Every child crosses the divide from the home setting to the school setting each day but for some children this is much less of a divide than for others. In recent years much educational writing and research have been devoted to the pursuit of ways to make the crossing easier, to tasks we may refer to as the building and strengthening of bridges.
On the school side of the divide, teachers and administrators are coming under increasing pressure to meet a wide range of demands, all calling upon their time, energy and versatility. Ongoing tasks such as the building of better relationships with the home may become sidelined. Ironically, demands arising from greater overt accountability of schools may also serve to distance teachers from the families of their students since teachers may see formal accountability measures as placing them in a different, more businesslike and impersonal relationship with parents. Notions of an active partnership with parents may come to be seen as obsolete.
As Scharf and Stack (1995) remind us, homework is a part of schooling which quite literally moves back and forth between the school and the home. In the process it accumulates a range of meanings and expectations which apply not only to the homework tasks themselves but also to the teacher who set the homework, the child who does it and the home in which it is done. Applying our metaphor, homework is a natural bridge between the home and the school.
Yet homework is a very problematical bridge. Teachers, students and parents all have ambivalent feelings about it, though to different degrees and in different ways. Moreover, as teachers gain an increasing awareness of the very different home environments of their students and the difficulties which some of their students will encounter when trying to do school work at home, they may decide that setting homework will be counterproductive and may even exacerbate existing social inequalities between their pupils. For such teachers homework will be a bridge too far, a bridge that will not improve the relations between school and home and may even make the home/school divide more problematical for some of their students.
This paper will attempt to establish whether homework is indeed a bridge too far, or whether, on the other hand, homework has a useful role to play in helping the child move confidently and effectively between home and school.
In this paper homework will be defined as school-related tasks which are assigned by teachers for students to complete in their own time, with the normal expectation that these will be done at home. Tasks set for students, usually to be completed within a specified time frame, are taken as characterising the homework with which teachers, students and parents around the world will be familiar.
The parents in Brown's survey were also quite clear in their own minds about the purposes of homework. The largest number (96%) considered that 'homework teaches children about responsibility'. Somewhat similar purposes referring to children learning to 'work independently' (86%) and 'become better organised' (84%) were also popular. While there certainly was a perception that homework 'leads to academic success' (79%) this purpose was not ranked highest by the Islamic parents. Warton (1997) also notes that parents value regular homework for helping children develop a sense of responsibility. Such responsibility was demonstrated by initiating tasks without constant reminders or supervision and completing tasks more or less independently.
It is of interest to note a similar acknowledgment of the non-academic as well as the academic purposes of homework in statements by educational authorities. Compare the following statements about the purposes of homework, one from a recent draft policy statement by the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) for public schooling generally in New South Wales and the other, referring specifically to primary schooling, from the UK Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) (the latter cited in Farrow, Tymms and Henderson, 1999):
|Purpose of homework (DET, 1998)
|Purposes of homework (OFSTED, 1996)
These statements of purpose reflect a perception of homework as a bridge between the school and the home as both place considerable emphasis on the role of parents and carers in respect of homework. They also acknowledge the contribution that homework can make to the learning that goes on in school. But the statements are particularly noteworthy for the emphasis they place on the development through homework of habits of mind and character traits that will promote self-direction, self discipline and effective lifelong learning. Homework from this perspective has an important role to play within a broader philosophy of education, a philosophy that acknowledges the social and cultural context of learning, the breadth and depth of students' development that schooling supports and the fact that schooling must be built on a partnership between the classroom and the home. It is evident that in these statements homework is being envisaged not merely as a means of bringing home and school into a productive partnership but also an activity that takes learning out of the classroom and into the world.
There is also something of a gulf between the purposes which have been presented by the educational authorities and the reasons why many teachers provide homework. It has been noted that teachers seem to be guided more by tradition than by a carefully thought out philosophy of homework (Rutherford, cited in Bourke & Fairbairn, 1995). Certainly, there is anecdotal evidence that teachers often assign homework because of pressure from parents and/or school leaders, especially at primary school level. At the senior levels of schooling homework may be assigned by teachers both to improve students' performance in examinations and to complete work begun in class, the latter reason reflecting an over-full curriculum (Bourke & Fairbairn, 1995). There are also occasions when homework is assigned as punishment. However, some teachers do utilise the educational possibilities of homework. Most of us can call to mind examples of homework which have a clear educational purpose, such as when students are assigned a project which calls upon a range of skills and provides considerable stimulation, challenge and satisfaction.
It is evident that whether homework actually provides its potential educational benefits depends on the nature of the tasks set for students. Writers have identified the main kinds of homework as involving a range of tasks such as the following: 1) practice exercises designed to reinforce and apply newly acquired skills; 2) preparatory tasks which lay the groundwork for future lessons; 3) researching tasks where students gather information from sources that may not be available at school; 4) creative tasks which may require the integration of existing skills and knowledge along with the use of imagination and a considerable degree of independence on the child's part (DET, 1998; PETA, 1997; Nuzum, 1998; Bourke & Fairbairn, 1995). Wiesenthal, Cooper, Greenblatt and Marcus (1997) have noted, however, that teachers in a set of middle schools in the U.S. were most likely to assign homework that involved repeating classwork and practising newly acquired skills. The Primary English Teachers Association (1997) also expresses concern about a form of homework that it calls 'busywork', for example mass-produced activity sheets which are only marginally related to learning that is currently underway in the classroom and are evidently intended to keep the children busy and the parents quiet. Finally, McBeath (1996, p.15) makes a significant point when he refers to the hiatus between classwork and homework.
While learning in school had apparently become more varied, more differentiated and more imaginative, learning out of school seemed to be stuck in a time warp. Classroom learning was often stimulating and inventive; pupils worked in pairs and groups and discussed and shared what they were doing. In the evening work at home was, as one boy put it, "a lonely and tedious activity". Homework tasks were not given the same thought as to the needs and context of the learner nor to coherence and progression of learning.
Moreover, there is research evidence to show that homework completion can serve to improve the achievement of socially and educationally disadvantaged students vis-a-vis their advantaged peers. Timothy Keith (1982) found that lower ability students in senior classes doing significant homework could achieve equivalent grades to average students who did not do homework and that homework was still significantly related to achievement even when race, socio-economic background, ability and field of study were controlled. However, it should be noted that other factors, in particular, ability and parent involvement in homework, did affect homework completion rates by students (Keith, Reimers, Fehrmann, Pottebaum and Aubey, 1986). In studying the boys at an English grammar school, Michael Holmes and Paul Croll (1989) noted that time spent on homework had a greater effect on boys from working class backgrounds and boys whose parents had not attended selective schools than it had on their more advantaged peers, enabling the former to 'catch up' with the latter if they were sufficiently diligent. Keith and his colleagues also noted that while homework in general improves achievement, homework that is graded or commented on has an even stronger impact. Perhaps Brown's Islamic school parents sensed this when 95% of them indicated that they wanted teacher comments on their children's homework (Brown, 1999).
Findings that homework increases academic attainment are problematical, however. Obviously there are questions about whether homework can be shown to be the cause of improved academic achievement or whether the cause-effect relationship flows in some other direction. There is also evidence that more and more homework does not lead to higher and higher achievement and indeed can be counterproductive at both lower and upper levels of schooling (Farrow et al, 1999; Cooper et al, 1998). But the most serious educational concern with an argument that bases the value of homework on its claim to improve academic achievement is that it begs the question of what homework is for. The statements of purpose that we saw earlier contained much broader and diverse purposes. While they certainly implied that homework should assist in the mastery of 'basic skills and knowledge' by reinforcing work done in class they did not confine themselves to this or emphasise it by any means. Demonstrable academic achievement is part of the purpose of schooling but only part of it. Similarly, it is only a part of the purpose of homework and the value of homework cannot rest upon its claims in this one area. If homework is to be valued for its role within a broader and more enduring philosophy of education, research into the outcomes of homework needs to be much broader and it will need to look much more carefully at the kinds of homework that students are doing.
Nevertheless, in view of the research findings about the academic gains associated with homework, parental pressure for homework can hardly be dismissed as misguided. As noted earlier, the parental pressure is certainly there and, while not universal, it comes from all sides. It is not surprising to find that parental supervision of homework was widespread among parents from all social backgrounds and was one form of parental involvement which did not significantly vary according to socio-economic status or ethnicity in a study of the effects of parental involvement on 8th grade achievement by Ho and Willms (1996). However, it was also noteworthy that the amount of home discussion (characterised by Ho and Willms as talking with mother, talking with father, discussing school program and discussing activities) was affected significantly by social background and was also the most significant parent involvement factor influencing individual achievement.
The project involved interviews with women from non-English speaking backgrounds, Koori women, women on low incomes from the inner suburbs of Sydney, working class women from a large industrial centre outside Sydney and women from a small and relatively isolated rural community. The women were encouraged to talk freely about their own schooling, their own social and educational aspirations when at school, their perceptions of their children's schooling and their aspirations for their children. Most of the women had not completed their schooling; a few of them had had no schooling at all. A number of them had experienced substantial learning difficulties at school and several were or had been illiterate.
When the subject of the interview turned to the schooling of their children the mothers readily described how well their children were progressing at school. It was noteworthy that the majority of the mothers indicated that they had a child who was experiencing some difficulties with school work. These were most commonly described as difficulties with reading and/or writing (including spelling) and, to a lesser extent, with mathematics. Difficulties were most frequently reported by the socially disadvantaged Anglo-Australian mothers and the Aboriginal mothers, but were also described by some of the mothers of non English speaking background.
A great deal of time in the interviews was given to describing how the mother responded both at home and at school to the difficulty her child was experiencing. Homework played a significant part in the mothers' attempts to respond to the problem at home. But regardless of whether the mother perceived the child as experiencing difficulty, the topic of homework was raised in these interviews. Examining the transcripts, I found that it had been discussed (quite unprompted by the interviewer) in 42 out of the 50 interviews. It is clearly a matter of considerable importance for these mothers and emerges as a very significant factor in promoting positive or negative feelings about the school and their child's teacher. Thus it can act either as a bridge or as a barrier in the relationship between the parent and the school.
It is worth spending some time exploring the part homework played in the experiences of these mothers of their children's schooling. I will structure the account by examining firstly the mothers' perceptions of homework and its place in their child's education, secondly the uses to which homework was put, by the mothers, and thirdly some issues and concerns that arose in the mothers' experience of their children's homework.
Homework was seen as a way of keeping the child's attention focussed on what they were meant to be learning. It was a way of sustaining or even improving their motivation. The view was expressed that the children would learn or do better at school if they did schoolwork at home. As one mother pointed out, homework enabled one-to-one follow-up assistance to occur, something that was impossible for a teacher with 30 children.
Homework was also seen as enabling the child to gain good study habits, to prepare them for studying hard in the senior years. Several mothers expressed concern that their children were not getting set homework in first grade and that they were not getting used to doing homework.
And, finally, homework was seen as a wholesome and productive use of a child's time eg. compared with watching TV, especially when their parents were busy.
Most commonly and straightforwardly, mothers used homework to attempt to improve their child's academic performance. They did this in various ways such as by helping the child with set homework, if they could; asking the child's teacher to provide homework, sometimes hoping by this means to address a learning difficulty which they had identified; and, finally, by giving the child homework themselves, sometimes buying special school books for the purpose.
Another way in which the mothers used homework was to identify a learning difficulty and take appropriate action about it. They would monitor their child's homework and note if their child was having difficulty. Usually the next step was to approach the school.
They were bringing home little readers from school ... and I'd try to sit down and get her to read it and she just couldn't read it and she said to me, Mum, how come I can't read, you know, and I said, well I'm not sure, we might have to go and see the school counsellor and just, you know, find out why. [Jacki H.]Sometimes this resulted in action that was apparently effective:
I found it helpful going to see the counsellor cause the counsellor sort of said to her, you know, are you gonna do this with your mum, you know so that we can get you reading better and she said yes and I think that that's what really helped her and me, you know it sort of made her willing to sit down with me now and have a read, yeah. [Jacki H.]Some were not satisfied with the school's response to their questions (eg. if the child's teacher appeared to dismiss their concerns) and sought help from experts outside the school such as psychologists, opticians or tutors. Others were unhappy with the school's response but took no further action. A number assumed that if there was a problem the teacher would approach them. They did not feel that it was their place to raise such matters with the teacher. This attitude was most noticeable among the NESB mothers but it was also interesting that some of the Koori mothers said that they would not approach the teacher about problems their children might be experiencing. They hoped that the teacher would take the initiative.
A third use to which homework was put by the mothers was to gauge their child's motivation and interest in their schoolwork from their approach to homework. If the child was not doing homework this was taken as an indication of lack of interest in school and lack of attention at school. Some mothers offered generalised comments that young people these days did not care about their education and that this was shown by the fact that they did not do their homework. On the other hand, a positive change in their child's attitude towards their homework was seen as reflecting an improved attitude to school and as being a sign that they were doing better at school.
Fourthly, mothers used homework to see what their child was being taught. They assumed that the homework was a reflection of the content that was being covered and of the standard at which the children were being taught. At the same time, some used the homework to get an idea of the extent to which the teacher was recognising their own child's standard, that is whether the work was of an appropriate level for their child.
And, finally, mothers used homework to assess the quality of their child's teacher or their child's school. They did this by comparing the homework given to their child with the homework given by other teachers and other schools or with the homework they themselves were given at school. If a teacher did not give homework this was seen as reflecting a lack of concern for the child's needs. Plenty of challenging homework was a mark of a good teacher, a teacher 'on the ball'.
Generalisations were drawn from this about different kinds of schools. A number of the mothers (especially the NESB mothers) regarded public schools as 'soft' on homework and referred approvingly to the 'stricter' Catholic schools which apparently insisted on homework.
Arising from the last point, the mothers frequently expressed concern about the 'slackness' of their children's teachers regarding homework. A number of them made clear that teachers should insist on homework being done and should be checking on whether children were doing homework and if it was done properly. Set homework should be given rather than general expectations that the children should be 'going over' work done at school.
Mothers often attempted to help their children with homework but a number of them felt unable to do so effectively because of their own educational limitations. In such situations they employed various strategies. Some relied on older siblings to help the young ones. Some approached relatives and friends when they were stumped. A few appealed to the teacher to help the child with his/her homework, explaining their own difficulties. And a few took courses themselves such as adult literacy courses so that they could more effectively help their children.
One plea from several mothers was that the homework should be clear, with the teacher's expectations clearly communicated. Non-English speaking background mothers and mothers with limited education found that they were unable to clarify the requirements because they did not understand them and were consequently frustrated.
The mothers referred to the fact that frequently they were expected to help their children with reading in the early years. But various factors made this difficult. Apart from the educational limitations experienced by some, time was a problem. Mothers, particularly single mothers, might be prevented from sitting with their children by their employment, the needs of other children, work on the farm, or household chores.
Some mothers felt resentment at being asked to help their child at home. They resented being asked to help overcome a child's reading problems by home activities such as reading with the child. The comment was made that they were untrained and that teachers should in-service parents if they wanted them to assist in overcoming learning difficulties. One mother felt that she was being asked to fill in the gaps in her children's education by supervising work which should have been done at school. Aligned with this view was a perception (shared by several mothers) that a lot of time was wasted in school.
Some mothers (especially single mothers) found homework a big hassle because they had to fight with their children to make them do it. At the same time they wanted their children to have homework and to do it. Sometimes they clearly recalled disliking homework when they were at school but now considered it important for their own children. This view reflects a strong sense of having missed or wasted opportunities in their own schooling which was widespread among the women interviewed. They were very anxious that their children should not have a similar experience.
Homework undoubtedly fulfilled some of the functions of linking these parents to their schools in the ways outlined early in this paper. It was seen by them as a source of information about their child, the teacher and the school. Yet the information was not always understood by the parent or the child. Furthermore, it is doubtful that the schools or teachers concerned would have realised the extent to which the parents were using homework as a source of information about their children's schooling - or that they would have been comfortable with this.
Homework was also an occasion of communication between the parent and the school such as when mothers asked for homework or communicated to the teacher their concerns about the difficulties their children were having with homework. Yet a response by the teacher to the communication of the parents' concerns was not always forthcoming and, when forthcoming, was not always fruitful, from the parents' viewpoint.
Thirdly, homework certainly involved many of the mothers in helping, or attempting to help their children with it. But in respect of parent efforts to assist their children at home, many of these mothers were clearly needing and wanting more support from the school to enable them to do this effectively.
Finally, the case of Jacki H, quoted above, where the mother identified a reading problem at home and took her child to the school counsellor, comes closest to a participatory or genuine partnership role arising from the experience of homework. Here, the school and family were working together in a relationship characterised by mutual respect, shared goals and trust (Forster, 1999). Unfortunately, such cases were relatively rare in our study. The interviews abound with cases of mothers describing how they unsuccessfully approached the school with a request related to homework (for example, for special homework or for materials to assist the parent in working with the child at home). Such unsuccessful approaches tended to leave the mother frustrated and angry. They certainly did not strengthen the home-school partnership.
The teacher's or school's approach to homework appeared to be having a major influence on the respect and confidence these mothers had in their child's schooling. It would be reasonable to assume that these feelings toward the school would be conveyed to the child and would affect the child's motivation and self-esteem.
The disadvantaged mothers in this study were concerned that their children should get homework and do it even though homework was problematical for them. They saw the setting of homework as a sign of a teacher who cared about their children and thought that their children had some prospects of success in the future. In other words, these mothers saw the provision of homework as a sign that the teacher and the school believed that they and their children mattered.
For a start, schools need homework policies and these policies need to be developed collaboratively by teachers, students and parents. Once developed, steps should be taken to ensure policies are well known and generally supported. The policies should not consist of a set of rules and regulations but should include measures to assist all concerned to get the most from homework. For example, to support homework, features that have been tried both in Australia and overseas, such as after-school homework centres, homework tutors and homework hotlines should be extended, especially in disadvantaged areas. In the primary and junior secondary years, homework diaries, to be signed by parents, should be considered. There is evidence that this would not only enable parents to see what homework their children were being asked to do but could be a valuable channel of communication between parent and teacher (Kay, Fitzgerald, Paradee & Mellencamp, 1994; Holmes & Croll, 1989). Finally, school policies should emphasise quality of homework rather than quantity.
Teachers should also be encouraged to improve their homework practices. First, they should take care to communicate effectively with parents about their philosophy of homework, including the purposes they see it as achieving, the kinds of support which they would like to see parents provide, and, when appropriate, advice to parents about how they can acquire more information about a new concept or technique which may be unfamiliar. In time educational websites may be useful for this purpose.
Second, teachers should provide a variety of kinds of homework to suit the range of educational purposes that homework should serve and to increase student interest in their homework. They should also provide homework that is compatible with the approaches to teaching and learning they employ in the classroom. They should guard against the assumption that the more homework students do, the better.
Third, in order to cater for the great diversity of lifestyles, needs and interests of their students, teachers should provide for greater flexibility in homework, for example, by setting a compulsory core of homework each week together with a number of options from which students could choose. In this and other ways they can provide opportunities for students to organise their time and effort for themselves. At the same time they should assist students to develop study skills and cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies that may be needed to persist with a challenging task.
Finally, teachers should show that they take students' homework seriously by providing prompt and sufficient feedback on student work.
In short, homework can be a valuable and effective bridge between school and home and it need not be a bridge too far. Homework provides an opportunity for students to acquire skills, habits and dispositions that will assist them to be self-directed learners as well as helping them to more effectively achieve the specific learning outcomes being addressed in the classroom. But homework can also be problematical, especially for disadvantaged families. It is abundantly clear that in this, as in so many other areas, teachers and school communities need positive guidance and support in ensuring that homework can serve its educational purposes for all students and their families.
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|Author: Kathie Forster is a senior lecturer in educational studies at the Kuring-gai campus of the University of Technology Sydney. She has a strong interest in school-parent relationships and has a background as a parent activist as well as researching and teaching in this area. Kathie's other interests are in educational philosophy and policy.
Please cite as: Forster, K. (2000). Homework: A bridge too far? Issues in Educational Research, 10(1), 21-37. http://www.iier.org.au/iier10/forster.html
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