Responsible homework setting is a myth.


It doesn’t matter if you agree with homework setting or not. High schools continue to give out homework, and will continue to do so, because the arguments against it are inconclusive. The voice of those who state that homework robs students of valuable personal time is not loud enough to shift policy makers who suggest that homework not only facilitates the strengthening of necessary independent study skills, but also, and perhaps more poignantly, provides greater opportunity for ever more demanding courses to be covered. Whilst the latter argument remains globally pervasive, the former is certainly legitimate, and must factor into the eventual policy implemented by a school. The pragmatic ethical solution then is to ensure that the distribution of homework is deliberate, transparent, and measured.

Presently, the majority of teachers set homework with absolutely no idea of how much work the students in their class already have. There is no way for them to know, as central calendars can’t provide the information. This is because students in high school arrive in a class having come from a multitude of different classes, whether it be from different sets in core subjects, or different elective subjects. For this reason, the task now visible on the central calendar set by a specific teacher is irrelevant to the next teacher with a class in front of them with only a few of the students affected by that task. Teachers can hardly be expected to spend time trying to piece together the disparate information, and hence, don’t. The result is that teachers set new tasks in total ignorance, and most times, refuse to listen to student grumbles about being overloaded. It is hardly their fault for not listening: some students will not tell the truth about what they have been given, but more precisely, the teachers can’t afford to miss a chance to have students do some of the course outside of class if it wasn’t completed in class time.

The ultimate travesty of this scenario is when teachers set major assessments or tests on the same day. Students are confronted with a dilemma: in a time poor personal life, which assessment revision do they need to prioritise. And you can bet your life that no matter what they choose, the neglected task’s owner will give them a hard time for it. And fair enough too – no teacher proud of their subject will accept that his or her task was 2nd best to another subject. The impact on the learning of students as a result of having to compromise their attentions is a whole discussion on its own.

I’m sure that many readers will claim to know the solution: scheduled homework, where teachers are assigned a specific night of the week to set tasks, and how much to set. Sounds like a good system, but pedagogically it lacks relevance, as homework setting becomes more about larger disconnected tasks rather than a reflection or enhancement of current learning. Teachers find homework setting more effective when the task extends something just learnt, or provides a chance to consolidate real time learning. Many teachers suggest that larger blocks of work aren’t as effective as smaller more frequent tasks as students struggle to meet the skills required to work independently at scale. In addition, the inflexibility of the schedule invariably compels teachers to set work regardless of its validity, mostly for fear of missing their chance or ‘slot’. They need to show that they are setting work, and they need to have students complete unfinished tasks outside the class, so students are almost guaranteed homework. This is accentuated by the fact that high school students can have up to 10 subjects on their agenda, meaning that they must have at least 2 subjects allocated on every night. The above scenarios are very real, and often cause teachers to ignore the schedule, and set tasks regardless. The ultimate sufferer is the student. Even the random setting of tasks is better than the schedule scenario.

Of course schools do appreciate and respect that students deserve personal and family time, but I put it to them that by setting tasks indiscriminately or using schedules they contradict such sentiments. It is certainly not enough for a homework policy to simply include a notification process to parents. This still does nothing to relieve the overloaded student. In fact, all it does is to embarrass the school for not being able to monitor the setting of homework, as parents see their child under unnecessary duress, time and time again. I know – I watch my daughter every week. It’s time for homework setting to be taken more seriously. The consequences of the status quo are further reaching than any school is presently contemplating, and that’s not really a representation of progress.