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Should Australian schools ban homework?

The recent decision by French President Francois Hollande to abolish homework from French schools has reignited the long running debate about homework. This debate has been around for more than a century…

School students everywhere could look forward to no more homework. Homework image from www.shutterstock.com

The recent decision by French President Francois Hollande to abolish homework from French schools has reignited the long running debate about homework.

This debate has been around for more than a century and remains a contentious issue for parents, students and education researchers alike.

A lengthy debate

Last month’s promised ban came as part of Hollande’s wider reforms to education, and followed widespread teacher and parent agitation for a short-term ban on homework in France earlier in the year.

At that time, the president of a French teachers’ organisation stated that homework reinforces socioeconomic and educational inequalities, saying: “Not all families have the time or necessary knowledge to help their offspring.”

On the other side of the debate, the president of another French parents’ association spoke in support of homework and stated: “Of course, it has to be reasonable, but going back over a lesson is the best way of learning things.”

Homework, broadly defined as tasks given to students during non-school hours, has long been the subject of both pro- and anti-homework campaigns, some of which have resulted in court action and the abolition of homework for students in some school grades.

Abolishing homework

The recent French announcement has led to calls for the abolition of homework in some German and American schools. So should homework be abolished in Australia?

The answer to this question requires a closer look at what homework is supposed to do, and whether it achieves these goals for students of all backgrounds.

Homework image from www.shutterstock.com

The most comprehensive list of reasons for setting homework has been compiled by American researcher Joyce Epstein. These include the practice of already learnt skills, preparation for the next lesson, parent-child communication about school activities, the requirements of school or education department policies, and the enhancement of the reputation of the school or teacher.

But most empirical research into homework focuses on three main issues: does homework enhance student learning and achievement outcomes? Does homework help students to develop the skills of independent, self-directed learning? Does homework involve parents in the educational activities of their children in ways that are beneficial?

The conclusions

In our new book Reforming Homework: Practices, Learning and Policy, we have reviewed and evaluated the research evidence on each of the three issues.

While this research is complex and there are many caveats, the following broad conclusions can be drawn. In terms of academic achievement, homework has no benefit for children in the early years of primary school, negligible benefits for children in the later years of primary school, weak benefits for junior high school students and reasonable benefits for senior high school students.

Sound research has demonstrated that spending more time on homework is associated with lower student achievement; this finding is complemented by research showing that in countries with high homework demands, student performance on international tests of achievement is poor.

Self-directed learning skills are associated with doing homework but the research indicates that the development of these skills occurs when parents are able to assist upper primary and junior secondary school students with their homework.

Parental involvement in their children’s homework activities can be both beneficial and detrimental. It can be detrimental when parents are over-controlling or interfering, but can be beneficial to student motivation when parents provide autonomy and a supporting learning environments for their children.

An Australian ban?

In our book we have argued that rather than abolition, homework needs to be reformed. Generally speaking, homework needs to be better planned by teachers and needs to be of a higher quality.

But it won’t be easy – homework needs to be challenging for students but not too challenging, it needs to be interesting and motivating, and students also need adequate feedback.

So the way forward is to start a conversation between teachers, parents and students about the sort of homework students need. The routine of completing homework (if done well) can help with self-management, planning and organising skills, but these skills take a long time to learn.

Homework setting and practice will have to change so that students are learning about self-management and self-regulation. The sort of homework tasks that promote learning these skills will not focus on drill and practice but require homework tasks where students make some decisions and choices and also exercise some autonomy.

At the same time, guidance for students who do not have family support will require planning (and provision) to complete these sorts of more complex homework tasks. The books explores the equity implications of homework and how providing guidance and support for students should be explicitly planned as part of a homework curriculum.

Less homework, better homework

Overall, there should be less homework, especially homework that emphasises drill and practice. Homework should also be there as a a bridge between the community and the school. In particular, homework needs to be planned around the community’s and family’s fund of knowledge – which may be different from what the curriculum is based on.

In essence, homework can help children but perhaps not in the ways we think. And much of it depends on what you want homework to achieve and how parents and teachers see it.

One of the authors of this article has a six year-old daughter in her first year of school. When he asks his daughter to collect a reader from her school bag, bring it to the place she has chosen for the shared reading and decides who reads first and when, this may not seem like homework.

But in fact focusing on her choice and autonomy will help develop independent learning skills, skills that will hopefully last her lifetime. Understanding homework as a path to independent learning needs to be the first step.

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25 Comments sorted by

  1. Adam Richards

    Teacher

    I agree, there needs to be more planning and thought put into homework. Homework ideally should reinforce the skills that students are learning that day or week. Too many teachers just give extra/unrelated/new material as homework, without taking whether it is actually beneficial for the students.

    What annoys me the most is when a teacher gives homework and expects it to be done the next day. This is due to there being little evidence regarding the usefulness of homework, but plenty of evidence…

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    1. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Adam Richards

      "Setting superfluous or busy work homework just results in students being discouraged from forming good study habits."

      Indeed. The two types of homework that I found particularly silly were those where the parents ended up being effectively forced to do the vast majority of the work with very little that could be done by the children and also "craft workshops" where children were assumed to need cutting-and-pasting to learn abstract concepts.

      If the education system is capable of coming up with such silly, wasteful homeworks then I expect progress on this issue to take a long, long time.

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    2. John Zigar

      Engineer, researcher

      In reply to Adam Richards

      Yep, see the example of my daughter having to draw Ned Kelly and look him up on the internet. Yesterday, she was asked to explore customs, traditions and beliefs of the Phillipines - completely unrelated to her work at school. The questions appear to be taken from a university course - and she's in year 8.

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  2. Brenton Prosser

    Senior Research Fellow in Policy, Sociology and Public Health at University of Canberra

    Useful article that gets to the nub of what is the bane of many teachers - homework imposed as a pseudo religious rite of passage into adult work-life imbalance, rather than as an engaging pedagogical tool.

    Most pertinent with 'national go home on time day' set for next week:
    http://www.gohomeontimeday.org.au/

    As a further practical example of what the authors mean by helpful homework, please consider:
    Quinn, R. (2008). Putting the home back into homework: An example of middle school reform. Curriculum Perspectives, 28(3), 48-58.

    I am looking forward to reading their book.

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  3. Tracy Heiss

    logged in via Facebook

    It's great to see some more research in this area. My personal philosophy on homework is; READ. I believe that fostering a love of reading would be far more benerficial to every student than the usually seen 'anything will do' approach. Reading a text of choice is particularly important. Regardless of the topic (science, maths, agriculture, etc), unless a child can read, then very little learning can occur.

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  4. Jane Stephens

    logged in via Twitter

    I read somewhere a few months ago that the advent of tablets and other interactive tools were basically changing the way teachers structure classrooms. The idea was that kids would learn the lesson via their device, whether it be a video presentation coupled with interactive apps to cement learning and understanding, and that this would be done at home. Then at school the teacher would review the lesson done the evening before and therefore be able to identify those who are struggling with the concepts being taught. So basically, homework would be done at school with the supervision of their teacher. That way any inequality at home is nullified.
    My daughter was involved in an ipad trial at her school this year which was a huge success. Both of my girls have ADHD so anything that takes the boredom and rote out of learning is a huge improvement!

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  5. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    Interesting one. Looking back at my time in school I would have said most homework was directed learning that often wasted time on things that I didn't need to spend more time on or insisted that a particular approach be used whether it worked for me or not. I tried to do as little of this directed homework as possible.
    By contrast, I did a lot self directed learning that was never classified as homework. I would get interested in a certain issue and would often pursue until the library ran out of books on the topic or a new focus of interest came up. While this interest often didn't fit in with the school program over time it added to the depth of my education.
    As exams approached my study became very self directed. It became a matter of working out what I needed to know and getting on with it.
    Getting students interested in learning is far more important than setting and marking homework.

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  6. terry lockwood

    maths/media/music/drama teacher

    It might be nice to decouple learning and work. Teachers should foster in young people a desire to understand and be fascinated by the world. 'Homework' sounds like, well frankly, work!
    Wouldn't it be good if in time it became known as 'home learning' not by re-badging or declaration by school policy but because students get to become an expert in their chosen field. They might even be proud of being the go-to person on their topic.
    However, a school's homework problem often forms part of the marketing plan. The more homework, the better the school, apparently. Along with nice blazers.

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  7. Nick Ross

    Geologist

    My son's school has ditched so many normal lessons and now fannies around with ethics classes, anti-bullying lessons, anti-drugs lessons - he's 10 by the way and we live in the gangland of Sydney's Lower North Shore - that homework is the time where I get to teach him stuff. You know, like spelling and maths. I try and get him to play historical video games as he doesn't do any of that. He learns science and engineering from Skyrim and Minecraft.

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    1. John Davidson

      Retired engineer

      In reply to Nick Ross

      Nick: Homework makes it possible for someone to be educated while filling up school time with the sort of stuff you complain about. Banning homework would encourage people like you to pressure schools and politicians to concentrate on the things that really count instead of all the nice to haves.

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  8. John Davidson

    Retired engineer

    If you leave school with a love of learning and the tools required to progress this love of learning your school has done well. A desire for ongoing learning increases the chances that you will lead a more satisfying life as well as making a more significant contribution. This raises a number of questions:
    1 How much time a day should a child spend on formal education.
    2 Does formal homework really increase that chances of someone growing up with a love of learning? Or would it be better to encourage exploration and the in depth pursuit of the interest of the day?
    3. Is homework an effective use of learning time?
    4 Is the setting and marking of homework an effective use of teacher time.

    I would put it that school is the place for directed learning and that time away from school should be spent doing things that help a child lead a balanced life and develop into a effective adult who enjoys life and work.

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  9. Ian Clarke

    Director, Pacific Strategy Partners

    Thanks for asking a good question. As a parent, the answer would be no, but make it relevant. To me there are 2 issues - average attainment & variance/equity.

    Currently, it feels like our (public) school is just outsourcing part of the curriculum to parents. This is fine for us, but pretty tough on kids whose parents can't or won't engage, so probably fails the equity test.

    No homework isn't the answer either, as parents who value education would just use the time for tutors or do extra work themselves (note how many high achievers at HSC are home schooled).

    An ideal system would have practice to reinforce lessons taught in class (parent supervised, with a method to feedback issues) and some projects that parents can work on with their kids.

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  10. John Zigar

    Engineer, researcher

    Richard and Mike, thank you for showing that homework does not increase academic performance. Your research has found that little to no improvement in academic achievement is gained through homework. Up until the first half of your article we are in full unison. I attended primary and high schools in Australia and Germany and taught at a hagwon in South Korea. My experience is that if you are academically poor, for example in mathematics due to a lack of aptitude in this area, then you will remain…

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    1. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to John Zigar

      John

      Unfortunately, John, on every available metric I've seen - from PISA, TIMMS - Australian school students performs at a higher level of academic achievement than German students. While I don't fuss too much over mean/median scores, they can be useful metrics once your country's kids start moving downward, or are puzzling below expectations.

      We need to refocus discussions of these of metrics to include much more discussion about what s happening one and two standard deviations away from these means/medians.

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    2. John Zigar

      Engineer, researcher

      In reply to John Zigar

      Hi Linus, good point. But I do not know enough about TIMSS, PISA etc to form an opinion whether they are fair and representative. Perhaps the test are individualised for each country which would account for Australia's better performance?

      What I do know is that after going to school in Bairnsdale, Berlin, Bairnsdale, Zimmern, Morwell, Epfendorf, Morwell, Oberndorf and then Rottweil (in that order and primary as well as secondary school), I have a good understanding what is taught and how it is taught in the two countries.

      I'd put my money on the German curriculum and teaching methods as being superior to Australian methods.

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    3. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to John Zigar

      John, no the PISA and TIIMMS tests are the same for each country. Now, Germany has a highly regimented education system, where children are streamed off by academic ability, and ambition at the end of primary school. Correct me if I am wrong, but in addition to private schools, kids get streamed off into six different types of secondary school from Hauptschule all the way up to the extremely academically-focused Gymnasium. Perhaps your German experience is with Gymnasium?

      In Australia, we also…

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  11. Jonathan Marshall

    Founder

    Totally agree the homework model could and should be improved - just as the whole education model should be.

    Though was surprised that the leading nations when it comes to educational outcomes (PISA) - China, Korea, Singapore have little homework - "research showing that in countries with high homework demands, student performance on international tests of achievement is poor"

    Perhaps it is just that their school day is so much longer and often includes Saturday that homework is subsumed within the broader school day. Though again very surprised to hear this as I travel a lot in Asia and India and cramming and extra tutoring is extensive and could all be viewed as homework.

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    1. Linus Bowden

      management consultant

      In reply to Jonathan Marshall

      "Rresearch showing that in countries with high homework demands, student performance on international tests of achievement is poor"

      This of course is simply, utterly, and completely wrong.

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  12. Adam Richards

    Teacher

    Hi John Zigar,

    Sorry about not posting underneath your comment. It seems with the new 'approach to comments' a commenter is unable to reply to a post under their original post. *Moderators please take note.*

    I see the type of things you are talking about more often than I like amongst my colleagues. Teachers think if they teach a student how to use Google (most have no idea what Boolean Operators are by the way), that students are all of a sudden able to research anything. If in class a teacher shows students how to research a basic biography of Ned Kelly, as a homework assignment it would be more beneficial to students to have them research another Australian historical figure.

    All of this of course, ignores an extremely important issue. A lot of homework assignments given out at schools these days assume students will have unrestricted access to a computer, let alone the internet.

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  13. Tina Tran

    logged in via Facebook

    To Mr Walker and Mr Horsley,

    I am a student from Sydney Girls who has just finished her HSC, and I would like to thank you so much for writing up this article. This topic is of great importance to me, as well as the quality of teaching within public school systems. As I have only been to this one high school for the past 6 years, I know that my feedback cannot cover the perspectives and opinions of those from other high schools and private schools, but I would still like to contribute to this…

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  14. Karen Hovenga

    logged in via LinkedIn

    We've been quite conflicted about homework at our place.

    With my first three children it caused a lot of stress for both the kids and I.

    Ten years later my 4th child is now in grade one. When she started school I made it clear to her teachers that we wouldn't make her do any homework but would support her if she wished to do it. She was much calmer and has mostly done it off her own bat, or with a question like, "would you like to do your homework now?"

    BUT she is studying Mandarin chinese…

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  15. Audrey D

    Student

    it strikes me that people talk about the French educational system without really explaining ALL the differences between Australia and France and how they approach public education.
    Homework was banned in France but you have to put this in perspective with the number of hours that French kids spend in class/at school. When I was in primary school, I had to go every day, all day, except for wednesday afternoon, saturday afternoon and sunday... In Australia I see kids in the street or in parks/beaches…

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  16. Sarah Lantz

    University Senior Lecturer & Mother

    Children are instinctive learners - it comes as naturally to them as breathing. Just watch them... they play with such exuberance, they explore, they are intuitive with their interests and passions.
    And then at some point this gets stifled. And I postulate that this happens when the education system disconnects them from their bodies. When we progressively start 'educating' children from the waist up. And then we focus solely on their heads – and slightly to the left side of the brain adept at…

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  17. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    Certainly in the age of the internet, homework as such could be dropped and replaced with compulsory educational leisure activities.
    All sorts of computer simulations could be used to stimulate the minds and imaginations of children, with a new school and children only internet, free of psychologically damaging advertising and other worrisome adult interactions.

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