Is homework a waste of time?

Young child doing homework on an iPad

Homework has always been one of the biggest challenges to school and home life, causing family tension, stress and time pressures.

Research from Stanford Graduate School of Education conducted amongst 4,300 students highlighted that over 56 per cent considered homework to be a primary source of stress, whilst others reported increased levels of anxiety, sleep deprivation, exhaustion and weight loss.

After considerable review and debate, ACS Egham has decided to drop ‘traditional’ homework for students aged four to eleven.

The educational debate over the merits of homework has been going on a long time, with different countries taking very different approaches. Wanting to discover the best approach to setting homework to achieve optimal wellbeing for students and parents, our teaching team collaborated on a research project to help find the solution. Our findings highlighted that for homework to be truly effective, it must be highly personalised for each student. So we set about making these changes.


Traditional homework

Traditional homework or ‘busy work’, as we like to call it, is generic across a class, and does little to enhance the individual student learning experience. This kind of homework assumes that every student is the same, that each has the same maturity, concentration and ability level. It is, therefore… a bit lazy. As we all know, in real-life abilities vary enormously from one person to the next, and students can often find this type of homework very stressful, especially if they feel they have been set impossible tasks that they must face alone.

Children are already at school for some seven hours a day and ‘busy work’ simply eats up their free time, which they could be better spending with their families, or taking part in extra-curricular activities to refresh their minds and bodies. Younger students especially should be encouraged to use time after school for unstructured play and developing their own creativity.

Reflecting upon these issues, we decided to replace ‘busy work’ with a personal, guided approach building on class work and learning, which parents and students can share together, making the work more meaningful, manageable and worthwhile.


Personalised approaches

Instead of setting homework, ACS Egham teachers share with parents the learning topics for the upcoming term and suggest that these subjects are explored at home. The Lower 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.

Arithmetic and literacy skills can also be enhanced at home without endless sums and compulsory reading times. Parents can help their children practice mathematical skills in everyday scenes; calculating a grocery budget, or measuring 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. When reading is not a chore but an enjoyable activity, students’ literacy skills increase.

All 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 their vocabulary in their mother tongue. If students have struggled with a specific task, parents can notify the teachers, enabling teachers to give more targeted support in these areas.


Alternative education systems

In Finland, students are generally assigned virtually no homework; they don’t start school until age seven, and the school day is short. Despite this, Finland is considered to have one of the leading education systems in the world. Finnish students achieve some of the world’s best international PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test results; in 2016 achieving fourth place in reading compared to the UK in 22nd place, and 12th place in maths, compared the UK in 27th place.

According to a BBC article, a key concept in the Finnish school system is trust, where there’s little homework and no culture of extra private tuition. This trust is built from parents’ trusting schools to deliver a good education within the school day, and schools putting trust in the quality of their teachers. This certainly resonates with our opinions on homework; if a student has been delivered a quality education in the school day, there should be no need to spend hours in the evening carrying out a rigid schedule of homework.


Developing skills for the future

We prepare our nine to eleven 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 virtual models of their own imaginary 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 iPads, artistic drawings and in some cases, hand built models.

Through the I-Inquiry project, students developed a whole range of essential life skills. These included 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.

We strongly believe that setting homework for the sake of it doesn’t benefit children or prepare them in a robust way for their next steps. It can also be a cause of family stress and tension, and potentially even hinder the wellbeing of the student. Where we’ve adopted our new approach at ACS Egham, we can see our students develop life skills through extra-curricular activities, spending time with their friends and family, and engaging at home with meaningful, highly personalised tasks, like the I-Inquiry Projects, which equips them for success beyond education and develops a curious mind as well as a lifelong love of learning.