‘Research’ Homeworks Are a Waste of Time

'The Young Sabot Maker' by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). The Apprenticeship model still prevails at university level.

‘The Young Sabot Maker’ by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937). The apprenticeship model still prevails at university level.

Should we set research homeworks? For pupils up to sixteen, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. There could be some limited space for it at A level, as long as the research is clearly demarcated through the use of judiciously selected secondary material, as it is at undergraduate level through the provision of reading lists.

Research homeworks fit well into the philosophy of discovery learning. They are used to promote the supposed transferable skill of investigating and weighing up source validity. But how can pupils weigh up source validity when they lack deep knowledge? Research is not required at university level until the very end of a degree, in the form of a dissertation in one’s final year. Even then, undergraduate dissertations are expected to be more of a summary of current knowledge than anything new. Genuine research does not take place until postgraduate level. A doctoral dissertation is the first occasion on which students are expected to contribute something to the sum total of subject knowledge. Before that time, they are expected to master what is already known, and master it thoroughly, for the closed book, broad ranging examinations which, thank goodness, still prevail at university level in our best institutions.

This is a wise model, which has not significantly changed for centuries. It is still the traditional model of the novice sitting at the feet of the master. Until they have attained mastery themselves, it is nonsense to expect pupils to do genuine research. As Daniel Willingham points out, schoolteachers should be aiming for deep understanding in their pupils, not the creation of new knowledge (See Why Don’t Students Like School?, Chapter Six).

And yet we have the odd idea at school level that by sending off twelve year olds to look things up on the internet, we are developing some mysterious kind of skill which will help them in later years. What will actually help them in later years is well mastered general knowledge. It is only novices who need to look things up frequently, and often they fail to understand what they look up, or they cannot properly assess its validity, because they lack the expertise to discriminate effectively. They would be much better off were an expert to explain the topic to them.

Our time, and our pupils’ time, is extremely precious. We need to maximise the effectiveness of that time, by providing clearly organised subject knowledge and focusing on using methods that will enable all of our pupils to master it. If there is core knowledge that they need to know well, we need to give it to them at the start of the course, and create many opportunities for repeated practice until it is firmly in place. We cannot afford to waste time letting pupils ‘discover’ it through fictional ‘research’.

Research homeworks are just as inefficient as all of the other discovery learning activities which have created ignorant, opinionated pupils over recent decades. Giving pupils the core knowledge straight, and expecting them to master it, is not spoon feeding. It’s putting three square meals on the table, full of nourishing and wholesome food.

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21 thoughts on “‘Research’ Homeworks Are a Waste of Time

  1. Hi there, just to give an alternative perspective, my daughter does a ‘learning log’ homework each fortnight at her primary school (basically a research project). Her latest one is to explore what life was like for early human beings. As part of the ‘research’ I have bought her a Dorling Kindersley book on Early Humans, we also visited Cheddar Gorge to look at Cheddar Man, and went to the museum there, where there was a chance to try on the clothes that early people would have worn and to hold the weapons they would have used. This isn’t something that she was able to do in school time, but by setting it as a homework task the enrichment potential was huge. While I appreciate that not all parents might do this, some of us will!

    Previous topics have included Leonardo da Vinci (we were lucky with that one, as we had visited The Last Supper and The Mona Lisa last year, and we have tons of great books on him).

    I wouldn’t necessarily assume that all children (and parents) will only ever use the internet to do research tasks that are set for homework. Although many might, these kind of discovery projects offer the chance to go beyond the basics for those children who want to.

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      • I’m not the only parent who did it, though, the school suggested we visit and many of us did. They sent home a link and my daughter said “you get 15% off if you book online!” very excitedly, so I’d guess this was mentioned quite a bit in class. It’d be a shame if we lost these chances for child/parent sharing/enrichment via homework, just because all parents won’t do it. I don’t see myself as exceptional at all, many of my friends are the same (well, the 2 months booking ahead for The Last Supper and the getting to Milan bit on the right day was quite a feat …).

        Perhaps what is really important is to set these homework tasks up clearly, and to offer parents a list of potential sources to get their children to explore? Also the timescale helps, as she has 2 weeks to do this, and there is a clear expectation that there will be plenty of diverse information included, not just bits printed out from online. I think the idea that we can ‘research’ from a variety of sources is really crucial for children to understand, and a lot of the time the sources can’t be accessed during school hours but potentially can be on the weekends. It’d be a shame if children started to feel that school is the only place where learning can take place.

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      • I totally agree that lots of learning takes place outside school. Parents can investigate and explore topics with their children regardless of what is happening in school. The school should be focusing on the core knowledge that all children need to progress in academic subjects. It’s about being clear about the school’s responsibility, and making best use of school time.

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    • In schools, it usually amounts to, ‘go and find something out about this topic’. The result is disorganised and poorly filtered information. The teacher should have spent the time deciding what the core knowledge was, and then class time could have been spent explaining, discussing and mastering it. Genuine research is, of course, pushing outwards the boundaries of a subject, and can only be done by those with sufficient expertise.

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  2. But if it’s homework, it’s not being done school time, as this weary parent trying to get her kids to do their homework in half term can verify. 😉

    Also, what about the ‘beyond’ and ‘enrichment’ bit? My kids know lots of the stuff they are presented with in school, because they have already read about it at home. Suggesting that they need to ‘master’ one set of knowledge they might already know is a bit of a low expectation for the most widely read among your students, surely?

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    • I happen to think that there should be far less homework, at least in terms of written tasks. The reason so much is being set is that so much time is being wasted in noisy, unfocused lessons. There should be enough time to cover the core within school hours. Homework should be about consolidation.

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  3. Hi Anthony, I completely agree with this.

    As a parent with a considerable number of years’ experience, I have made it my business to help children with their research homework because I find that their ‘research’ skills are lacking and in need of clear, explicit direction. So, I show them where to find reliable information, how to collate it in note form, and then how to plan and organise a formal report to consolidate their knowledge on the subject matter which I then test them on and we use said report for their public speaking practice. However, it takes a good 3 hours for the final report to be produced, and I think this is actually something that should be done in the classroom.

    I know that many primary schools are against the teaching of knowledge, and only believe in teaching skills through ‘relevant’ subjects, so this means that knowledge acquisition (as required now by the new curriculum) has to be outsourced to homework.

    I myself do not set homework that requires research, because I believe it is my job as the class teacher to efficiently impart this knowledge and to test the children regularly on it. This also makes the whole system much fairer because I know there will be many parents who do not have the skills or the time/energy to help their children at home in the way that I have with my own children. Instead, I always set homework that aims to consolidate and extend the learning that has taken place in the classroom, as I care very much about all the children, especially those who live in difficult conditions and do not have access to a quiet place to study, let alone a computer to do ‘research’ on. I think it is very important that all children have opportunities, not just those who are fortunate enough to live in middle class homes.

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    • Thanks Quirky Teacher – spoken with parental insight as always. I too write from a parental as well as a teacherly perspective. Schools rely on parents far too much. They muck about and waste time and then depend on parents to fill gaps. But many can’t, or won’t, and frankly I don’t blame them.

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  4. Pingback: Can Research Happen at School? | The Traditional Teacher

  5. I’m glad my own teachers did not feel this way. My peers and I did many research projects before the age of 12. They didn’t involve our parents and they didn’t involve the Internet. They involved actually having to find out what information was available in books and other documents. I remember variously: contacting the local malaria research institute and chatting to their researchers about breeding and hatching mosquitoes (I’m still something of an expert); writing to a leading authority on early copper-mining in the region; accessing real documents on the country’s education statistics; exploring climactic conditions for the 1800s when the area was being explored by Europeans. A different time and place, of course.

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    • I’m not arguing that no one ever learned anything from independent study. I’m arguing that genuine research requires expertise, and it is the teacher’s job to build knowledge so that one day pupils will be able to hold well informed opinions, and perhaps do some research if they pursue academic study to a very advanced level.

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  6. I’m also glad I had teachers who told me that they couldn’t possibly ‘give me all the knowledge’ needed and that any subject worth knowing about required me doing some further work of my own. Perhaps it’s the expectation that teachers will give the pupils all the knowledge required that has led to such poor subject knowledge amongst teachers themselves.

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    • I’d argue the opposite. When teachers realise that they need to be the expert, they are serious about continually developing their subject knowledge. When they piously proclaim that pupils must find it out for themselves, it provides an excellent excuse to be lazy. I blogged a couple of days ago about exactly this point.

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      • Yes – I can see that is your perception and I might concede that point in hypothesis, if it weren’t for the fact that the teachers who told me that I’d need to read around my subject, only knew that because they actually were experts. To be clear, they weren’t saying ‘I don’t know, find out yourself’. They were saying ‘if you want to excel in this subject, you need to do more than just sit in class and take in what we can give you in the school week.’ That attitude has surely died? It’s become the teacher’s responsibility for the pupil to do well. I don’t remember that. I remember it being my responsibility.

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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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