Schrödinger’s homework: the problem with takeaway menus

One of the signifying mantras of progressive education’s child-centred approach is the idea of giving pupils elective choice in what or how they study.

One example of this choice in action is the phenomenon of ‘takeaway homework’.

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For the uninitiated, this is where pupils are given a menu (usually emblazoned with the branding of a high street fast food chain) from which they get to choose to complete one (or some) from a range of homework tasks.

Whilst I’ll concede that it isn’t completely at odds with it, this idea does seem to sit uncomfortably with another of progressive education’s bogeymen: the marketisation of education (you can also add ‘Poundland pedagogy‘ as another bedfellow in this conflicted ménage à trois).

But that isn’t my main concern with takeaway homework. Neither is it the stealthy promotion of junk food that these menus might seem to endorse. It isn’t even, as Chris Moyse suggests, the excessive workload that takeaway homework creates.

No. The concern I have with takeaway homework is that, whilst it claims to be promoting valid homework, it’s actually doing the opposite. And that’s because it’s doing both.

You see, I think that takeaway homework can be seen as a thought experiment, similar to the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat.

This is what I mean. Take a look at this schematic figure of takeaway homework.


Pupils are offered 4 tasks to choose from. We tell them that these tasks are all valid and useful. Pupil One chooses the circle task. This means that they do not complete the other three tasks. We are now saying that, if we are happy for Pupil One not to complete these, they can’t be important. On the other hand, as they are completing the circle task, this must have validity.

Pupil Two chooses the square task. This means that the circle task that Pupil One completed does not have importance or validity. We are happy for Pupil Two not to complete that task; they can miss out on the learning from this task. We must, therefore, also be happy for Pupil One not to complete that task, even though they chose it.

Pupil Three chooses the pentagon task. This means that nobody chooses to complete the triangle task. We are happy for nobody to complete that task, so it must be unimportant. The learning provided by the triangle task can be bypassed by all pupils.

Put simply, the tasks on this menu are both valid and invalid at the same time. By organising homework in this way, we are suggesting that each task is simultaneously important and unimportant; useful and useless; they have both a learning outcome that we think pupils need and no learning outcome at all.

And the crux of all this is: if we are saying that some of those tasks are unnecessary but it doesn’t matter which, then we are actually saying that all of them are.

This is the problem of takeaway homework.

I think that homework needs to be directed, with a clear intention and learning outcome to be effective. Woolly, ‘anything goes’ approaches like takeaway homework is the opposite of this. It seems to hinge all of its claimed ‘effectiveness’ on things like motivation and engagement, which, as Professor Robert Coe tells us, are actually poor proxies for learning:Poor proxies fro learning

Where Hattie has thrown some doubt over the effectiveness of homework as an intervention, wouldn’t it be better to, as Tom Sherrington says, “be more specific and precise” in the tasks we set?

Even its advocates must agree that takeaway homework is far from specific and precise. And with that in mind, I’m personally hoping that we soon see yesterday’s takeaway homework menus as tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.


30 thoughts on “Schrödinger’s homework: the problem with takeaway menus”

  1. The only caveat I can think of is for revision. Students are set the same specific learning objectives to revise but given a choice on which particular methodology to use, from a variety (flash cards and self testing for example) that are likely to have an impact. Clearly, the follow up needs to be a test of some sort to evaluate the effectiveness of the said technique. Of course you could just set homework based around a different technique each time…

  2. Great stuff as always . Perhaps however the takeaway homework model can be seen as a pragmatic solution to the situation. For example some parents believe their children have too much homework whilst others too little. The menu approach is therefore a means of satisfying not only a statutory requirement to set the homework, but also the desire of parents. I would also suggest the strength in this approach lies in the idea that parents know what their children have to do and indeed that they have homework. My own opinion is that homework should be reading and revision, but I can see the practical use of a menu.

      1. In my experience (independent school marketing) homework was as likely to concern and to worry parents as to placate them.

        Like it or not homework is often the only regular, meaningful communication that parents see from the classroom. They can ask their child “what did you learn at school today” and compare it with the evidence displayed in the homework. They believe that it shows them what real progress their child is making and what their child’s teacher is focused on in the classroom.

        The menu structure doesn’t really aid this form of communication.

        If teachers understand homework as mainly a subject specific message to parents it might help them set the right kind of task.

    1. Parents are not the experts in their field and need to be told this…! A parent would rarely question a doctor’s judgement on their child’s prognosis and should have the same respect for a teacher’s.

    2. I also use this as a clues to find out how my students learn. I vary it from time to time and limit it to certain sections depending on content I am teaching but, this still gives them choice to be engaged in their learning. Engagement which is key for their educational development.

  3. It probably is of SOME use and I can envisage a menu of purely useful tasks, but I’d agree it’s also not the most useful. I was discussing this on Twitter last night and quite a few tweachers suggested that accessibility is a key component of good homework and perhaps this approach fulfils this component.

    1. I’d argue that ‘accessibility’ is a bit of weasel word in this context. There’s nothing to suggest that more precise and directed homework shouldn’t be accessible. Or that a menu of tasks are.

  4. I hadn’t come across ‘Poundland pedagogy’ before. There’s some dodgy grammar on the current first item on the Twitter feed. I’d be more than a little concerned if my child came home with homework that said, “The countries flag” or, “5 other geographical fact”. The whole hashtag scares me a little!

  5. I have used menu homework and found it very useful. I alternated it with more formal homework. I disagree that by choosing one task makes another invalid, all options provide opportunity for a pupil to think about something they have learned and demonstrate this. How they do this is up to them – allowing flexibility and choice.

  6. Personally, i really like using ‘choice’ tasks at the end of a unit as it gives students a little more freedom and they seem more engaged/eager to produce a really impressive piece of work. I don’t think choosing one task makes the others less significant, and teachers can discuss this with the class beforehand to ensure they don’t view it in this way.

    I do think that this is trickier though when it’s set as homework. In the classroom, you can support/re-group/suggest alternative tasks if a student is struggling…. at home, they could well be left to their own devices. Homework really needs to be something that develops skills recently covered/that students specifically need, so I would worry as to if this was too loose to fit that purpose. Totally depends on the subject, tasks and class though too!

  7. Does my choice of beef mean your choice of chicken is invalid? There’s no paradox here. There are just 4 cats in your box, all very much alive and looking perky. I think the fallacy here is that you are assuming that there must be one and only one correct cat for all pupils. Why should two different cats not lead to similar outcomes, both good? What if triangles were better for Pupil A and circles for Pupil B? Moreover, why should it matter if they each lead to different outcomes, as long as all are valuable to the learners? What are we actually teaching our pupils when we force them to comply with our demands as you suggest, and we tell them that there is only one way to learn this stuff (yours)?

    1. I presume that “force them to comply with our demands” is just rhetoric for ‘set them homework that you, as a teacher, think is important that for them to learn’?

  8. One of the most intriguing findings in the research on choice in assessment is that good students choose well, and weaker students choose badly. In other words, strong students choose tasks on which they will do best, while weaker students choose tasks on which they will perform worse than if they had chosen other tasks. As a result, where choice is given to students, you can predict a student’s final score on an exam almost as well from just knowing which questions they chose to answer as you can by looking at their answers. As Howard Wainer put it, choice in examinations is only justifiable where it is unnecessary. I suspect that this may be true for homework. If the purpose of homework is to be seen to be setting homework in order to comply with a school policy with the minimum amount of confrontation, then choice may be justified. If the aim is that students learn something, then choice would appear to be difficult to defend.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I think this part sums up my position on it entirely: “If the purpose of homework is to be seen to be setting homework in order to comply with a school policy with the minimum amount of confrontation, then choice may be justified. If the aim is that students learn something, then choice would appear to be difficult to defend.”

    2. This is really interesting. I’m guilty of giving such homeworks although looking now at why and how I do things leads me to think that this was not for the right reasons! Could you point me towards some particular pieces of research that talk of choice in assessment? I am looking to collate research on homework in order to inform our new homework policy. Many thanks, Jenny

  9. Thanks @jamestheo – yes, exactly so: ‘set them homework that you, as a teacher, think is important that for them to learn’. In the first place, the more control you take away from learners the less intrinsically motivated they will be. I’m fine with setting voluntary homework and persuading learners that it would be worth their while to do it. It’s the compulsion that’s the problem. It’s not just the demotivational aspect of it but the active lesson you teach: when you force them to do it, you teach them the lesson that compliance with authority is a good thing. This bothers me a lot. It’s the systematic disempowerment in our educational systems that I most object to.

    But there’s a logical flaw in the argument too. Let’s try to assume that the teacher actually knows best and should therefore be in control. Let’s also assume that, if we had all the time and patience in the world, we would probably give at least slightly different instruction to each and every pupil, because each is at a different stage, has different strengths, different weaknesses, different interests and different needs. Some get it faster, some don’t. This is what makes Bloom’s 2-sigma challenge so unassailable: one-to-one teaching is not a method of teaching but a condition of teaching, that allows us to use any method at all as well as giving us a super-powerful direct assessment tool so that we can choose the right method at the right time. But, if we accept that each learner would receive different instruction if we were teaching them one-to-one, this negates our first assumption. If the teacher gives one fixed task, knowing that every learner has different needs and therefore that the task is sub-optimal for at least some learners, then the teacher does not know best. While a menu is very far from a cure-all, it does at least acknowledge that there are different bests for different learners.

    @Dylan, this suggests problems in the menu, not in the idea. It’s not enough simply to give choices: you have to give learners the support to make those choices wisely. A good takeaway menu doesn’t just list the options: it explains why you should choose them and, ideally, what the benefits and pitfalls of choosing them will be, pitched at a level that the learner will understand and that will help them make the right choice. Scaffolding is vital here.

  10. A really interesting read, thank you for making me think deeper about this topic. After giving homework a lot of thought this year I have concluded that I don’t often want to set homework that is an extension of the classwork (to me, revision and practice techniques are something that should be promoted early to avoid it as a necessity). A very strong positive would come from takeaway homework making the mundane (homework) more exciting (introducing choice). Once or twice a year it could be incredibly effective. Its also a great way of extending learning, of introducing children at a young age to specialism. It’s important to show children that there is nothing wrong with going of the set scheme of work or delving deeper into something they may find interesting. It sure makes a positive impact in my subject of mathematics, where homework tasks can be dry and boring. Allowing them freedom to investigate something different can surely help foster that beauty of mathematics outside of the classroom. Takeaway homework would allow you to set various “valid” beneficial tasks whilst give them the chance to specialize, all in a way that is not the same old same old.

  11. You realised that take-away homework is a feature of child-centred, progressive education, but you didn’t realise that it’s purpose is not about subject content: it’s about ‘encouraging independent learning and curiosity’. This is why none of the homework choices matter in themselves, so long as children are taking an interest in one of the homework choices.

    We have to provide takeaway menus as part of our school’s homework policy (very common in primary schools). I was against it because I thought that the emphasis on having ‘fun’ and making things out of cardboard boxes, dressing up and going to museums put undue pressure on working parents and also sent a very anti-academic message to children. I got round this by including more academic homework choices that focused on writing skills and the acquisition of real subject knowledge. This worked well except for the fact that children who had poor attitudes to learning would do all the stupid cardboard box activities.

  12. Imagine you have a piece of bread and a butterknife. I then offer you a jar of strawberry jam, a jar of raspberry jam, a jar of apricot jam and a jar of plum jam. You can select any jar of jam you like to go with your bread.

    Clearly, all jam is worthless. There cannot be any benefit to eating strawberry jam, as it is not made of raspberries, apricots or even plums. It cannot be the best choice for anyone.

    An alternate view is that all the jars of jam contain the same amount of sugar and pectin, which are the main important factors in jam. So they are all equally valuable, and so it doesn’t matter which jar someone chooses. The flavours are just there to make the sugar and pectin more attractive.

    Another view is that some people at some times benefit most from the unique nutrients in strawberries. And other people at other times benefit most from the other fruits in the jars. Some of the ancient Greeks believed that individuals knew best what sorts of food agreed with them, so they should chose what they eat. So the people doing the eating are best placed to choose the jam variety that will serve them best.

    Yet another view is that while people may know which fruits they like, they can often benefit from varying their diet and eating things they don’t like. Often, they benefit particularly well when they eat a specific fruit at a specific time. Therefore, the jam each person eats should be determined by a dietitian that has recently completed the appropriate tests on the bread bearer. If the dietitian gives everyone the same variety of jam, the results are sub-optimal. It’s more bad when one or more individuals are allergic to a particular fruit, but it’s always less than ideal.

    1. Thank you for commenting, but I must say that I am lost with this as an analogy. Clearly, you have thought about it a great deal, but I’m afraid to say that I fail to see how this is analogous to choosing homework. Thanks once again though, I genuinely appreciate you taking time out to read and comment.

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