How homework can help children feel happier

An education conference with a difference this month will present some surprising truths about learning

"Homework is a form of retrieval practice, a form of helping those new neurons survive, thrive, grow, and help us feel better,” says Dr Barbara Oakley. Photograph: iStock

Later this month an education conference with a difference takes place. ResearchED, a teacher-led gathering that focuses on evidence-based classroom practice, will be hosted by St Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, on September 24th.

“In Ireland, conferences tend to be organised by professional bodies, whether it’s management, or unions,” says Julian Girdham, a teacher and one of the organisers. “But [ResearchED] is teachers running things for teachers.”

The daylong event provides a platform for dozens of speakers to share their research and experience. We’ve spoken to a few to give you a taste of what to expect on the day.

Homework can help children: ‘Getting rid of homework is antithetical to helping students’


Dr Barbara Oakley, an educator, writer, engineer and distinguished professor of engineering at Oakland University will share her insights into how teachers can use evidence from neuroscience to inform their teaching.

“What I have learned is that many of the ways that are conventionally taught to educators today, about how to teach, are actually completely counter to what we know from neuroscience as being effective in helping learners,” says Oakley. “So, I wrote a book about the underlying neuroscience of how we learn effectively.”

Retrieval practice is one of the key strategies teachers should be employing. “It helps you understand really complicated things that you can’t explain,” says Oakley.

Every day new neurons are being born in your brain and, if you’re not learning anything new there’s no reason for them to stick around, so they die

Teachers can use simple techniques, such as “think, pair, share”, to incorporate retrieval practice into their day. “When we have students talking to one another to describe or to discuss something, they’re often simply using retrieval practice,” says Oakely.

It is also a low-stakes way for students to check their knowledge and, by doing so, the information has more of a chance of making it to the long-term memory. This, Oakley explains, can be more difficult than we think.

“I’m an expert in learning. I can look at something on the page and think, ‘I’ve got this’, and then the next day I try, and I can’t get it,” says Oakley, “My working memory tricked me. It was in front of me, and I thought I had it in long term memory, but I didn’t. Only when I check by retrieval practice, can I know for sure it’s in my long-term memory.”

Learning to learn has benefits that go beyond doing well in tests. “Learning itself is a positive therapy. Every day new neurons are being born in your brain and, if you’re not learning anything new there’s no reason for them to stick around, so they die,” says Oakley, “But these new neurons are what help you feel better.”

This is one of the reasons why Oakley believes homework is an integral part of student wellbeing.

“Homework is a form of retrieval practice, a form of helping those new neurons survive, thrive, grow, and help us feel better,” says Oakley. “So, no matter how students may grumble, getting rid of homework is antithetical to helping students develop a positive attitude and keep a fresh and upbeat perspective on life.”

Let’s tork abowt speling: ‘We’re confusing children’

Neil Almond, deputy head teacher for the Step Academy Trust, says the experience many of us had learning to spell — typically a list on a Monday and a test on a Friday — was not always productive.

The first step towards success lies in recognising the complexity of the English language, he says, because there are multiple ways to spell the same sound.

Almond stresses the symbiotic relationship between reading and spelling. “Reading and spelling are two sides of the same coin. To become a really good speller, it’s really important that you get reading very quickly,” says Almond. This connection draws on a process known as statistical learning to help children to increase their chances of spelling words correctly. “You learn the statistical frequencies and likelihoods of the English language,” says Almond.

When it comes to teaching spelling, Almond recommends teachers steer clear of certain strategies. He believes using a blank “wordshape” does little to reinforce spellings and says teachers should avoid asking students to identify a correct spelling from a multiple-choice list containing incorrect options. “That doesn’t seem like a good idea if we want statistical learning to take place”, says Almond. This strategy, he says, will only confuse students.

‘Must do better’: how to teach boys to accept your feedback

Mark Roberts, an English teacher, writer and director of research at Carrickfergus Grammar School, says research shows boys tend to get a lot more “negative managerial feedback” from teachers.

“In simple terms, that’s the kind of feedback that obsesses with presentation,” says Roberts. “Things like spelling, punctuation and grammar, even if they’re not the main focus of the lesson objective.”

He believes teachers need to be aware of the impact which this kind of feedback has on boys’ eagerness to learn.

“The research makes really clear that when boys get that kind of feedback, not only does it impact their motivation, but it also damages their long-term relationships with their teachers,” says Roberts. Research shows that girls responded similarly to this type of feedback.

Roberts recommends shifting the focus from presentation to what is going to help them improve in future tasks. “Really think about the way that you communicate that, and the kind of tone that you use,” says Roberts. “Try to find the positives first.”

He suggests modifying the approach taken to correcting spelling and punctuation errors. “You can do it in a way where you can have a bit of fun with it, so it’s less about them as individuals and more about the process of learning.”

When providing feedback, it is important teachers make it clear there is care behind it. “Once students know that you’re doing it for their benefit, it creates a safe environment where students are not scared to make mistakes,” he says.

Learning by YouTube: ‘Time is of the essence’

Olivia Derwin, a post-primary biology and science teacher at Skerries Community College, Co, Dublin, has been creating video-based lessons since 2015. They are aimed, she says, as a tutorial aid for students that may have missed content, or find it difficult.

One of the best platforms to use — because students use it all the time — is YouTube, says Derwin, creator of the tuition video series Biology Bugbears.

“Research says the video should be no more than six minutes and, ideally, if you could break your topic into a number of shorter videos, at no more than three minutes, it would be excellent,” says Derwin, “The ones where I have made them very short, the views and the likes go through the roof.”

Derwin advises teachers to resist changing their voice or modifying their accent. “The biggest thing that puts teachers off is their own voice. Smile when you’re speaking because it will make your voice sound nicer,” says Derwin, “but keep your accent”.

Videos have helped Derwin critically assess and reflect on her own teaching. “It helps the students, but it helps you see what you said. You [might] think you’ve explained something very clearly when, actually, you haven’t.”