President Michael D Higgins ignited a national conversation about homework when he told primary school students that he believed schoolwork should be completed in school – and that children should be able to use their time at home for "other creative things".
Simon Lewis, a primary school principal in Carlow, broadly agrees with President Higgins. But Chris Donnelly, a principal in Belfast, staunchly disagrees. In recent days, Mr Lewis and Mr Donnelly debated the issue over WhatsApp, as part of The Conversation from RTÉ's Upfront with Katie Hannon.
Simon Lewis: Hi Chris, great to talk to you. Homework is one of those topics that comes up in the media from time to time as it's an emotive one and it affects family life in a direct way. To give you my own perspective, I broadly agree with President Higgins at primary level.
Chris Donnelly: Hi Simon! I've got to say that, although I’m a great admirer of President Higgins, I’m not with him on this one. I believe that we have to continue to encourage and cultivate parents’ involvement in their children’s education, and the most obvious way of ensuring that is done remains through regular and consistent homework. I do accept that, as teachers, we must constantly review and assess the value and merit of what is included in homework, but in principle I’m in favour of it remaining.
Simon Lewis: Absolutely with you in terms of cultivating parents' involvement in children's education, but I think there are far more effective ways of doing so. Perhaps it might be worth exploring what homework looks like? I think most parents experience homework as finishing off work that wasn't completed or a page or two of a workbook. I think they think every child gets the same work. I think they find it meaningless. I also think, in most cases, they are right. I'm not surprised to hear calls for it to be banned.
Chris Donnelly: We’ve heard so often about the wisdom of the proverb that "it takes a village to raise a child". We can’t nod our heads in agreement with that and yet add the caveat that, when it comes to the 3 Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – they’re strictly for school alone.
I take the point that some homeworks can be more effective than others, but if we’re serious about promoting parental involvement in kids’ education, then we need to recognise that homework provides the framework and guidance for parents to be involved, and at the appropriate level, for their kids.
Simon Lewis: I don't know if I agree with you completely on that. There are other frameworks that can involve parents without drill and practice exercises in books. I think technology has given us the ability to communicate with families in ways we could have only imagined even 20 years ago. Schools are now equipped with complete communication systems where they can inform and help families with their child's progress in all areas. A teacher can record themselves explaining any concept, they can set individualised tasks and projects, and they can point a family to anything conceivable.
Chris Donnelly: I’ve spent all of my 20-plus years in the vocation as a teacher and school leader in school communities in what might be described as areas of higher socio-economic deprivation, so educational underachievement is an issue very close to my heart.
Children in such communities are statistically much more likely to not realise their full potential, and I have always found that a part of addressing that is to draw parents in closely to their kids’ educational experience. Homework has been integral to that as it provides both a means to guide parents, but also a way of monitoring and essentially holding parents to account, flagging up when intervention may be necessary to ascertain if there were any issues, and to provide suggestions and solutions.
One of the projects I initiated was a "dads and lads" reading initiative in inner-city north Belfast, encouraging fathers to view reading a book with their kid each night as a shared experience akin to taking their child to a football match. For that initiative, Cliftonville Football Club got on board and we were able to hold workshops attended by many, providing ideas and strategies to encourage the fathers to pick up a book each night.
Simon Lewis: That's really interesting. It sounds like we both work in very similar contexts. Funnily enough, we had a very similar programme for reading with children in the evenings as part of a research project on homework at primary level. If homework is to exist, it needs to be meaningful, fun and optional. If possible, it needs to be individualised to a child's needs.
One other point is that if we give homework, we need to focus on the 4Cs – critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication – as well. Again, technology is key here.
Would you think there's such a thing as bad homework?
Chris Donnelly: Oh, absolutely, Simon. I think there’s a real case for rethinking homework for the modern age. Whilst I’m obviously a strong advocate for it, I appreciate that it can come in many forms and not always in a manner that is productive.
I believe, if we perceive its function as being to not simply consolidate pupil understanding of learning themes introduced in class, but also to encourage parental input into children’s learning, then it opens up opportunities to move away from the more mundane worksheet activity and towards encouraging parents to help with, for instance, computer-based activities.
Simon Lewis: What are your thoughts on it being optional?
Chris Donnelly: Not in favour of optional homework. For me, it has to remain a part of what "education" involves for cultural reasons – to ensure buy-in across society.
I’m a great believer that kids learn from what is caught as well as what’s taught. Those incidental chats with the adults in their lives who help with the homework or who see a reference in a homework and take conversation in a different direction, perhaps revisiting a life experience.
We have to keep evaluating what we do as educators and what the impact we are having, in class and at home. That’ll necessitate changing the format and focus of homework as much as it does teaching styles and strategies in class. But getting the parents and grandparents involved in a child’s learning journey on a regular basis can only be a positive development.
Simon Lewis: Completely agree with families being involved in the learning journey. I have to admit I didn't agree with the President when he said that "time in the school is an educational experience and it should get finished at the school", because education and learning can and does happen anywhere.
However, whether a school should impose those learning experiences, I would question that. I believe schools can suggest learning activities to families if they feel there would be a benefit, but I believe it is the right of a family not to do it. With so many families much busier than back in our day, with many children spending more and more of their day in childcare, after-school clubs and so on, they have little downtime as it is.
Adding the extra stress of more work seems unjust. I have seen some good examples of schools providing a summary of what is being covered in class and a suggested list of activities on a Monday that can be done any time during the week. I also love the idea of choice boards and the Flipped Classroom concept.
Perhaps we need to reclaim the word "homework?" The mere sound of the word sends shivers down the spines of many people. It was (and probably still is in places) seen as a negative experience? Worse, for me, it is often used as a punishment.
That brings me to the opposite point, which really winds me up. I'm not sure if you ever have this in Northern Ireland. If there's ever a celebrity visitor to a school, often the first thing they will do at an assembly is ask the teachers to give the children the night off from homework! Even our politicians get in on it.
Chris Donnelly: The difficulty I would have with optional homework is that, unfortunately, my experience would lead me to believe that many of the very children who would benefit the most from the additional learning opportunities provided by homework would likely lose out as their parents could be the ones to opt out.
The current understanding and acceptance of what homework entails at least ensures all are aware that input from home is expected and is monitored in the sense that teachers and school leaders will query if and when it is not completed.
I don’t agree about free time for kids. Whilst I get that homework can be a stress point for many parents returning from work at night, the truth is that Irish children have never been more likely to be involved in after-school clubs than they are today, which is a good thing. It’s a question of balance.
Simon Lewis: What happens if a child doesn't do homework and parents are either refusing to do it, or just aren't engaging?
Chris Donnelly: That’s where we, as school leaders, intervene, knowing that their refusal will increase the probability of the child underachieving educationally. We both know there are such cases out there, and identifying the problems and challenges early is key to organising the one-to-one chats with parents, and even possibly seeking to find other ways of supporting the kids.
Simon Lewis: I get that, but for the growing number of families who might be emboldened by the President's call to action, how will you deal with outright opt-out?
Chris Donnelly: The President can speak for himself, of course, but I can’t agree with his central point about educational experiences being confined to school. If we accept that, we are destined to fail in endeavours to close achievement gaps and run the risk of failing to help kids realise their potential.
I think we can agree schools should constantly evaluate the usefulness and value of homework tasks.
Simon Lewis: What would you recommend now as good practice for homework?
Chris Donnelly: Spelling and reading are a given for me – and I’d worry about parents believing they should not have a role in these areas, not least due to how important they are to children’s educational development in the earlier years.
An element of written homework should also be incorporated. We also make use of online maths and reading programmes, which are useful for encouraging adult involvement.
Simon Lewis: It's been great to have this chat. I think, if nothing else, we've made a case that there needs to be more of a conversation about homework and what it looks like in a modern education system. I love how, in the education sector, we can have different views on different things but leave almost every conversation with something new to learn and discover!
Chris Donnelly: Absolutely, Simon. Great to chat with you. Education is always evolving, and we have to keep our minds open to fresh perspectives whilst learning from previous experiences. Thanks again!
Read last week's edition of The Conversation, where we asked Fine Gael Senator and former Government minister, Regina Doherty and People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy to debate whether Irish politicians have high standards in public office, here.