Saturday, October 07, 2006

Homework, Part II: Why Do We Still Get Homework?

By Orson Scott Card September 24, 2006

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC

[see Homework part I: The Worst Job in the World]

Many who admit that homework is probably academically worthless in the elementary grades and not very helpful in high school still think kids should have it because:

1. It gets parents involved in their kids' education.

This implies that the homework isn't for the kids, it's for the parents. In other words, the school feels they have a right to assign parents to spend time doing worthless assignments with their children.

But what exactly are we doing when we're "involved" in our kids' homework?

Either we're not needed, because the kids can do it fine without us, or we are needed, because the kids can't do it alone. But if they can't do it alone, then we're the teachers. Unpaid, unwilling teachers.

Believe it or not, parents actually have other things to do with their children to help them become civilized human beings. We don't need teachers to assign us busywork just to get us "involved" in our kids' education.

We're already involved in their education. We were teaching them before they got old enough for school. We teach them all through their school years. We are their most important and powerful teachers of the core lessons of life, so those who are hired to give them their formal education really shouldn't make us do their job.

Besides, the kind of parents who aren't involved in their kids' education also don't help them do their homework. The only parents who help their kids with their homework are the ones who are involved in their education all the time anyway.

2. It gets younger kids used to the idea of doing homework.

Kids are going to drive when they're sixteen. So do we make them spend an hour a night pushing pedals and turning a steering wheel for ten years prior, so they'll be "used" to it?

It's not hard to learn to do homework. If homework doesn't begin to do any good till seventh grade, then start assigning it in seventh grade. In a single day, kids will get the idea just fine. They didn't need to spend hours each week practicing it for years beforehand.

3. Parents ask for more homework.

It's true. There are parents who are so competitive -- and so unaware of what homework is actually worth -- that they think their kids are not getting a "good education" unless they're plying the books all night every night.

To those parents, why don't we just say: Hire a private tutor. Make your children's childhood a living hell -- it's your option. But don't tell the school to make my kid do useless homework just so your kid can get a spurious "advantage." In fact, if you hire a private tutor to waste your children's hours, you'll get far more "advantage" than if everybody's doing homework. So leave my kid out of it, please.

4. Happiness is bad for children.

There really are grinches and scrooges in the world, people who are really annoyed to see children being happy and carefree. They believe that the only good way to raise a child is with suffering and hard work. They can't understand why we ever abolished child labor -- the kids should be productive, part of the economy, not drones! I had a miserable childhood, so why should these little brats be happy!

What they actually say, of course, is "Homework keeps the kids off the streets" or "out of gangs" or "out of trouble."

This is so mind-numbingly stupid that I can't believe people actually say this without getting laughed out of the room -- but they do, and they aren't.

Don't they get it that the kids who are on the streets and in gangs and getting in trouble aren't doing homework?

The only kids who are controlled by homework are the kids who either care enough to do it themselves -- the motivated students -- or the ones with parents who make them do it -- the ones with close parental supervision.

In other words, precisely the group of kids that already wasn't on the streets and didn't join gangs and didn't get in trouble.

The "bad kids" are going to be bad with or without homework.

And here's a clue: Homework is usually so mind-numbingly dull, so endless, so hopeless, so relentless, so useless that lots of motivated, bright kids whose parents are involved turn savagely against the whole idea of school. They hate reading, they hate writing, they hate everything because they never get a break, the process never ends, and they know perfectly well that it accomplishes nothing.

This is the damage that homework really does: It kills the love of reading and writing in thousands and thousands of children every year.

5. Foreign kids do homework.

So what? Just because other kids in other countries score higher on some standardized test doesn't mean anything.

We have these stupid scares every couple of decades and they are never based on anything true or important.

For one thing, we're only dealing with averages anyway. Even if the average American kid weren't as good at, say, mathematics as the average French schoolchild wouldn't mean that American mathematicians are not going to be as good as French mathematicians.

Most kids aren't going to be mathematicians. An American kid who's going to major in English or business can get a putrid score in math and it doesn't have any bearing on whether we're going to stay "ahead" of the Russians or French or Japanese in math or science.

In fact, making a future English or history or P.E. major take four years of high school math is a colossal waste of time, damaging that child's grade point average and his or her love of learning, to no purpose whatsoever.

Besides, some of those countries where the kids score "better" than ours actually do less homework than our kids. And some of the countries whose scores are in the toilet do more homework. But you never read about those in the news, do you?

That's because the kind of people who tout those comparisons where American kids are proven "behind" are all trying to talk you into spending more money on education or forcing more kids to major in fields they aren't interested in or putting up with more homework. They already have their goal in mind -- they only tell you the statistics they think will get you alarmed enough to let them get their way.

6. Homework teaches responsibility.

No it doesn't. Homework teaches obedience and compliance -- the opposite of responsibility.

You are only responsible when you have choices. Homework, the way it's usually assigned, is not even remotely a matter of choice.

When we say somebody is a responsible adult, we mean that they see jobs that need doing and simply do them, without being asked, of their own free will.

But when teachers say that students are "responsible" for homework, they only mean that if the children don't obey, they will be penalized. They are responsible only in the negative sense -- they will bear the consequences of noncompliance.

Homework does not teach responsibility. It does the opposite. It breaks the will and oppresses the spirit. It removes countless choices because it takes away all the available time for them to be carried out.

Time Off from School Is Not Wasted

We actually do know some things about how the brain works. One of the most obvious principles is this: Learning requires focus, and focus requires downtime.

We know this and take it into account in high-tension jobs -- like air traffic controllers. They work limited shifts precisely because you can't maintain focused attention for longer than a few hours at a time.

How long do you think children can maintain focused attention? How long do you think their brains can actually do it? Many don't even reach adult attention spans until they're in their twenties. And yet we 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.

Airline pilots are required to take twenty-four hours off between flights. Air traffic controllers get a night's sleep between shifts. But kids? Ha ha. We can push them till they break.

Good Homework

Kohn, in The Homework Myth, makes one declaration that should be the law in every state in the union: The default condition should be NO homework.

This borrows the computer usage of the term default, meaning the condition that prevails if nobody makes a deliberate change. Homework should have to be justified each time, not assumed.

Children and parents should start every day of every week of school assuming that unless something important comes up, there won't be any homework.

So that when there is homework, it's special. It's important. It's something so major that it really can't be completed on school time.

It's the biology project where you collect the leaves of forty different species of tree or bush in your neighborhood and identify them by scientific name and leaf type. That's not an empty project -- it means something, you learn something, it can't be done in school, and it can be done by high school students without any help from parents.

It's the major paper for English class where you read three different novels that tell the story of King Arthur -- let's say T.H. White's, Mary Stewart's, and Jack Whyte's -- and compare the authors' different approaches to the same tale.

It's the poetry project where you are assigned to write twenty poems using at least five different established forms, at least two poems in each form.

It's the history project in which you create a map of a major expedition by Cook or Columbus or Darwin or Magellan, marking all the stopping points and discoveries.

For drama class, it's a series of monologues; for music class, a recital; for art class, a portfolio.

These are projects that would take hours -- but because the child would be involved in choosing the topic, and would be showing progress to the teacher each step of the way, it would be a true educational experience.

Parental help would be almost meaningless -- the child would have to do all the important work alone.

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.

Homework Rules

Here are the homework rules that ought to be the target in every school district in America.

1. No homework before middle school. Ever. Period. Childhood is too precious to waste.

2. No homework over vacations, holidays, or weekends. Children need more time to rest and recuperate than adults, not less.

3. No tests on Monday or the day after a holiday or vacation. See above.

4. No empty homework. All assignments have to have a specific, immediate educational purpose within the subject matter of the class.

5. No assignments for parents. All assignments should be fully within the capability of all the children in the class, without parental involvement of any kind except to cooperate in scheduling time.

6. No excess repetition. Five examples should be sufficient to identify any problems a child might be having. Three are usually enough.

7. No makeup homework for sick days. The kid is still recuperating. Don't double his load.

Naturally, these rules are not in force in most schools or school districts in America.

What Do You Do Today?

Right now, our child is getting a doable amount of homework. Some of it is pointless. Most of it will make no difference at all in her learning. But it's at a tolerable level. She can still take dance and karate and take part in church activities and watch a few favorite tv shows and have time with friends and spend time with her parents and read what she likes.

But what do you do if the homework is not at a tolerable level?

My suggestion is: Read The Case Against Homework and The Homework Myth so you know what you're talking about.

Then talk to your children's teachers -- the ones who are assigning too much, too often. Don't go in with a chip on your shoulder. They didn't go into teaching because they hate children and want them to suffer. Most of the time, the teachers assigning the heavy homework don't even realize how much time it's actually taking.

Be candid. Most teachers will be shocked to learn that your child cries or falls asleep over his or her homework almost every night. Few teachers have a clue that their "fifteen-minute assignment" actually takes forty-five, and is piled on top of three other teachers' "fifteen-minute" forty-five minute assignments.

Ask for their help, at least to start. But be specific. "Would you be able to evaluate my child's progress just as well if she only did five of these problems instead of twenty? That would make a real difference in her life."

Or, "My child comes home without any idea how to solve these problems, and I'm not qualified to teach him. Is there any way you could make sure the children learn these concepts in class, instead of leaving me to try to figure out math that I haven't studied in twenty-five years?"

Often, you'll find that teachers are happy to change their homework procedures. Remember, most teachers hate homework too. If you can provide them with a valid reason to cut back, many of them will -- not just for your kid, but for all the kids in their class.

Many of them give homework assignments only because they know they're expected to. They don't even think about it anymore. But once you call it into question in a positive, friendly, please-help-me way, many teachers will realize that they could give less homework without hurting their students' academic progress at all.

Sometimes, though, you'll run into the homework hardliners or the prickly experts.

The homework hardliners are true believers. You have to gently suggest that maybe the scientific data don't back up their position as much as they might think. Offer to lend them a copy of The Homework Myth for a serious critique of the few studies that even approach the problem. Some of them might even be open to learning something.

The real problem is the prickly expert. You find these scattered through every field. They get huffy when anybody -- especially a parent -- suggests that they aren't the expert on everything in their field. They take it as a challenge to their authority.

You've known doctors like that -- they treat your questions with disdain and dismiss any of your suggestions that they might be wrong. So you change doctors.

It's harder to change teachers for your child. And arguing with a prickly expert doesn't work -- in fact, it backfires, because they actually enjoy standing up against the onslaughts of the ignorant masses (i.e., you). The more you rail at them, the more superior they feel and the happier they are.

So don't get mad. Really. Don't. Not even a little. Not even sarcastic. Leave the room.

Write a letter to the teacher, with a copy to the principal. Tell the teacher that you are going to limit your high school age child to no more than one hour of homework per school night, per week (less for middle school, and none at all for elementary school). "Since this is my decision, not my child's, I'm sure that no one will take any action that would single out my child in front of the other students, or hamper his ability to take part in the normal activities of school."

Then you have to hold to the agreement -- make sure your child does that one hour per night, evenly divided among the subjects. Make copies of all the homework, if you can, to prove that it was submitted. Make sure to keep a record of your child's grades on all in-class tests and assignments, so that if the prickly expert tries to penalize your student disproportionately (for instance, giving him a failing grade for the whole course even though he did well on all the work except the excessive homework), then you're in a position to appeal.

Be prepared to hear this: "No other parents have complained."

First, this is usually not even true. It's just what they say to make you feel isolated and alone.

But even if it is true, it's irrelevant. "I'm not the parent of any other children but mine. Mine are spending too much of their childhood on meaningless homework assignments."

If you still get answers like, "Your child's inadequacies and poor study habits are not going to disrupt our program," then smile and thank them for their time.

Then go home and start calling other parents. Find the ones that are as upset as you are, and form an organization. Even if there are only two of you, you're now a committee. You can start publically declaring what the studies actually show -- the uselessness of homework for elementary children, and the near uselessness of it for everybody else.

It's a very rare school or district -- or even private school -- that will not take steps to accommodate your concerns.

Remember, though: This all goes far, far better if you never lose your temper in public or private conversations. You don't have to answer their arguments at the moment. You don't have to answer their snootiness with the outrage that you feel. You have the confidence that comes from knowing that you're right, and you're defending your children.

But don't take my word for it. Read The Case Against Homework. It's a manual for individual and group activism.

Teachers Are Not the Enemy

Most of the time, though, you won't need any "activism." Most teachers really want what's best for their students. Most of them don't realize -- because nobody has ever told them -- how useless homework is. All they need is a friendly conversation in which the parent and teacher are partners in finding a way for each child to have a good education and a happy childhood at the same time. They will be happy to lighten the load.

Here's the guiding principle: 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.


Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish. The Case Against Homework: How Homework is Hurting our Children and What We Can Do About It. New York: Crown, 2006, 290 pp.

Alfie Kohn. The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Books, Perseus Books Group, 2006, 250 pp.

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