Lucy Parsons: How Teachers can Stick Up for Homework

Lucy Parsons, a teacher, coach and author of The Ten Step Guide to Acing Every Exam You Ever Take, writes in Prep School Magazine on the importance homework.

It seems that parents are having are hard time keeping up with the demands of the school homework routine which, in many ways, is understandable. Weekdays are taken up with both parents working, school runs and extra-curricular activities. The weekends are a similar mad dash of more extra-curricular activities, errands and, if you’ve got the energy, a social life. It’s no wonder that many parents, and children for that matter, are craving a slower pace of life with less structured demands upon them.

Put like this, there is, evidently, a bit of a backlash against homework. One Scottish primary school has banned all homework, apart from reading, after the parents voted to eradicate it. A recent discussion on my personal Facebook feed highlighted how difficult many families were finding it to fit homework in with their prep school-aged children. Some families were doing it over breakfast, others were reading with one child while another had their swimming lesson, dangling a baby on their knee.

However, as teachers and schools, we have to stand by the value of homework particularly as students prepare to enter senior schools. As an academic coach teaching pupils the study skills they need to succeed in their exams, I can see that using homework to become an independent learner from a young age is vital. Whilst speaking at an event at Wellington College, I was shocked to learn that some senior schools (all in the state sector) were setting virtually no homework to Year 10 students. The schools seemed to be so intent on retaining control over the students’ learning experiences that they couldn’t take the risk of letting the students learn independently. This is a travesty for their development as independent, resourceful students. It is only when students learn to manage their own time, find solutions to their own learning problems and constantly assess and adjust their methods of learning that they develop the skills necessary to thrive in sixth form and beyond.

So, how do we persuade parents of the importance of homework whilst remaining responsive to their cry for help?

Parents need to understand the role of homework in turning their child into a complete learner. Didactic teaching in the classroom may convey facts and ideas as well as imposing discipline on young people. However, it doesn’t give them the freedom to develop the personal qualities of curiosity, resourcefulness and time management that are the hallmarks of a great student, as well as the best employees of the future.

You may be tempted to make the rational case for homework to the parents in your school. However, success stories, or case studies, of how homework has helped individual children develop, as students are likely to be more persuasive.

If parents are looking for a slower way of living with more family time, try to accommodate that through the homework that you set. For example, once per term you could ask parents to take their children on a family day out to investigate a topic that they have been studying at school. This is something that I try to do with my own children; when my daughter was studying castles we visited two local castles and when the topic was rainforests, we visited the rainforest hot house at the Botanic Garden in Cambridge. Giving families a list of relatively local places that they could visit related to your topic will give them some choice and flexibility. It also allows your students to immerse themselves in the real-life experience of what they’re studying, bringing it to life whilst sharing this experience with their family.

Instead of keeping the reading scheme separate to topics such as history, geography and science, try encouraging children to follow their curiosity in the topics they are studying by picking out fiction and non-fiction books connected with that topic. By doing this you’re using one homework activity to serve two purposes and encouraging the parents to get involved in what children are learning at school. You’re also giving the pupils in your charge some scope to develop their own research skills and to develop their own passion for what they are studying.

Set a summative piece of homework that allows children to express what they’ve learned. This could be expressed through writing, video, audio, pictorial or even 3D design. Set guidelines on how much time should be spent on it and let parents know of it a full half-term before it’s due so that they can plan it into their lives over the next few weeks. This will cut down on marking for teachers, which is always a pleasant thing, to give more focus to one piece of work, allowing independent learning to develop, and letting families incorporate the work better into family life.

Successful students don’t let work expand to fill the time available; they set boundaries on the amount of time they are willing to spend on it and focus completely during that time. Successful students also use planning skills to work out how to get it done. Clearly, planning skills will be under-developed in prep school-aged children, but if children and parents work together through the planning process it will be modelled for them so that they can take greater control as their education progresses.

Homework is too great a personal development tool for it to be abandoned. However, it can be adapted to fit better into modern family life whilst developing the kind of personal skills that will help children thrive as they continue through their educational careers. It is up to schools to take leadership on this issue and to be imaginative and innovative about how they respond to the needs of the families in their care. That actually sounds like a challenge to be relished.

Lucy Parsons is a straight A student, Cambridge graduate, qualified teacher and author of The Ten Step Guide to Acing Every Exam You Ever Take. She coaches students for success at GCSE, A-Level and beyond.

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