Wednesday, 23 August 2017

The Homework Dilemma

A while ago I posted a survey on Twitter which 286 people were kind enough to respond to. The topic was Homework and the survey informed a large part of a talk I gave at ELT Ireland's 2017 conference. I've attached the slides here. It's taken me ages to get around to writing up the results of the survey but it's a nice bright day in Ireland, I'm back off my honeymoon and I've just submitted a final assignment so I thought I'd have a crack now.



Context

I'm a big fan of homework. In the past, I gave students homework intermittently and without a lot of thought (e.g. "finish that part at home", "talk to someone about.....") and the response was lacklustre. Then I started putting a lot more thought into the homework I gave and made it a routine of every lesson (set it at the end of class, discuss it with everyone, check it first thing the next day). It seemed to go over well so I've stuck doing it over the years. But as with all things, you start off doing it for a reason and then, after a while, you keep doing it because that's what you always do. So that's why I chose the topic to give a presentation on and why I wanted to know a bit more about what other teachers do. I was also curious to know a little bit more about other teachers' working conditions which I hoped to get a glimpse off through a discussion of homework.

The Participants

In total, there were 21 questions. The first 8 were to get basic information about teaching experience, qualifications, country (I wasn't interested so much in the nationality of the teachers, rather the country where they currently worked). By a fair margin, the most responses came from Ireland (75).

Country
Number (percentage of total)
Ireland
75 (26.2%)
Poland
40 (14%)
UK
19 (6.6%
Spain
15 (5.2%)
New Zealand
13 (4.5%)
United States
9 (3.1%)
Australia
8 (2.8%)
Greece
8 (2.8%)
Saudi Arabia
7 (2.4%)
France
5 (1.7%)

Table 1: The ten countries with the highest response rates

The majority of respondents had been working in ELT for over 10 years but I did get a good few responses from people who hadn't been working in ELT all that long. 



The majority of the respondents worked in private language schools but I also had a good few responses from people who worked in state schools and universities. To be fair, I was especially interested in responses from those work in private language schools. One, because that's the context I've spent most of my teaching career in. And two, because I was curious to know a bit more about homework practices in private language schools where homework might be a bit less expected/normal than in primary or secondary schools (61% of the respondents teach adults, 17% teach kids and 22% teach both adults and kids). 

Frequency

Most of the questions were close-ended - it was a survey online and I wanted lots of responses and was wary of asking too much of people timewise - and tended to be about quantity. So for example, I found that 23.4% of respondents always give homework and 39.2% usually give homework. Only 9.8% tend not to give homework (4% said that they never give homework). This seemed to suggest a lot more homework was being given than I had expected. When I filtered it according to whether they taught adults, the results didn't change all that much. So basically, this burst two conceptions I had - one, that ELT teachers don't give homework all that regularly and two, that teaching adults would mean a bit less homework being given out. 

Attitudes

I asked a few likert scale questions as well to get a sense of teacher's attitudes to homework (and also teachers attitudes about students' attitudes to homework - this might sound a bit arsey but I figure that if we think our students hate homework that might influence how much of it we give). Not surprisingly, seeing as most people are lashing out the homework, attitudes were fairly positive (see below)


Interestingly, they were a bit less positive when asked to guess at their students' attitudes to homework. The three responses chosen most frequently were: students accept it without enthusiasm (52.1%); most welcome it (26.2%); most hate it (14.3%). Again, this ratio didn't change much when I filtered it for those teaching adults. 

Working Conditions

I asked two questions which I hoped might reveal a little something about teachers' working conditions. The first question asked whether they were encouraged to give homework in their schools. 64% said yes, 12% said no (there were other responses which fell outside of these two opposites). Again, I found this interesting as I have only ever once been encouraged to give students homework in 15 years of teaching. 

The second question I asked was whether their rate of pay covered correcting students' homework outside of class. 21.6% were in the fortunate position of being able to answer yes; 70% said no. About 8% of respondents were not sure. This was a bit of a controversial question as you could well imagine an employer believing homework corrections were included in someone's rate of pay. Interestingly, on the day of the talk, I went to another talk by B├írbara Hernandes about non-native discrimination in Ireland in which she shared a job ad that required "native speakers only". It was a really good talk but I repurposed that job ad for my own talk - not only was it discriminatory but they were only offering €18 an hour. I questionned whether that type of rate (which is not the worst - I've seen €14 an hour a few times) could reasonably be expected to cover prep, teaching and homework correction. To put it in context, the minimum wage in Ireland is €9.25 an hour.

Optimism or Concern?

At first, looking at the results, I was a bit bummed out. In one question, 190 teachers said that one problem they have is that they often end up with loads of correcting to do outside class hours, despite the fact that they're not paid to do this. In a few of the open questions at the end of the survey, a few people said that they had given up setting homework as correcting it was taking too much time that they weren't compensated for. 

As someone who likes homework and believes that it can help students improve, I didn't want to finish by saying that we shouldn't give homework unless we're paid to correct it (although maybe that is a valid conclusion?). In an open question, I asked teachers to share their ideas of what good homework is and many of them were brilliant - stuff that would help students and inform subsequent lessons so that it wouldn't result in tons of unpaid work for the teacher. 

There was some good stuff like this:

My students are better engaged in project based homework our interactive forum/collaborative items posted on class website. Example: choose a simple process and use a photo collage app on your phone to take pictures of each step. In class, they present and then use the collage as jumping off point for writing a process essay. Completely different level of engagement than asking students to choose a process and explain to classmates tomorrow.
 Setting up extensive reading activity where each student reads an article on a topic (e.g. Student A reads about technology, Student B about health etc) and then share their summaries in class. Works very well - no prep and maximum student learning.

This one really solved the problem of burden on teacher:

I provide a lot of self-study homework, by which I mean homework and answers, and it is not checked in class. This way I can provide students with an adequate amount of homework without having to spend too much class time correcting it. I have found that most of my students do indeed complete the homework even though it is not checked in class - they understand fully the idea of maximising class time

Overall

What I took from this survey is that teachers are amazing. 286 of my colleagues took the time to contribute to this survey and gave considered, helpful responses (there were one or two spicy comments on my questionnaire-making skills but even those were helpful!). And despite the fact that most of them don't get paid to correct homework, they're still dishing it out regardless of the consequences for their personal time because they believe it helps their students. I think this is commendable and I would hope that this level of commitment to the welfare of their students is appreciated (and acknowledged) by whoever is lucky enough to employ them.