Rambling Post about Homework Inspired by #edchat of 8/25

I think the real crime in education is that we don’t give our poor and underprivileged students enough work/pressure. In the current culture, we encourage students to follow only their interests and to only do what they are good at. Hard work and struggle are believed to be cruel and unnecessary in the growth of a modern American. That might be fine for a well supported middle class family. The summer time drop in achievement is well documented. It appears that middle class children improve in reading over the summer and poor children slide back. The current explanation is that middle class children are more likely to be encouraged to read independently while poor children are not. Nobody is encouraged to practice math/science over the summer and those scores drop for everybody. Therefore I can see middle class parents complaining about school and HW in general. They are already fostering an academic mindset in their children (at least in reading) and don’t like school jumping in. However, poor children need more structure and more work from school, not less. I would argue that middle class children could also use more schooling/HW, but it might need to be more flexible. (In general high performing students prefer more structure, but learn more in open ended environments while low performing students prefer less structure, but learn more in very directed environments)

Many American parents seem to feel that school removes essential qualities from their children. I feel that there is some conflation with the necessary changes that occur as children grow up (they realize they aren’t the best at everything, aren’t the center of the world, they have to delay gratification, they have to compromise with others) and the changes that occur due to academic learning. A parent in the #edchat of 8/25/09 mentioned that school caused her child to stop writing. The parent mentioned that the decrease in writing was caused by the lack of time (due to HW) and the teaching of writing in a boring and stilted way. However, maybe this was necessary writing instruction. Many children love to write, but they don’t have the ability to write for different audiences/purposes. Their writing often lacks major structural/organizational elements. As a child learns how to write well, then the free form writing of his/her past can seem childish/pointless.

For example, I used to write a lot of poetry in high school. I stopped not because of school, but because my poetry wasn’t that good, totally personal, and didn’t have an audience. Society doesn’t need me (ie the majority of people) to write poetry. It needs me (the majority of people) to write reports and clear communication (boring and stilted I know). Should our schools be preparing creative, free thinkers or competent workers? I would say its first duty is to provide the necessary skills for children who have no other chance.

If we shift too far towards freedom and creativity in education, ie we entice poor readers/writers to engage in poetry/journaling, will they be able to transfer those skills to become good at the functional office literacy that will actually have a chance of improving their lives? (Sure poetry can improve your life, but it does offer very few career opportunities)

88% of Chinese parents give their elementary age children MORE homework than assigned (drops to 50% for secondary school).  Obviously Chinese society puts a lot of pressure to succeed and there are downsides to this. However it does seem that Asian Americans (even poor immigrant Asian Americans) do a lot better in school than other cultural groups in the US. I think the argument against homework is really just an argument against modern public schools primary goal: to ensure basic level skills for all students in a structured environment. The sad truth is that our schools fail at that goal. Should we really ask teachers and schools to also try to meet the needs of creative, independent learners? Can we teach basic skills in an open/free way? My final argument for HW qua HW is that currently the only constant in education is time (a child is in school for X hours), but learning is variable and not guaranteed. Homework is the hope that the constant will be learning (a child will learn X) and will put in the time necessary to achieve that. I agree that HW (and much of school) can be improved. Maybe give more independent “pre-work” for HW and make class a time for questioning and clarification. Students that can learn by reading the textbook, work on a debate during class. Students that didn’t get the concept via homework, receive more direct instruction from the teacher.

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2 Responses to “Rambling Post about Homework Inspired by #edchat of 8/25”

  1. LeeAnn says:

    I am the parent referenced in your post and I would like to clarify my explanation of why I still believe HW is a factor in her decrease of writing. First of all, she is a good writer. She has always been a voracious reader and from her first writing, she was practicing the techniques of the authors she was reading. She attends various creative writing workshops and camps in the summer. And in the summer, when there is no HW, she returns to her love of writing. It may be anecdotal, but I’m a teacher as well as a parent and I see far too many useless HW assignments and not enough that are relevant and authentic.

  2. Colin says:

    Thank you for your comment. I think you are right that school (and HW) can be difficult for students who are very self motivated and focused. I guess the question is, are the HW assignments useless for all students or just useless for bright students? Perhaps there needs to be more differentiation (or dare I say tracking?). Also, school is not the only place that creative people will encounter the need to deal with external expectations that don’t jive with their internal motivation. It may sound twisted, but your daughter is being forced to learn mental resiliency in a world that, by and large, does not foster individual creativity. If your daughter is going to write for a living, she will probably need to jump through a lot of hoops, pay a lot of dues, and make a lot of compromises. Whether or not she succeeds will have as much to do with her ability to cope with that reality as with her ability to write. Probably not her teachers’ goals with their work, but most teachers cannot set up a class that supports the gifted few.

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