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’.
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:
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.