As a tutor, I find homework a difficult thing to get right. It is easy to set: a minute later I close the door behind me and step into the street with my mind already full of plans for the evening. But the child is left with another burden on their time, already sliced and diced by the demands of school teachers – not to mention parents, some of whom will be setting extra work of their own. As an author of academic materials for young people, I am part of this problem too.
No skill is truly learned until it has been repeated correctly without the support of a teacher. Even the presence of an adult in the room can sometimes impede this, because it is only when a young person has no choice but to find their own solution to a problem that they truly grasp hold of it: this is when their mind takes possession of the ideas and makes them its own.
A teacher’s most valuable role is to take work which a child has completed independently – which they have already reviewed and improved to the best of their ability – and criticise it, ideally with the student present, but potentially with careful, intelligent marking. This way the child adds new thoughts to their own bank of creative and editorial instincts. The accumulated effect of a good education is to have an enormous collection of mental post-it notes: ‘Don’t do that!’ ‘More of this.’ ‘Tone that down.’ ‘Step back and think!’ ‘Look out for alternatives here.’ ‘Is this ambiguous?’ ‘Where’s the evidence?’ ‘Have you actually proved this?’ ... and so on, ad infinitum. Some of these thoughts will be the child’s own, but a huge proportion will be comments from good teachers which have been so well assimilated that they are not somebody else’s ideas any more … the student has made them theirs. This is at the heart of all proper education, and it is not possible without independent work. (It is also why I despair at the superficial marking carried out by some school teachers.)
Homework is essential for the reasons above – and others too, such as that longer tasks, which are necessary for the proper exploration of an idea, simply cannot be completed during a single lesson, and will lose focus if they are spread out over weeks.
Yet homework can be damaging. Children need time in which to play, explore the world and build relationships. Moreover, if work becomes a never-ending burden – a to-do list which is never cleared – it can create a loathing for academic study which spoils and limits a person’s life.
In the light of all this, here are some thoughts about managing your child’s homework:
For the reasons given in the first bullet point above, it is rarely a good idea for parents to help with homework. Invent a similar question to discuss, by all means – but steer clear of the homework questions themselves, which a child must confront alone.
Homework should be useful. If teachers or tutors set pointless homework which wastes time, your child should complete it as a matter of courtesy; but you would do well to discuss it with the teacher and ask them to avoid it in the future. I have set my share of pointless tasks, and I regret it. History homework should not involve making ‘Wanted’ posters for Guy Fawkes. Sometimes these activities are set because a class is in between topics, not yet ready for the next essay: but school policy tells the teacher to set work that night. School management should instead encourage teachers to skip homeworks when there is nothing worth setting. Children’s time is as valuable as any adult’s.
Avoid offering rewards for homework, but do give praise. On the other hand try not to pressurise a child (this is, of course, much easier said than done). They need to feel that homework is a matter of course, a natural expectation. If the TV is on next door, or somebody is playing computer games loudly down the hall, this doesn’t help either. If this can be a time when you sit down to deal with your paperwork or emails, for example, so much the better: you child will feel that they are sharing in an adult activity.
With regards to work that you yourself set your child, adapt your timing to their concentration. Try to ‘call it a day’ when they are still alert, rather than waiting till they are too tired to continue: otherwise they will learn to associate work with exhaustion and frustration.
Don’t set extra work every day, even before exams. Give children plenty of time off.
Encourage them to review their previous work before beginning something new. Always give full time to discussing and marking. It is better to re-do or correct a problematic answer than to start a new one.
Allow children to work slowly, so long as they are concentrating. Un-rushed attention to detail when practising will eventually lead to accuracy when working fast. On the other hand, most of the work that children do is just a repetition and reinforcement of habitual mistakes, which is worse than pointless. This is a reason to limit the timed practice which children do before exams. Slow and thoughtful past paper work is better.
None of the ideas above are ‘rules’, and each child and each family will find their own way, but I hope there is something here which helps.