Tuesday, September 26, 2006

An Indictment of Homework

I just came across a great essay on homework that I've recommended to all the Boards of Education as well as teaching staffs. This isn't a new topic here but its an important one.

The essay expresses many of my own observations and certainly observations from local parents as well. I'm going to extensively quote a few parts that would lose their context otherwise. This is a great read so use the link.

What Are the Costs of Homework?

Homework wrecks families. That's not a joke, that's just a fact. For an alarming number of kids of all ages, their entire relationship with their parents has been turned into a war over homework.

An Endless Cycle. The first thing the parents say to their kids after school is, "Do you have any homework?" That's not a parent-child relationship, that's a foreman-millworker relationship. What's your task? Let's stay on task!

So the kids aren't actually coming home, are they? School isn't over. It's just going to go on and on, in their own homes. They can never, never, never get away. Not on weekends. Not on holidays. Not over Christmas. Not over summer vacation. There's always some assignment from school.

What do you think that does to kids? To have not even a day when they can say, Whew, I'm done with that, I can have a break!

Would you put up with a job that was like that? Sure, some people with Type A personalities do live like that -- but most of us don't even consider that a life. We want to have days we can count on not belonging to our bosses. Shouldn't kids have that too?

Childhood Obesity. In all the concern about the hours our children spend playing videogames and watching television, has anybody noticed that time spent doing homework is also not physically active? Maybe if our children didn't have to spend even ten minutes a day, let alone hours a day, on homework, they might get enough exercise to shed a few pounds.

Parents As Drill Sergeants. Parents are told to make sure kids have a regular, well-lighted, quiet place to do homework. The funny thing is that there is no study indicating that this actually helps homework get done.

What parents really do is set up rewards and punishments. Do your homework first, and then you can play. No television till homework is done. Get it out of the way first!

This is such a horrible mistake. No wonder so many kids end up in tears over homework. Why can't they have a couple of hours, right after school, to be themselves?

Think about it. They've spent all day at school where people tell them when to stand, when to sit, when to talk. Hold still. No, you can't go to the toilet. No, you're wrong. Pay attention! You can't eat that in here. Don't cross that line. Stay where I told you! Hurry up! Stop that!

And their parents don't let them have those precious late afternoon hours to run around and be free. Why? So they can get into a better college? What good will it do them to get into a better college if they hated their entire childhood?

So they go to UNC-G instead of Duke because of that four percent difference -- but they have a childhood. An adolescence. What do you think will make more of a difference in their lives? What will make them happier human beings? That's the goal, isn't it? Not the job that makes the most money, but the life that has the most happiness -- right?

Of course, a lot of parents don't make their kids do homework during that late afternoon period, because both parents are working and don't even get home till after five o'clock.

You know what that means. When young kids have rational bedtimes -- eight o'clock, for instance, which gives them the minimal 10 to 11 hours of sleep that children need -- the parents have only three hours between getting off work and the kids going to bed. Somewhere in there will be dinner, bathing, whatever chores the kids might be expected to do (you know, the part of child-rearing that parents do) -- and ... homework?

When did we parents decide to give the schools the power to take even a moment of those precious hours away from us and force us to be proctors supervising our children in their schoolwork?

The high school kids go to bed later -- but they also want a social life. They have friends. They want to talk on the phone, go hang out together. And what about the things they actually love to do -- the plays? The sports? The dance lessons, the music lessons?

Is there any time left for parents to be anything but chauffeurs and homework sergeants?

Homework Kills Students. I knew a girl who, when she was a rising junior in high school, was assigned to keep a "reading log" over the summer. This was a girl who had always been a voracious reader, consuming books well above grade level since she was five. But the moment the teacher intruded in her reading, requiring that she answer questions, make comments, and analyze, every time she set the book down, she stopped reading entirely.

Because her joy of reading had been stolen from her. It had been turned into an assignment. It was now work, forced on her by someone else. That summer she read exactly one book -- a girl who ordinarily would have read at least twenty. And from that moment on, she was hostile to the entire enterprise of school. She hated it all. That summer assignment had turned her into an enemy of the educational system -- she who had been the favorite student of many an English teacher.


There are plenty of teachers who hate homework, too.

Why Teachers Hate Homework

When a teacher assigns each of five classes of 25 students to do 50 math problems overnight, then the teacher has to look at 6,250 math problems. That's in addition to the time the teacher spends grading their in-class work -- like quizzes.

And you know the teacher regards those homework results as nearly worthless, because the teacher doesn't know who really did the work. Was it the student, or the parents? No way to be sure. Maybe the student with a dozen mistakes is actually doing better than the student with perfect homework because the student with mistakes is actually doing the work himself.

So the teacher only takes seriously the work the students do in class. So any time spent grading homework is actually wasted time. Mostly teachers look at it just to make sure it was done, not to take it seriously as an evaluation tool.

Remarkably, there are even teachers who actually demand that parents proofread their children's homework. If the student turns in homework with spelling and punctuation errors, the parents actually get a snippy little note telling them that they're supposed to proofread their child's work! (Though I'm sure that never happens in Guilford County.)

Here's another reason some teachers hate homework -- and stop assigning it: Their own kids reach school age and start having to spend hours a night doing meaningless assignments. Both books record this phenomenon. Teachers who are also parents become quite skeptical of the value of homework when they see how it steals time from and ruins their relationships with their children.

Bad Homework

Even admitting that there is some conceivable value to homework in the upper grades, let's keep in mind that not all homework is equal. Some kinds of homework are utterly worthless even for seniors in high school.

Art Projects for Academic Classes. I remember when my oldest son entered chemistry class at Page High School. During the open house, the teacher proudly told us that the highlight of the year was her requirement that the kids all create a three-dimensional model of the periodic table of elements. It could be a poster or a t-shirt or a sculpture or ... oh, whatever their creativity suggested.

I raised my hand and pointedly asked how much of the grade would be for art and how much for science? She didn't understand my objection. It was so fun

for the kids.

Nonsense. It was time-consuming and expensive and a complete waste of time. Were they going to treasure these models for their whole lives? No. Did it help them actually know more about the periodic table? Not a chance.

This is one of the few cases where rote memorization would have been more worthwhile. They might actually have remembered some of the more common elements' names, abbreviations, atomic numbers, or weights. They might have memorized all the gases, especially the inert ones; all the elements that combine easily; all the radioactive elements; all the elements that only occur in the laboratory.

Instead, they made t-shirts.

Or rather, their parents scrambled to figure out how to do it.

There's an astonishing number of absolutely useless "projects" that are assigned which are really done by the parents anyway, and even if the kids do them, teach them absolutely nothing about the subject matter.

Exactly what does a child learn about astronomy or physics or aerodynamics by building a scale model of the space shuttle?

Once upon a time, science fairs consisted of displays of voluntary projects done by kids who were really gung-ho about science. The kids who couldn't care less didn't have to bother. But somebody thought that science fairs were so wonderful that all children should be required to do them.

Did this make the kids who never cared about science suddenly become more interested? No. It was just one more tedious assignment that they postponed until Mom and Dad finally helped them put some stupid thing together at the last minute.

Every now and then, one of our kids actually had a project they cared about and learned something from. Oddly enough, they were precisely the kind of thing they probably would have done on their own, without anybody requiring them to do it at all -- provided, of course, that they had had any free time.

In other words, the real projects, the ones that kids love, are replaced by the fake ones assigned as homework.

Meaningless Repetition. Some claim that kids need to do repetitive homework to "nail down" the things they learned in class. But how many repetitions are needed to "nail it down"?

If a child has mastered the process, then surely five examples, done in class, will demonstrate the child's proficiency. And if the child has not got it right, then what really happens at home when twenty or fifty problems are assigned? Either the student does them all wrong, thus "nailing down" the wrong process, or the parent has to try to teach the child what the teacher failed to teach in class. Is that how homework is supposed to function? In that case, it's really just home schooling -- with less time to do it in and only exhausted children to work with.

Fun and Games. Here's a good idea. Let's take from the internet a word-search puzzle with terms from the constitution hidden in a 39x39-letter grid, and make our seventh-grade students play the "game" of finding the important words.

Never mind that a 39x39 word-search grid is monstrously large, that you can get a headache from searching it. Never mind that the puzzle isn't even clever -- no two terms from the list actually intersect. None of them shares a letter. So the puzzlemaker didn't bother to take the time to make a tight, interlocking puzzle.

Nor are the terms themselves useful. Some are, but some of them are simply not used by grownups in discussions of anything.

And when you've finally gotten your headache by finding every one of these 29 terms in a huge grid, how much more do you know about the Constitution than you knew before you started?

Maybe, just maybe, those terms will be marginally more familiar to you. If you had been assigned to memorize them as spelling words, you could have done it in less time.

When did we actually have any fun? And when was any of this actually educational?

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