Is homework a waste of time?

Mark London, marketing manager at ACS International Schools, explains why ACS Egham has dropped ‘traditional’ homework across its lower years (ages 4–11), replacing it with a more personalised approach.

In the UK, regular homework is set across most subjects by almost all schools. Yet homework is often cited as a cause of household tension, where stress and time pressures can easily create a battleground between students and parents as homework conflicts with other activities, often infinitely more desirable to the child at that age, such as television, toys, sport or imaginary play.A problem with traditional homework is that it often assumes that every student has the same level of maturity, concentration and ability. But, as we all know, this can actually vary enormously between individuals. While some children may sail through their set homework, others can find the same task highly stressful and even demotivating, especially if they find the subject particularly challenging and have no one to hand to help out.In fact, research suggests that well over a half, 56 per cent, of students consider homework to be a primary source of stress, citing related symptoms such as anxiety, sleep deprivation and exhaustion as a result of worrying over uncompleted tasks.Looking to explore the best possible approach to setting homework, the ACS teaching team, across its three ACS International Schools based in Surrey and Greater London, joined forces on a research project to determine a new system that would work best for its students. The key findings highlighted that to be truly beneficial, homework must be highly personalised for each student.

The ACS approach to homework

Consequently, ACS is seeking to replace traditional homework with a much more personal and guided approach, building on class work and encouraging parental support to make the tasks more meaningful, manageable and less onerous.Instead of setting homework, ACS Egham teachers brief parents on the ‘units of inquiry’ and learning topics for each forthcoming term. The team suggest ways in which these subjects could be integrated outside school life and become part of day-to-day activities, rather than a specific block of time set aside each day.As part of this, our ACS Lower School intranet hosts ‘talk topics’, which tie in with lessons, and help parents introduce and discuss the subjects informally at home. This process includes suggestions of extracurricular activities relating to the units, such as visits to museums and art exhibitions, or more hands-on activities that can be completed at home – perhaps watching a relevant video together, or even prompting a dinner table discussion around a particular subject and encouraging debate. Basically, any activity that is relevant to the subject while removing the perceived pressure of ‘homework’.ACS also encourages students to practise their arithmetic and literacy skills in everyday life. This could include working together and shopping to a grocery budget, perhaps in store or online, or working with children to manage their own social or clothing expenditure. We also encourage parents to read with their children as much as is enjoyable. This may seem obvious but when reading is perceived as a pleasure rather than a chore, students’ literacy skills benefit.In a multi-cultural school, exploring topics at home can be particularly important for students who have a native language other than English, as it provides a forum in which to widen their vocabulary in their mother tongue, which in turn helps to develop language skills.These opportunities allow students to apply their class-based learning in different contexts, enabling application of knowledge in practical situations. It is a two-way process too, as parents are actively encouraged to feedback to teachers if they find their children are struggling in a specific area. In response, teachers can give more targeted support in the classroom so that any difficulties can be overcome and not allowed to develop as pressure points.

Finland – a leading education system yet virtually no homework

The amount of homework students are assigned varies enormously between countries and we can learn from them what works best.In Finland, for example, students are generally assigned virtually no homework; they don’t start school until age seven; and the school day is short. Despite this, the country is considered to have one of the leading education systems in the world.Finnish students achieve some of the best PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test results: in 2016, Finland achieved fourth place in reading compared to the UK’s 22nd place; and 12th place in maths, compared the UK‘s 27th place. In this case, it would appear that homework has little, if any, bearing on high academic success.As you might expect then, at ACS we strongly believe that if our younger students have experienced a sound and rigorous educational programme in the school day, there should be little or no need to spend extra hours in the evening on a rigid homework schedule. Our aim, instead, is to help students consolidate their school learning through less formal routes.Children’s main bugbear regarding formal homework is that it uses up their precious free time, time that could be spent with friends, families or joining in extracurricular activities. And there can be no doubt that children do need ‘down time’ – time to relax, refresh, exercise, explore their creativity, and discover their own interests and hobbies. But far from being ‘play’, these are all learning experiences in themselves. ACS holds many activities and events, including assemblies, sports clubs, choirs, scouts, performing arts activities, field trips and community service, which might seem ‘play’ but are actually encouraging the development of important life skills.

Developing essential skills for the future

While in Early Years we do not espouse ‘homework’ as such, we still place great importance on ensuring our 9–11 year olds are well prepared for secondary education and all that it entails with regards to learning how to study and work independently.One way we achieve this is through ‘I-Inquiry’ projects, where students investigate individual research topics over a period of 4–6 weeks.Recently, this has included the design and build of virtual models of students’ own imagined planets. This activity followed a unit of inquiry that explored the planets of the solar system. Using iPads, students researched the characteristics of existing planets before being tasked to create and name their own. The final projects were presented back to the class using iPads, artistic drawings and, in some cases, even handcrafted models.Students are required to work on I-Inquiry projects both at home and at school. Developing time management and organisational skills, they must conduct independent research and demonstrate a creative mindset; while a final presentation presents an opportunity to enhance their communication skills and public speaking. Through the I-Inquiry projects, students engage with their subject matter on a much deeper level, which enhances their learning experience.So to conclude, setting homework for the sake of it doesn’t benefit children or prepare them in a robust way for their next steps. Children need time to grow at their own pace, enjoy their free time, and discover and explore interests for themselves outside of the classroom.Where we’ve adopted our new approach at ACS, we have seen our students develop life skills through extracurricular activities, spending time with their friends and family, and engaging at home with meaningful, highly personalised tasks. These all serve to equip our students for success beyond education, develop a curious mind and instill a lifelong love of learning. And our parents seem to enjoy it more too!Find out more about ACS 
ACS is a group of four schools, three close to London and one in Doha, Qatar

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