Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Homework Nazis

When my 10th grader and 8th grader were young, I enjoyed reading to them. It was something we did almost every evening. It started out with Dr. Seuss and Disney Baby books, but eventually advanced to the Chronicles of Narnia and Madeline L’Engle’s first generation books. I’m not sure if our nightly reading had any effect on my boys’ personal reading habits, grammar skills, or academic abilities. But it was definitely a bonding time, a shared ritual that we deeply cherished.

Then I went back to school. While continuing my full-time job I spent four arduous years doing night school to finally complete a master degree. During those four years, two additional children were born. But during those years, my ability to spend time reading to my children evaporated as well. Before long, my older sons were doing recreational reading on their own. They didn’t need me to read to them. I was busy every night, so I never spent time reading to my little boys like I had read to their older brothers.

Moreover, by the time I finished school, a couple of new elements had entered our lives to reduce available time. My older boys were involved in sports and music lessons. But they had homework every night as well. Usually my wife or I had to help them with their homework when they were in the first half of elementary school. But it wasn’t anything like reading to them had been. It was not a cherished experience and there was nothing cozy about it. Instead, it was often like a battle.

That pattern continues, but now I have a 4th grader and a 1st grader that also have homework. In a couple of years, their little sister will join them in the drudgery of homework. I have often wondered as I have struggled to help a child with a homework assignment precisely how useful that particular assignment is in reality. But year after year, day after day we struggle on because it’s in the child’s best interest, right?

Well, no. Award winning author Orson Scott Card, says in these two articles (part 1, part 2) that homework advocates are all wet on this. And he has research to back him up, something he specifically notes that homework advocates do not have for their position. Card has some pretty harsh words about homework, especially for elementary school children.

Card tries to help us understand homework from a child’s perspective, likening school to a job, where you commute each way, spend seven hours doing exactly what you are told to do, being where you are told to be, and eating, drinking, and using the restroom only under very strict parameters. Then you go home and spend another hour or three doing the same work under the control of a live-in supervisor. If you are ever ill, you have to make up the work you missed. And the law prohibits you from quitting this lousy job. To top it off, most of the after-hours work is nearly or completely meaningless.

“Now, hold on just a moment,” I can hear the homework champions saying. “Homework is useful in lots of ways.” Sure it is. If you hold to that theory, go read Card’s articles. He takes every single argument that favors homework and pounds it with a sledgehammer.

Two of Card’s points especially hit home with me. He notes that effective learning and effective working requires downtime. We require downtime for many high-intensity jobs, and most of us know that we need time away from our jobs to refresh ourselves and do those jobs better, but we prevent kids from having downtime away from the grind of school. “[W]e require them to focus intensely on six or seven different subjects during the school day... and then cycle through half of them again for hours each night! And we keep the pressure up on weekends, holidays, vacations.”

In addition to this point, I might add that assigning homework by definition means that it is more important than any other activity in which the child could be involved. That is a pretty arrogant position to take. Academic skills are not the only type of education our children need. What about the education one can get from a part-time job? What about the education one can get from pick-up sports events with the neighborhood kids, or looking at bugs on the sidewalk, or any number of other things a kid might do besides schoolwork at home?

Card asks what right schools have to in effect assign parents to do homework with their children. If parents are needed to help with their kids’ homework, he argues, the teachers aren’t doing their jobs. If the parents aren’t needed, then the argument that homework helps parents be involved in their kids’ educations is moot. Card argues that the parents that help their kids with their homework would be involved in their kids’ education anyway. The other parents won’t get involved either way.

Card refers to research that shows that homework is completely useless for elementary school kids, and only begins to gain utility as kids get older. But even for high school seniors, homework only makes a 4% difference in standardized tests and college entrance exams. “But I had to do it as a kid,” you say. So what? Is this just the wicked traditions of the fathers being passed down? What’s the point of doing something useless?

Card also brings up the specter of childhood obesity. Homework certainly doesn’t help that situation. He also says that homework does not teach responsibility, as some claim, but teaches compliance and obedience.

Card argues that homework should be rare. And in those rare instances where it is assigned, it must be meaningful and in truth useful to learning the subject matter at hand. It has to be worthwhile. Part of the reason kids do homework half-heartedly is because they know many assignments are meaningless. Card also thinks that homework should only be something that cannot be done at school. Otherwise it should be done at school.

I wouldn’t say that my kids’ homework has been totally useless. My involvement has occasionally made me realize, “So this is the crap they are teaching my kid at school.” It has given me the opportunity to correct misinformation. But homework has also stolen many precious hours that could have been employed in more worthwhile pursuits.

Card provides a list of homework rules that I’m sure would quickly be rejected by the homework Nazis. But some of them make good sense. And I daresay that some teachers would welcome this set of rules as well, a point Card makes as well. For the homework Nazis, Card states a guiding principle that they must be made to understand.

“You don't try to force them to do things your way at school. They shouldn't try to force you to do things their way at home. Each of you should be master of your own domain. They only get to assign homework — work done by your children in your home — with your consent.

“Few teachers and fewer school districts ever really think of it that way. That's all we need to do — remind them that their legal and moral authority over our children ends with the final bell and the children's safe departure from school premises.

“After that, we're responsible.

“We're not employees of the school district. They're not our bosses. We don't have to do their bidding.

“And no matter how much they love our kids, we love them more. They were our kids before they went to school, and they'll be our kids when they get out again. They're still our kids during all the years and days and hours in between.”


Bradley Ross said...

Hmmm. I have very mixed feelings about Card's article. I thought your post was much more persuasive. Card resorted to ranting, only to conclude the article with a caution against getting militant and angry.

Frankly, I've come to expect better work from Card than this article. He asserts that there is "not a chance" that there is a learning benefit to any student in creating a tangible model of the periodic table. That is out of line with all the learning research I've seen or read about. Humans learn best in multi-modal settings. When we engage our bodies in the learning process, memory is stronger and learning is more rapid.

Card champions some of these exact same multi-modal activities later in the article. Then he goes on to say that they should be severely limited. "And one of these in each school semester from seventh grade on — not one per subject, just one, period — would be memorable, exciting, productive, useful."

Is he kidding? The list he rattled off that preceded the quote included things like an art portfolio and a musical recital. Would you really think a student in music classes was being well educated in the subject matter if they gave two recitals in the seven years of middle school and high school?

That said, I agree with the general gist of the article that much of the homework kids do is useless.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Bradley, thanks for your analysis. I also thought Card went a bit overboard. But I also like the idea of limiting the amount of schoolwork required to be done outside of school hours. There are more important things in life and kids do require downtime.

Anonymous said...

I did my masters degree in education and I have to agree that "homemework" has no intrinsic benefit. I would disagree that there is "[no] learning benefit to any student in creating a tangible model of the periodic table." On the other hand there is no benefit to doing it at home instead of doing it during school. The greatest benefit from these multi-modal activities is when they are used to meet requirements from multiple subjects. In those cases it helps students see the interaction of disparate subjects - it helps them see their learning in the various subjects as relevant in a broader scope.

I do disagree with Card on one thing - "You don't try to force them to do things your way at school." Perhaps we should try to make our voices heard more inside the walls of our public schools.

Bradley Ross said...

David, your point about doing these activities during school hours is well taken. School time seems to be so crunched these days that schools are squeezing out art and music to make more time for reading and math. I think that is a mistake.

plaidspolitics said...

If homework is useless, what would you say about preschool? I agree there is much more for our children to learn than academics. Things like compassion, consideration, caring... Feeling connected to your family, such as you describe in your nightly "bonding" with your boys.

More and more we are emphasizing the academic success of children and forget about letting them be children. Play is a very useful learning tool on many levels, but we seem to be making less time for play and more time for structured "learning" opportunities. Somehow we feel inadequate in letting our children observe and absorb what they can in the home. What a deception our society subscribes to that a classroom is more enriching than a home!

We need to also think about how much we are adding to our children's plate in other areas besides school/homework. Things you mentioned, like sports and music lessons. So many times we are just well-intentioned parents wanting to help our children develop their talents. But we fail to realize that though we should not be idle with our time here, we also will have an eternity to grow in knowledge and develop talents. Our time here needs to be used in cultivating meaningful relationships which will ultimately help us to establish the relationship with our Savior that each of us needs.

Scott Hinrichs said...

~plaid makes some very cogent points. As a parent, I need to constantly be on guard for overprogramming my kids because successful parenting is a lot more than just keeping kids busy. And I certainly don't need schools to create additional problems in this arena.

I am reminded of Tara Lipinski, the youngest Olympic gold medalist in ice skating. At age 17 she essentially filed for divorce from her parents because she said that they kept her so overprogrammed with training and competition that she never had a childhood. She was busy and was a high achiever, but her parents weren't being good parents.