Do you set homework, or just ‘busy work’?

Written by: Cindy Blanes | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

How much homework in your school is simply ‘busy work’? Cindy Blanes explores how we can make homework both meaningful and engaging

It is perhaps the dream of every school child in the land – a day when teachers abandon homework. In the media, several high-profile celebs, including Kirstie Allsopp and Gary Lineker, have called for just that – a National Homework Boycott Day, believing that “traditional” homework has been detrimental to their own children’s wellbeing.

But abandoning homework, as it is currently understood, simply isn’t going to transform the learning experiences of our students or help them to develop the much-needed skills they require to succeed in the world beyond the school gates.

At ACS International Schools, which has three campuses in Surrey and Greater London, the teaching team collaborated on a research project, which ultimately highlighted that for homework to be truly beneficial, it has to be highly personalised for each student.

Traditional homework or “busy work”, as it should be better known, which is generic across the class, does little to enhance the student learning experience. Old-fashioned homework assumes that every student is the same, that each has the same maturity, concentration and ability level, when in real life this can vary enormously from one student to the next.

An alternative to busy work

At ACS Egham, we decided to abandon traditional homework across our lower year’s education, for students aged four to 11. Crucially, removing this busy work frees up time at home for the application of knowledge that students have developed while at school.

ACS teachers share with parents the “units of inquiry” or learning topics for the upcoming term and suggest that these subjects are explored at home. The school intranet hosts “talk topics” which link in with lessons and can be discussed at home around the dinner table or during car journeys. We also include extra-curricular activities which tie in to each unit, such as visiting a museum, art exhibition or hands-on activities which can be done at home.

All of these opportunities allow students to apply their class-based learning in a different context. In a multi-cultural class, exploring topics at home can be particularly important for students who have a native language other than English, giving them the forum in which to widen vocabulary in their mother tongue.

Arithmetic and literacy skills can also be enhanced at home without endless sums and compulsory reading times. Parents can help their children practise mathematical skills in everyday scenes – counting out change at the supermarket or using a tape measure to size up furniture on a trip to IKEA. Equally, parents are actively encouraged to read with students as much as they can and for as long as it’s enjoyable – there is no minimum or maximum time. When reading is not a chore but an enjoyable activity, students’ literacy skills benefit.

Homework shouldn’t be a torment

Often students agonise over homework that they feel unable to complete. Research from Stanford Graduate School of Education conducted among 4,300 students highlighted that 56 per cent considered homework to be a primary source of stress, while others reported increased levels of anxiety, sleep deprivation, exhaustion and weight loss.

These symptoms often increase when parents are unable to assist with traditional homework tasks (they may simply not be equipped with the knowledge, time or even the vocabulary to provide help).

Homework should come with a failsafe – a method that allows parents to notify teachers if students have struggled with a task, or that they have worked on an exercise, with help, until no further headway could be made. This would signal to teachers that students need more support in specific areas and students would not fear being penalised for “failing to complete homework”. If students are unable to finish off tasks, they are often left feeling demoralised and demotivated.

Children are already at school for seven hours a day and “busy work” simply eats up their free time, when they should be spending time with their families and taking part in extra-curricular activities in order to refresh their minds and bodies.

Younger students especially should be encouraged to use the time after school for unstructured play – developing their own creativity. It can also be beneficial for children to experience boredom every so often, as it acts as a catalyst for their imagination.

Extra-curricular activities are vital for ensuring students develop into well-rounded adults. Our students can choose from at least 39 different sports teams, the “Geek Club” – a technologically skilled student group that mentors teachers and other children – and the school’s choir and bands.

Taking part in sports teams or performing arts activities, not only enhances important skills such as team-work and communication, but improves general student wellbeing.

Preparing for secondary education

When ACS first introduced its new approach to homework, some parents were concerned that their children would not be ready for secondary education. Commonly, it is believed that, through traditional homework tasks, students acquire aptitudes such time management, organisation and independent study skills.

Of course, we want to ensure that students hone more than these basics and develop a curious mind and lifelong love of learning – important attributes which set students up to thrive at university and the world of work. We prepare our nine to 11-year-olds for secondary education through “I-Inquiry” projects. These are individual research topics which students investigate over a period of four to six weeks. Recently students designed, created and built their own planets, following a unit of inquiry that explored the solar system.

Using their iPads, students researched the characteristics of different planets before creating and naming their own. The final projects were then presented back to the class using iPad presentations, artistic drawings and in some cases, hand-built models.

Through the I-Inquiry project, students developed a whole range of essential life-skills; time management and organisational skills as students were required to work on the project both at home and at school; independent inquiry, exploring different sources to create their planet; as well as helping develop a creative mindset. Students also enhanced their communication skills and public speaking through their final presentations. Most importantly, students were energised by their learning and engaged with their subjects on a much deeper level.

Since ACS adopted this new approach to homework, results from internal student assessments have not been affected. Let’s not just incite teachers to just take up arms for a National Homework Boycott Day, but instead to all abandon “busy work” or homework for the sake of it. Only when tasks become highly personalised, like the I-Inquiry projects, do students gain the most from their learning.

By freeing up time at home, an unnecessary burden is lifted from teachers, parents and children. Through extra-curricular activities and spending time with their friends and family, students develop life-skills which will equip them for success beyond education.

Five tips to reduce homework torment

  • Reduce traditional homework tasks and opt for family-orientated activities. Encourage families to talk about student’s class-based learning at home. Consider creating “talk topics” with questions for parents which can act as discussion prompts.
  • Consider a failsafe mechanism for homework. Let parents jot down quick thoughts and submit this with their children’s homework. This will let you know if extra help is needed.
  • Create a list of extra-curricular ideas that parents can enjoy with their children in the evenings or at weekends. Instead of homework, parents and students could visit a nearby museum, undertake a craft task or an outdoor activity.
  • Longer, research-based projects should be based at school but also explored at home allowing students to develop multiple skills such as critical-thinking, creativity, and an inquiring mind. Shorter more generic tasks are likely to just become “busy work”.
  • Encourage students to take part in extra-curricular activities by joining a sports team, performing arts group or club. These activities are essential for improving wellbeing and cultivating well-rounded students.
  • Cindy Blanes is the lower school principal at ACS Egham International School.

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