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.