually put forward in the original article was that the traditional idea of homework should be reviewed, particularly given the opportunities arising from significant advances in technology and bearing in mind a great deal of recent concern about the mental health of our children. She was also mindful of the weight of research-based evidence to suggest that much traditional homework is at best ineffective and at worst potentially detrimental to students’ levels of academic attainment.

Do schools only set homework because parents expect it?

Is it true then – as many have suggested – that schools only set homework because parents expect it and that we should allow our pupils to reclaim their childhood? Or should we take note of the tuition-driven, homework-heavy climate that prevails in the PISA powerhouses of Asia and accept that there really is no gain without pain? As is so often the case, surely there has to be a balance; the answer must lie somewhere between the two extremes of the outright ban or the pile-it-on-at-all-costs approach.

Let us start with the very youngest children in our Nursery and Reception classes. I hope that no one would really care to dispute the idea that these little ones should have all the time in the world to play, to explore, to grow and develop in their own time – of course they should. But at this age the distinction between work and play is as blurred as it can be, and what happens at home is every bit as important as what goes on in school. How many parents’ most treasured moments have been those precious times spent with their children practising letters, colours and shapes? How long will you hold on to those memories of painting and making a mess together, of gluing and sticking, building (and demolishing!) or simply reading bedtime stories? This is learning – and it’s fun.

As all musicians of all ages will confirm, the simple idea of homework as practice is an important one. There are so many aspects of our learning that benefit from the little-and-often approach as we aim to turn something new to us into a familiar friend. Here in Japan it is often said that learning kanji is a physical exercise as much as a mental one: the repetition of the brush strokes building a muscle-memory that lasts forever. I am sure that the same may be said of playing a musical instrument. Practising simultaneous equations may be slightly different, but there is still no doubt that familiarity with mathematical exercises encourages confidence and that confidence, in turn, can help make mastery more attainable.

It is no surprise that success stories in music and sport invariably reference determination, single-mindedness and a strong work ethic…

Our musicians – like our sportsmen and women – can point us in the direction of another important benefit from regular homework. Talent may be a gift, but it is a worthless one if it is not accompanied by self-discipline and the capacity for hard work. It is no surprise that success stories in music and sport invariably reference determination, single-mindedness and a strong work ethic as often as they do ability. I have no doubt that, as long as young people can see its relevance, homework can help them to develop many of the attributes that will allow them to make the most of their abilities throughout life, including time management and a willingness to go the extra mile.

Perhaps ironically, the reforming impact of advances in technology has made us more aware of the most traditional of reasons for setting homework. Many of the older independent schools in the UK, including Cheltenham Ladies College, have never sethomework, preferring to call it prep: work set as preparation for the next lesson or the start of a new topic. Isn’t this simply another way of describing some elements of the very 21st Century concept of the flipped classroom? Now that so much information is just a click or two away, students can be encouraged to investigate many aspects of their subject before any significant teacher intervention. Their research can be guided – you might like to look at this clip on YouTube or visit these websites – but to some extent at least, students can begin to take ownership of their learning from the outset. As a result, they might even find themselves teaching the teacher.

The smile of triumphant satisfaction that always comes with independent achievement tells a powerful story…

And, of course, there is the small matter of independence. To return to the very young child for a moment, consider the toddler’s first unaided steps; or that first wobbling stabiliser-free solo effort on a bicycle; or even the first walk to school without Mum. None of these things happen without adult guidance and supervised practice, but the smile of triumphant satisfaction that always comes with independent achievement tells a powerful story: we love it when we know we’ve made it on our own. It is a primary function of schools – and parents – to provide a nurturing environment where children can grow and develop to the point where they don’t need us any more. Homework of the now-try-it-for-yourself variety is an important part of that provision

In Tokyo we are not blessed with the long summer evenings enjoyed by children in the UK (perhaps a topic for another blog!) but even so I believe that it is vital that all children are given plenty of time to play, to explore, to develop interests beyond the narrow focus of an exam-centred curriculum and simply to spend time with their families. That doesn’t mean the abolition of homework, but it does mean that teachers should think carefully about what they are aiming to achieve by setting it. It is our responsibility to get the balance right.


Image Source: henry… via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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About Brian Christian 11 Articles
Principal at the British School in Tokyo since 2012 and a Board member of the Council of British International Schools. A proud Manxman.
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