The Dog Ate My Homework

Today, as on any other school day, in homes and schools up and down the country, in every country in the civilised world, arguments will be raging about homework – homework forgotten, homework undone, homework too difficult, homework irrelevant. Books have been compiled of the best homework excuses, some of them feasible (I put it in my shirt pocket and my mum put the shirt in the washing) and some of them more fanciful (I didn’t want to add to the teacher’s workload, or I was kidnapped by terrorists and they have only just released me so I didn’t have time).

In “The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing” the American educationist and parental adviser Alfie Kohn argues that, contrary to the popular belief that homework improves attainment and promotes self-discipline, when faced with homework which is too demanding or incomprehensible it can undermine a child’s self-belief, erode self-confidence and cause long-term psychological damage. This of course is in direct opposition to those who are convinced that homework makes the difference between success and failure by reinforcing and embedding the learning which has taken place during the school day. Kohn argues that such beliefs are based on serious misconceptions about learning, a disproportionate emphasis on competition and a basic mistrust of children and young people. One thing is certain, and that is that homework is the biggest source of conflict between pupils and teachers bar none.
The case for has been advanced by people like Dr Julian Stern of Hull University, who, in his book “Getting the Buggers to do Their Homework” reinforces the “Bash Street Kids” image of the relationship between teachers and their classes, where a constant battle is taking place between the forces of good and evil. The appropriately named Stern provides a range of techniques and tasks to “motivate even the laziest student”, arguing that properly structured homework can add the equivalent of one year’s study to a student’s full-time education, a remarkably precise boast with no scientific basis whatsoever.
One thing is certain, and that is the conflict which the homework ritual causes between teacher and pupil and pupil and parent, a price which (amazingly) is still routinely accepted as a small price to pay for the assumed advancement in terms of learning.

One of the best school homework policies I have seen consists of a single paragraph, which reads as follows:-

“Our staff and pupils are engaged daily in experiences, activities and projects which are genuinely exciting, challenging and meaningful. We are constantly discovering new things about ourselves and the world. Working collaboratively and in a spirit of mutual respect, we look forward each day to sharing our discoveries, and take pride in developing our skills. Consequently, we see homework as something which is a natural extension of what happens in the classroom (although we wouldn’t normally use the term “work”, preferring instead the words learning or discovery or exploration) and the only expectation of staff in this respect is that they constantly reinforce the connections between the learning which happens during the school day and the learning which happens in other settings.”

Actually I made that last bit up. No such homework policy exists – as far as I am aware! However, I am sure that there are many schools, headteachers and teachers who subscribe to the spirit of that statement, and many parents who would prefer their children to be educated in that kind of environment. So let’s be a bit more bold in saying so. The burden of proof should be with those who still believe in the homework fairy to demonstrate that it promotes real learning.

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