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My favourite waste of time…..

17 June 2013

There’s a TV quiz programme, currently popular, I believe, called Pointless. I’m not sure of any of the details, and consider it would be unproductive to investigate in too much depth, but it goes on air in the late afternoon and could therefore be considered a diversion for young people between school and evening meal. However, some may think that an appropriate use of that time might be in the completion of post-school assignments – they may have a rosy vision of heads down over the books on the kitchen table, supported by a healthy snack.

Along with many of my peers, I have become fond of quoting the findings from John Hattie’s “Visible Learning” work.  This huge endeavour took large scale educational research and analysed it statistically to come up with conclusions about what does and doesn’t have a positive effect on learning.  We have to “check our privilege” when we read the work – the research which forms the basis of the findings is largely from the English-speaking parts of the world, and comprises many US studies.

That said, it is quite good fun to drop into a conversation that, for example, school structure appears to have no effect on raising achievement. Similarly, Hattie concludes that homework contributes relatively little of significance to learning. But, it is dangerous to do the fast thinking thing and react to that news too directly. There may be reasons beyond learning for setting an assignment, and just because on balance it has little effect, it doesn’t mean that it never works positively to some end.

Consider the following, for example. The father of a child that I was teaching (maths) came up to me at parents’ evening. He asked me to set her plenty of work to do during the holidays to prevent her from hanging round the house and getting bored. This seemed a slim argument for an assignment, which I countered (in my mind) with a suggestion that some parental attention might be the solution rather than algebra.  Homework used here as a diversionary occupation.

The essence of my argument is, if you’re setting work to be done out of class make sure that you have questioned the purpose of it.  In some cases, consolidating what you were discussing in the lesson by writing about it is a good and useful exercise.  Setting some stimulating pre-lesson activity to make the most of the face to face contact time (flipping the classroom) has many enthusiasts. Reflecting on and writing up a practical investigation can be very fruitful. Whatever it might be, we would do well to follow the questioning format that was devised for the Getting Practical project, or to paraphrase somewhat brutally, is this homework more or less pointless than Pointless?

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