Manja Plehn, German
School has started again in most cantons, and with it the struggle with homework for many families. Is it still needed and, if so, what kind is useful? We consulted an education expert.
We’re back in the thick of it: just two weeks after school started, the situation at home has already got out of hand. The reason: homework. While I became exasperated and gave up trying to find out exactly how my son was supposed to do his maths tasks, he hid his book and pencil case away in his school bag, no less annoyed.
Each of us has our own – usually not particularly good – memories of homework. The topic has resurfaced since my children started school. I’ve often caught myself wondering if there’s any point in homework. Or rather, I increasingly ask myself what purpose it serves and, even more importantly, whether teachers ask themselves the same question.
In most cases, the school community is able to decide whether or not to set homework. In fact, individual communities such as Arbon, Kriens and, most recently, Männedorf two years ago have already decided to get rid of it. However, homework is still an integral part of most Swiss schools.
Manja Plehn, German
Homework? Cool! 2ND SJ.
Marianne Grether, German
Betzold Homework stamps, 4 pieces in set, incl. ink pad
However, it’s not only students and parents who are concerned with the use of homework or the lack thereof; it’s also educational scientists such as Stefan Schönenberger, lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland. As part of his teaching development and teaching research professorship, he also runs homework training for primary school teachers.
Mr Schönenberger, homework is once again causing heated arguments in our house. What are we doing wrong?
Stefan Schönenberger: (laughs). Let me reassure you that you’re not alone. Homework is a recurring issue for many parents and children, but also teachers. However, this is where things get interesting: and not just in the negative sense, as you might think.
What do you mean?
In the canton of Zug, a survey was recently conducted among parents on the subject of homework. Three quarters of parents consider homework to be important. More than 80 per cent even stated that they found homework useful. And nine out of ten parents took a look at their children’s homework. There are other polls that say the same thing.
You’re right, I do find that surprising. How do you explain this high level of approval?
Homework is deeply rooted in our tradition and has been established in primary schools for more than 100 years. These traditions – or let’s call them patterns – are passed down from generation to generation. In many cases, teachers who had to do homework themselves as children adopt this pattern without questioning it, and the «rule» remains.
So wouldn’t it be important to train future teachers to question this?
Of course it is, and it happens. Obviously, future teachers will deal with the question of what makes sense and what makes less sense when it comes to homework, and plenty of other topics. Teacher training centres have to and want to base their practice on teaching research. But, as I mentioned earlier, it’s not that easy to break the patterns you experienced as a child. Change can only happen through personal understanding and reflection.
The problem might be that, even if you recognise the need for change – or adaptation to put it better – it might be difficult to implement it on a large scale because individual schools and teachers have a great deal of autonomy.
That’s how it is. Ultimately, homework is always political. Some cantons regulate it in their laws, others use ordinances or operate with instructions from the authorities. When it comes to the details, however, municipalities usually regulate homework themselves, which isn’t all bad. Let’s take the municipality of Kriens as an example, which was one of the first Swiss municipalities to abolish homework in 2018. One of the reasons given by the headteacher at the time was educational equity: children from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds weren’t getting much support at home.
I’ll come back to the role of parents later. Let’s stay with homework for a moment. What has «always been done this way» that might have to be approached differently in 2022?
Today, a monoculture of follow-up homework still prevails in primary schools. In other words, homework is still used in many places to practice and repeat what you have learned.
Exactly, that’s my experience. And, without criticising my children’s teachers, I also experience something else. It seems to me – and I can even understand it to a certain extent – that homework aims to help ensure that all students are at the same level as far as possible.
Yes, that is actually often a motive for homework, supposedly to bring the students back to the same level. Unfortunately, studies show that this type of homework does not promote the learning effect and, at its worst, is even counterproductive.
Why is that?
Let’s get a little more specific. There is nothing to be said against students with learning difficulties being given more learning time with easier tasks. However, this can come at the expense of more able students. If all learners have to do the same homework, the result can be that it wipes out the more able ones because they have to do more of the same thing even though they already understand it. This can punish efficient work. Studies show that repetitive tasks at a rather easy level demotivate students, and they also make less effort.
What’s the result?
The desire to learn is lost. In addition, less able students often don’t benefit because the time spent on homework has a negative effect. Under the same conditions, those who spend more time brooding over their homework perform worse. This may be related to the fact that learners tend to approach homework in an unfocused manner. Important: we’re always talking about assigned homework here, not self-initiated, independent learning.
What kind of homework is beneficial?
In general, shorter and more frequent tasks are preferable, as is preparatory homework. They are more effective than repetitive follow-up tasks. But of course the tasks have to be processed in class, and students have to feel that the homework is useful to them. This is also related to the quality of the tasks. They should be cognitively engaging, i.e. stimulate thinking. In fact, the sum of the studies indicates that the effectiveness of homework is not in performance, but in self-organisation, especially when it comes to younger children.
What also seems to happen a lot is that all students have to do the same homework.
It is actually a problem that very often all students have to do the same homework, both quantitatively and qualitatively. But this equal treatment actually leads to unequal treatment.
The fast students do their homework quickly, the slow ones slowly. It would be good if teachers differentiated when setting homework and did not demand the same from all students. Because not only are excessive demands demotivating, not challenging students enough is too.
Obvious, wouldn’t you think?
Differentiation has long been a fixture in the classroom. The quality of it, however, is another issue. It’s a contradiction in terms when lessons take into account individual requirements and then everyone does the same thing when it comes to homework. However, a legitimate question is to what extent this is still manageable for teachers in addition to everything else.
You also mentioned the quality of parenting.
Children aren’t the only ones who suffer with homework on a regular basis. Many parents can also tell you a thing or two about how nerve racking and, above all, time-consuming it is to supervise and check homework. We hear again and again that parents of middle school students spend one to two hours a day with their children doing their homework.
Sometimes there’s even the impression that teaching material is outsourced from the school to the parents.
If parents are sitting with their children for one to two hours doing homework, something has gone fundamentally wrong. One reason can actually be that the teacher has given too much or unsuitable homework. But it can also be related to excessive expectations on the part of the parents.
What is a sensible parental attitude?
Basically, it makes no sense to give children expert support because they should typically only be given tasks that they are able to do. However, parents can support their children with controlling their emotions and helping them to keep up with their homework. Having said that, too much interference in homework is usually counterproductive.
So do I understand you correctly: teachers should only set homework that children can do independently?
Yes. As soon as intervention by the parents becomes necessary, something has gone wrong and it actually contradicts the principle that homework can be done independently. In addition, the interference and excessive support of parents conceals a child’s need for help.
Something that I have also experienced – and even have a certain understanding of in a class of well over 20 – is that homework is just briefly looked at the following day while the teacher is quickly checking documents.
Here lies another problem! How the homework is structured is not the only decisive factor. What happens to it afterwards is also crucial. Of course it needs to be checked, otherwise the students will quickly learn that their homework is of no value and they’ll soon stop doing it. Feedback would be much more important than simply checking it.
Sounds good. But are you supposed to give 25 students personal feedback on their homework?
Good point. On the one hand, it is less about fully individualised feedback and more about a debrief which incorporates the learners’ thoughts and work. On the other hand, this is another argument for preparatory rather than follow-up homework. To put it bluntly, it kills two birds with one stone. Firstly, these tasks are more motivating for the children and, secondly, the teacher can build on their preparatory work in class.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t only cause stress in children. Parents know a thing or two about how nerve racking and, above all, time-consuming supervising homework can be. In many families, it can be a common source of arguments, frustration and continuous stress. When children come home from school, the first sentence they are greeted with is typically: «Hi darling, how was school?», quickly followed by: «Do you have homework?».
Mr. Schönenberger, shouldn’t homework be replaced by work which is done at school – supervised if need be? That would not only relieve parents, but would also be fairer, because not every child has the same conditions at home.
Many schools do exactly that. However, social background doesn’t play a role in a child’s homework supervision, which is something you would not necessarily expect. However, it is much more important to inform parents and raise awareness about what they should and shouldn’t do with homework. That alone would take a lot of pressure off the parents. In the end, I don’t think it’s that important whether it’s homework or schoolwork.
What do you mean?
For me, it’s crucial that the schools and teachers ask themselves why they set homework and what the focus is of the homework in question.
I hear what you’re saying, I just lack faith. My impression is that this is exactly what isn’t happening. Homework is simply given «because it has always been done that way».
Homework is not inherently good or bad, but it needs to be set. It doesn’t matter whether parents are more for or against it; they should be able to expect that a school is clear about whether and why it is sticking to setting homework. If a school has a collective, well-founded attitude that it also communicates, even critically-minded parents can usually get used to it.
You mentioned at the beginning that many parents want to keep homework. A main argument that we hear again and again is that parents fear that without homework, they will no longer be in the picture about their children’s learning progress. Is there something to that?
I’m rather sceptical about that. Is homework really a suitable medium for gaining this insight? I would consider small boxes, for example, where the children regularly store work and items that are important for their learning path, to be much more useful. From time to time, children could bring these boxes home to show their parents what they have done and learned. The same is true of grades. These are also important to many parents because they think they can see where their child is. There are also alternative ways to do this.
So, in summary, there are no fundamental reasons for or against homework, but you have to look at the matter in a differentiated way?
Yes, generalisations can’t be applied to homework. I always say that it’s not the type that matters, it’s the implementation – ultimately at the micro level – that counts. Let’s take the weekly schedule as an example. Just because there is one does not mean that students work independently. When there are no choices and it’s simply a matter of ticking off each task, they achieve the opposite of self-sufficiency. This just turns the students into task-processing machines and, at the very most, encourages a mentality to get things done. From the outside, it looks «wow» and innovative, but in fact it’s not at all.
And what does that mean for homework?
Teachers need to get away from the idea that homework is automatically beneficial. Ultimately, it’s not «how much» that matters, it’s the quality of the homework and its purpose.
Mr Schönenberger, thank you for talking to me. Now I just have to think about how much these theoretical considerations about homework assignments can help me in everyday life. Maybe I’ll discuss it with my children so they can start a mini revolution at school.
Question for the Community: does homework make you despair too? Or to put it another way: what tips do you have for a relaxed approach to homework?