Homework ‘beyond the spec’

Why do you set homework? What is the point of it? What do you want to achieve or rather what do you want your pupils to achieve?

Schools and teachers are under ever increasing pressure. New specifications for GCSE and A level are meatier than before, more content, greater skill requirement. Homework could help bridge the gap, make sure content is covered and practised and skills consolidated.

I totally get that homework might be needed for that and for that reason a certain amount of death by worksheet/past paper might be necessary. In KS3 where the terminal assessment is a good distance away then maybe some more general aims can be woven into a homework cycle.

I teach chemistry and last week I set my Year 8 class (age 12 and 13 for those outside England) a completely different kind of homework, probably one more akin to a language or English lesson. It had absolutely no link to the topic we are studying (the Law of Conservation of Mass) and I am not a fan of ‘busy work’, homework for the sake of homework.

The boys were asked to access a podcast by Kit Chapman at Chemistry World.


The link was emailed to them and they were able to listen to the podcast or read the transcript and then produce me a half page summary of the story and a couple of lines on their opinion of it. I was hugely impressed with their response to it.

Firstly, what was I hoping to achieve with this work? I had come across the podcast from Twitter and it had coincided with some discussions my classes had been having about how they thought a visit to a boiled sweet factory would be a cool chemistry school trip. The podcast contains a story about the Bradford sweet poisonings of 1858. I thought it was a nice story, accessible to a relatively young chemistry class and also on an engaging topic. I quite like the history of chemistry myself and it is something that is sometimes presented in quite a dull way (development of the theory of atomic structure anyone?) and this combined history and chemistry (and sweets!) I hoped the story would be interesting to the boys that they would enjoy reading about it and perhaps explore some other stories on the Chemistry World site. I also hoped it would feed into the focus we have had in Year 8 on literacy and overcoming the idea that you don’t have to write in chemistry. On a practical level, the format being a podcast meant that less confident readers and those with EAL or SEN were able to access the article and weren’t excluded or put off by tricky words.

I was was really impressed with the response I got from the boys.

  • Many of them wrote that they really enjoyed the article.
  • Some had researched things mentioned within it, like the properties of arsenic trioxide (!), how sweets are made, why things look the same when they’re not chemically the same and crime and punishment in Victorian England(!)
  • Lots of them said they would like to do homework like this in the future which surprised me as it was probably more effort to complete than a worksheet.
  • All the work was individual, no copying from friends or copy-paste from the article; they had tried hard to put things into their own words.
  • Everyone wrote at least half a page, and many wrote a whole page.
  • One boy said he thought Chemistry World was such a good magazine he had signed up for one of their free, limited access accounts.
  • I have given lots of commendations!

So, I had better organise that sweet factory trip…..

Huge thanks to Chemistry World for assistance with this (especially Adam for dealing with my random queries…) Kit had better get recording/writing some more good stories!




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