What No One Wants

12/02/2020

I’ve never met a teacher who really loved marking homework. I’ve never met a teacher whose enthusiasm for homework spilled out into their teaching to extent that their students believed that they were collecting it in with barely-contained excitement at the prospect of carting their jotters home with them and whipping out their red pens. Unless they were worthy of an Oscar. This is, perhaps, especially true of teachers of Science and Maths. I readily concede that, in one sense we have it easy. Students either get the answers to the questions we set as homework right or wrong and corrections need only be be perfunctory. On the other hand we are unlikely to perceive any pleasing insights into our students’ psyches or smile a wry smile at an unexpected bon môt or unintended double-entendre. Often marking homework - let’s be honest - is a grind.

Which would be fine if we were wholly convinced that homework made a huge contribution to pupil attainment, learning and enjoyment of our subject. I’m aware I’m using the first person plural there. Maybe I should stop. Maybe I should say that I am not wholly convinced - at least not in the subject I teach and in the way we have traditionally set and enforced homework. Too often, over the years I have taught, I have found myself writing “See Mary’s* jotter for feedback” because Mary’s answers are repeated verbatim in Sally’s jotter, Kelly’s jotter and Claire’s jotter. Too often I have spent too much of my limited free time chasing up students who have not done the homework and, sometimes, invigilating their detentions while they complete it. Too often that homework marking grind has involved poring over work that has been thrown together on the bus on the morning it has been handed in.

Don’t get me wrong here - I was no more virtuous when I was a school pupil than those I teach today. I frequently handed in homework late and sometimes not at all but - and here’s the big difference - I was never punished for it. Or, at least, I don’t recall being punished. I was simply reminded that in failing to hand in my homework I was damaging my own prospects. I didn’t go to a trendy 1970’s “Hey, man, you do what you want to do” hippy-type school. I went to a direct-grant private school having passed the old Eleven-Plus (the “Qually” in Scotland - ask an old person.)

So here’s my thesis: no school pupil wants to do homework, any more than we really want to mark it. The result is that they will either leave it to the last minute to do it, so it will not be representative of their best considered work, or they will not hand it in on time and scribble something down in any grace period we give them which will be even less representative of their best considered work. So how about we make it ‘voluntary’? I’ve put that word in inverted commas because there is another group of people we have to take on board here - the parents. If we set work that should be done at home then we have to more closely involve those who exercise authority at home.

How about we portray homework, not as something that ‘has’ to be done with threats of sanctions if it is not done, but as a gift - an opportunity for our students to do ‘extra’ work beyond what they do in the classroom that we will mark and give them feedback on? How about we portray homework, not as a burden they carry from our classrooms to their bedrooms, but as our offer to engage with them in their learning in a way that they can reject if they wish? What if we don’t chase down students who don’t hand in homework and take on our shoulders responsibility for encouraging them to get it done, but hand that responsibility to their parents?

Some would regard what I have written as ‘radical’ but here’s the thing: my two Chemistry teaching colleagues run after-school study sessions once a week. I have an open invitation to all my students to come and see me at any break time or any lunchtime or, by arrangement, after school. I also, usually, give all my classes a week to complete their homework. What if I could persuade my students that I actually don’t care if they hand their homework in on time. I don’t care whether they do it or not. I’m not going to keep them in detention or whatever if they don’t answer all the questions on their homework sheet.

I care that they seize the opportunities they have to learn and that they come to me with all the problems they are having with the questions they haven’t answered. I care that they engage with their own learning by taking up the opportunities that my colleagues and I offer.


*All names have been changed to protect the guilty