LESS FORMAL HOMEWORK BUT NOT LESS LEARNING

Lead editorial, The Times, 6th June 2015. 

The Principal's interview with The Times was published on Saturday 6th June 2015. The headline about homework being banned was not entirely accurate. As part of our overall review of teaching and learning at College, Prep is being reviewed along with other styles of learning. 

Below you will find a more detailed explanation. 

OUR OVERALL PHILOSOPHY FOR EDUCATION 

At College, we seek to embody excellence, inspiration, independence and empowerment in the education of women, and we continue to challenge and innovate in pursuit of academic excellence. Self-determination is central to our philosophy of personal development, and we encourage the productive exchange of ideas.

The wellbeing of pupils and staff has a direct bearing on the quality of the engagement and interactions within the College community, including the receptiveness of pupils as learners. We are a community with strong pastoral support systems, but such are the challenges of our generation, this is not an aspect that can be left to chance or be taken for granted. We are making a whole-school commitment to developing this work further through our new Wellbeing programme beginning next year, which will allow for a good deal of pupil involvement and partnership.

As teachers, we are continually evaluating and reflecting on effective teaching and learning strategies, of which the issue of prep/homework is an integral part. Alongside classroom contact time and homework tasks sit opportunities to do fieldwork and undertake practical experimentation, hear from external speakers, visit locations relevant to deepening understanding of the academic discipline and see how it is being applied in practice.

We are strongly committed to the full breadth of these learning experiences, and as a school which offers the International Baccalaurete Diploma alongside A Levels, we seek to embed a culture of reflective practice to inform pupil progression and develop self-sufficiency in the maturing learner. Homework is just one dimension of the holistic learning experience, but it is one that our pupils currently undertake daily.

THE PLACE OF FORMAL HOMEWORK

Many of us will recognise the concept of a ‘Victorian’ approach to homework as something to be done in a somewhat regimented fashion, often in conditions of silence, and with a focus on rote learning. The rigour and discipline of a strong intellectual foundation and the ability to concentrate are valuable lessons from our forebears which we wish to retain. However, with the evolution of educational pedagogy and modern technological opportunities, the purpose and nature of traditional ‘homework’ is something that needs attention and regular review if it is to continue to be a relevant and effective tool for the 21st century learner.

The proportion of the pupils’ time spent on these tasks (and indeed what these tasks comprise) needs to be seen in balance with what other opportunities to advance their interest and understanding they might be able to access, should some of that time be released or re-directed. Independent research and personal project development are already avenues that appeal to many of our students who choose to undertake Extended Project Qualifications and prepare Extended Essays for the IB programme.

Students are challenged and stretched through a combination of well-planned lessons and constructive tasks which are independently undertaken between lessons. Prep tasks should be interesting, challenging and varied, and designed to foster a positive attitude to independent learning. The amount and nature of prep set to each girl need careful consideration and planning; marking should be frequent and will include comments to support learning and improvement.


THE VALUE OF PREP
  • provides an opportunity for independent learning and establish good habits for self-motivated study
  • develops time management skills and promotes self-discipline
  • encourages research and investigation, both within and beyond the parameters of the task
  • allows practice and consolidation of work done
  • learning of essential facts
  • provides the teacher with an insight into a girl’s learning and understanding
  • provides evidence for the evaluation of teaching
  • provides the opportunity to learn through experience, correction and feedback


NEW APPROACHES TO THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE

Some of our teachers are experimenting with 'flipped learning'. The rationale for this is that sometimes too much time can be spent at the board giving notes, rushing to cover the syllabus. There is a desire to encourage more independence, but often a lack of time for the more challenging questions and activities which consequently feature as prep.

In a 'flipped' lesson, the student prepares for the lesson by watching a video online and making their own notes; the lesson begins with quick recap of the core ideas through discussion and student feedback. The main lesson time is then spent in activities and exploring questions together which extend the thinking from the core knowledge. This provides more opportunities for group work, differentiated tasks and higher level thinking, with feedback from the teacher as and when required.

Another practice being implemented is the use of a learning journal. The purpose of this is to allow the students to take ownership of their learning during prep time. Much of the time the student can decide what is relevant for her to do. The teacher will look at each journal at least once a week and may add some suggestions. This kind of reflective practice is central to the IB philosophy, and the results are incredibly heartening.

One of our teachers is experimenting with moving away from the traditional marking of prep for comparative assessment, because it is difficult to ascertain how long the student took to complete the prep and what support she has required from other sources to complete the prep. Instead, the balance is weighted towards giving feedback on work the students do individually in class. This enables the teacher to observe first-hand how each student tackles the task, enabling appropriate intervention to better support individual learning and enabling progress.


WHAT DO THE PUPILS THINK?

In this morning’s junior Public Speaking Competition, the following motion was given a good airing by Years 7-9:

Do you believe that prep should only be set if the students consent to it?

Some interesting and perceptive observations were made by some of the very youngest members of our College community.

Dangers they identified if students alone could decide included the likelihood of less work being done, idle habits persisting and exams being failed. They also felt there would be more division amongst them as views would vary widely on this topic, leading to peer pressure and the potential for discord.

However, giving them more say in what prep they do could lead children to develop a greater sense of responsibility, initiative and confidence, enabling them to understand how to learn by themselves. In this sense, it would be better preparation for university.

The main speaker suggested a ‘middle course’ in which both students and teachers had responsibility for deciding about prep, with the students gradually having more say as they get older.

It is an exciting time to be young, and this is a debate that I hope we will still be having in five years’ time, evidence that we are taking nothing for granted and that there is so much value in the discussions themselves.

Eve Jardine-Young
Summer 2015