Read and Revise! Homework in Harmony.

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

Read and revise.

That’s our whole school homework policy for Key Stage Three. We set reading and we set revision. If you’re a parent, you know what to ask your child: what are you reading this week? What are you revising? In lessons, there will be plenty of writing, art work and music composition; plenty of science experiments, food to cook and products to design; projects, debates, demonstrations, teacher explanations and yes, groupwork sometimes too. All of the things that should rightly fill a school day. But at home, you make it stick. You revise and you read.

We think it overcomes some of the unintended problems of homework and we have found it has developed our curriculum thinking. It is also a workload win.

Common-Sense Workloads

Our teachers set revision tasks (known as ‘Mastery homework’) based on the core knowledge of our curriculum, which means that pupils gain immediate feedback on their progress through low stakes quizzes, retrieval practice, verbal feedback and self or peer assessment.

Our homework requires no written marking.

We insist on that. Our assessment and feedback policy is influenced by the research findings of the Education Endowment Foundation and it explicitly states:

  • The school insists that teachers are selective in their written marking. Written comments are only expected to be provided for the key assessments scheduled in the school’s assessment policy.

In other words, we provide written marking only for scheduled assessments that pupils do in front of us. That way, we know that we are responding to work that has been done distraction free, with full attention and we know exactly how long each child has spent on it. The same can’t be said for homework. What inferences can you realistically make from marking homework? If a child’s homework is below expectation, does it show that they lacked the skills or knowledge? Or does it show that they weren’t really up for it? When a child makes a giant leap forward in the work achieved, is it truly a step forward in their progress or is it that they had a little help from a friend (google or a well-meaning parent)?

Done right, our pupils arguably receive better feedback for their homework. Verbal feedback from quiz scores, teacher explanations and class dialogue is more timely and is very precise in identifying gaps in knowledge and understanding. We are not compliance checking what pupils have done, we are finding out what matters most of all: what do they know? Can they apply it? Is the curriculum having an impact? We don’t record scores or marks either. Our quizzes don’t feed any data machine. It’s the process that counts. We try to make it fun, we celebrate the successes. Pupils appear to enjoy having knowledge and not just for exams, but in and of itself. This is especially true when we make the right curriculum choices about what they are to learn. This isn’t a pub quiz or a tv gameshow, it’s about real cultural capital.

Shaping the Curriculum

When we introduced the revision homework nearly three years ago we were also posing an important curriculum question. To decide what revision to set, every subject had to define the knowledge that really counts. What are the threshold concepts? Which vocabulary matters most? How do we sequence this and how do we present it to pupils?

Knowledge Organisers have proved useful but they are not our only tool. At their best,they offer clarity and precision about essential curriculum content but at their worst, they provide the opposite. Before asking teachers to design Knowledge Organisers, it is worth considering the CPD needed to do this well.For us, inset provided by Niki Kaiser (of the Norwich Research School) has made us stop and think about cognitive overload. Many of us also listened to Oliver Caviglioli at ReasearchEd Ipswich and this gave us pause for thought about all things ‘dual coding’. But we didn’t need a teaching conference to discover that some resources needed to be less cluttered; our parents and of course our pupils have been our guides too.

Incidentally, parental feedback about homework has been more positive since we introduced the revision homework three years ago. I think some of this is because homework has become more predictable for our families. They aren’t blindsided by a sudden Castle making project or a flurry of extended writing tasks from a range of subjects. That’s the other curriculum challenge with homework. Getting the timing and quantity right. As well intentioned as a homework timetable might be, a meaningful subject curriculum is not easily tethered to weekly scheduled homework tasks. When schools do choose to set big tasks like extended writing or research projects, it is a challenge to get the timing just right for the curriculum, the homework timetable and the variables that can blow the best laid plans off course. Revision on the other hand, is ongoing. It is a constant that is in continuous support of the curriculum.

Respecting Subject Specificity

That’s not to say that revision tasks are entirely open ended at our school. Revision for us is a broad term and over the past two years we have refined our approach so that it better allows for subject specificity. Whilst many subjects use retrieval practice as their main approach, others set different forms of revision. For instance, in Maths, their revision takes the form of maths questions (of course!). In Computing, we realised that just because pupils could repeat terminology out of context, it didn’t mean they could apply it as programmers; having evaluated this, we adapted the Mastery Homework so that their revision took the form of repeated programming challenges, still designed to help the learning ‘stick’ and still supported by immediate verbal feedback and self-assessment.In Art, pupils don’t just learn the vocabulary of the subject, they apply it to questions about great works of art (revising their art history along the way). Similarly, in Music, pupils are given a different piece of music to listen to for each homework and they apply the terminology that they are revising in response set questions. As with Art, there is an opportunity here to really develop their cultural capital, and we think hard about which pieces we choose for them to reflect upon and the value it will add to their curriculum.

It has been important for us to introduce this breadth. It helps us avoid too much repetition. This is why we are also interested in varying the ways that we use retrieval practice in lessons. Tom Sherrington’s blog on 10 Techniques for Retrieval Practice has been useful for this. We realise that for it to be effective, it needs to be proportionate in the lesson and curriculum time. Engagement might be a poor proxy for learning, but boredom is hardly desirable either. What’s pleasing is that many pupils tell us that they are motivated by their success in our quizzes. It calls to mind Rosenshine’s Principle that when pupils ‘obtain a high success rate’ it leads to yet more progress.

A Scholarly Reading Programme

How would you describe good study? Effective revision certainly. But reading too. Reading changes lives. Currently, our KS3 reading homework is set only in English in the pupils’ timetabled library lessons and the emphasis is on fiction and reading for pleasure. We value it but we know it could be better still. Next year, we are expanding to a non-fiction scholarly reading programme, which we have trailed with some classes this term. The aim is to broaden pupils’ horizons and increase their experience of reading ‘up’. The idea came from listening to Mary Myatt on the subject of Reading across the curriculum in which she also shared some great examples in History from Richard Kennett (@kenradical). In her book on Curriculum, Myatt asks “Do they have the chance to read widely in History, Geography, Art, Religious Education?”. It’s a great question, and one we are seeking to answer.

Every year Key Stage Three students at Long Stratton High School will be given a piece of non-fiction guided reading from a different subject every two weeks. This will come from a different subject each time so that over the course of Key Stage three they will have read widely and often. In keeping with our marking and feedback policy, teachers will talk pupils through a verbal feedback and self-assessment session when pupils share their responses to the guided reading questions. The aim is to improve pupils’ exposure to challenging texts and to develop their knowledge and cultural capital.

The exam is not the subject!

In our curriculum planning, we have been using the above diagram to remind ourselves that the GCSE Exams are not the subject itself. This was also a starting point for planning our Scholarly Reading Programme. Heads of Department were asked the following questions about their subjects before we sourced relevant texts:

  1. Who are the pioneers in your subject?
  2. What are the landmark events orachievements?
  3. What are the major ideas, concepts orcontroversies?

This proved to be a lively discussion and happily, we have discovered the areas where the boundaries of our subjects blur. For instance, if we include some biographical reading about DaVinci, do we set this in Art, Maths, Science or Technology? If we include some historical writing about the achievements of Ada Lovelace or Alan Turing, is this Maths or Computing? Does an article from the National Geographic about the impact of plastics belong to Geography, Science or Design Technology? We’re hoping to challenge pupils’ preconceptions about our subjects. It is also an opportunity to expand our SMSC provision. Our IT department have selected Scholarly Reading that explores democracy and the impact of Big Data on elections. We’re aiming high. We want to stretch our pupils and genuinely choose reading that will broaden their horizons.

Knowledge Rich

When everybody in education is talking about curriculum, the time is right for rethinking homework too. Our recent Ofsted Pilot has reassured us that making bold decisions about workload and sharpening our focus on what we want pupils to learn as apposed to do, is the right thing. There have been several other blogs and articles about homework of late. I read with interest about the ‘holy grail’ of homework shared by Rebecca Forster(@TLPMsF) and it is clear when reading about her English Department that we are in good company when it comes to ‘cracking the code’ for meaningful homework that is also sensible from a workload standpoint. We know too, that as the reality of each busy term rolls by, we need to continuously evaluate when our approach is working as intended, and when it needs rethinking and refining. When we do so, it helps to return to the clarity of intention in those two words.

Our homework policy may be easily summarised with the phrase ‘Read and Revise’ but there is another way of putting this even more simply. For our pupils, their homework is to become more knowledgeable. That’s the crux of the matter.

And do you know another great thing about knowledge? Your dog can’t eat it!

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

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