Let me start by making the point: we, languages teachers, need students to do some work outside of lesson time if we want them to improve at a meaningful pace. This is the premise I use to develop my argument here.
There is currently this debate about whether students should be given homework. Those who believe it is a waste of time and it essentially rots family and children lives presumably have the concept of homework being a set of randomly assigned tasks to fill up time and fulfil the requirement of some school to assign it to its students.
However, the concept that I have of homework is the work that needs to be done beyond school time to either reinforce, help clarify or produce questions on what was done in class or will be done in another lesson. In that sense, I see it more as an essential part of learning than a burden on the student. That is, most people that want to learn cannot limit the time they engage in the process to that of a definite amount of lessons.
I have seen lots of positives from homework in the progress of my students. When I correct it, this is some of what I find:
- Some students have not understood parts of what I intended to teach.
- Some students complete the process while doing it.
- Some students, who thought they got it, realise it is not that clear after all. This is a clue to them to work again on this understating, including asking for help if necessary.
- Their mistakes are an invaluable opportunity for me to recognise where their learning needs to go or where I need to rectify / clarify.
- Completing homework sometimes triggers questions that will, in turn, trigger the need for further learning in a very particular direction (one I might not have thought of initially indeed).
- When they read, write, speak and / or listen in the language they are learning some unknown words and expressions come up. This is knowledge that is generated without my direct intervention. It, again, might take learning in directions I hadn’t anticipated.
Some might argue I can do this with work done in class, and they would be right. I can and I do. However, there is only so much a student can do in a 50 minutes lesson. What they produce in a lesson is just not enough for all of the above to occur.
As a result of my students completing homework and me checking it, I am able to constantly adapt the learning sequences I use with them. I rectify a path or add to it. There is so much organising of the learning we, teachers, can do. Learning a language is not a limited task: a countless amount of words and expressions is used to express one’s thoughts. A single teacher cannot think of all there is to learn in a language so they can ‘pass it on’ to students, nor would the learning be effective even if that was the case. To successfully learn a language involves using it often and regularly.
Other arguments I have heard against homework are that it is coercive, that students should do whatever they like with their free time, that they should self-direct their learning anyway, or that choice in tasks needs to be provided. This is my opinion on each of these arguments:
- Coerciveness: There is no doubt that mastering a skill requires discipline. When someone wants to learn to play an instrument, it seems to be widely accepted that regular practice needs to occur. It is not that one would not make any progress if this doesn’t happen; it is that one’s progress will presumably be rather slow. Students can certainly decide that doing work outside of school time is not necessary for their progress. Teachers can also disagree and encourage them to complete it. Ultimately, it is not difficult to accept that it is generally a more attractive proposition not to make an effort in any area. That we humans are rather lazy by nature and that we will choose the easier path whenever possible. It takes a bit of coercion sometimes for us to “do what must be done”. This is what I would call ‘productive coercion’ though. Sometimes, it is only after we are forced to do something we realise it was necessary for us to do it. Occasionally, being taken out of our comfort zone makes us experience the progress needed to finally motivate us. It doesn’t always happen by itself. The key lies more in the trust the student has in his / her teacher to provide worthwhile activities to complete.I will finish this section by saying there is no amount of coercion that will get students to learn. If their choice is to complete homework to get teachers off their backs that might equate to not doing it at all. In the end “teaching is leading the horse to water; learning is having a drink” (David Didau).
- Freedom and self-direction: Freedom is a privilege people learn to manage. Most students need guidance. It is true that all they need to learn is ‘out there’ and readily available to them. However, few are able to navigate all these tools and information efficiently and obtain exclusively what they need to make progress. The reality of learning throughout the history of humanity is that we guide each other in the process. Homework just provides with some direction. Not many know what is best to do without some guidance even when they are eager to learn more or to practise further. Again, I would argue we would tend to choose what is more pleasant or seems more feasible rather than what is more challenging.
- Choice: The scientific fact is that children and teenagers’ brains are not developed enough to always make wise decisions. Every week I see my daughter choose the four tasks she knows she can easily complete from her choice of homework tasks. In my opinion, choice is meaningless if students are not able to wisely choose what will challenge them to make progress.
To conclude, I do not believe the debate should be on whether we set homework or not. The debate has to be about what is useful to set as homework. If the work we offer is meaningful and if students still cannot find the time to complete it, then they must accept their progress will possibly be less effective. Homework is not to be an isolating or punitive task; it is more of an opportunity to be taken.