Sunday, December 16, 2012

Homework, cont.

The other day, I posted a link to a story about France's move  toward a ban on homework. It was presented almost completely without comment, leaving at least one person to wonder what my own thoughts were on the subject. So, let's see if I can put it simply:

Homework is an extraordinarily bad idea.

I don't feel the need to catalog all of the reasons why homework is a negative force in education, but I would like to focus on three.

One
Homework is impractical and inequitable. On the most practical level, I don't assign homework because homework won't get done. Or, even worse, a small percentage of my students will have it done and the rest won't. This would be the place to insert arguments about "personal responsibility," which is just another way of punishing students for circumstances that are absolutely beyond their control. Some students have parents at home to help. Many don't. Some students have parents who value education as an absolute good. Many don't. Some students have actual homes...

In the end, as a classroom teacher, if I want important work to be done, it better be done in the classroom, otherwise I will have a huge management problem, and an ever widening gulf between my highest and lowest performing students.

Two
There's just too much school already. We need to be looking at scaling back the school day (The science tells us that starting later would be a great start if we actually care about student learning), though almost every single piece of school reform is designed to get students more and more school.

I want to write more about the detrimental effects of the school context itself, but for now, I just want to say that homework allows schools to extend their hold over students' lives to an almost limitless degree. I'll have lots to say about this "colonization" of students' lives by schools, but at its most basic, seven to eight hours of learning, if learning is what is actually happening, is an exhausting expectation. (This is always made painfully obvious when teachers are forced to spend extended periods of time doing professional development.) The idea that we need extended time, and that EVERYONE needs extended time, is ridiculous.

Schools own students for a majority of their young lives. There is enough time between pre-K and senior year to teach the required content three times over! If we really need more time, we should be thinking about how to reorganize our schools, not how to farm work out for home.

Three
There is a common argument that homework performs an important function in bringing school into the home and involving parents in students' learning. If we ignore point one above and forget the fact that this is simply false for a large percentage of the population, I would STILL reject this argument.

We must accept that one of the primary effects of a compulsory education system that monopolizes so much of children's lives is that it creates a false division between school and home. School is where learning happens and home is where we play. It's not hard to recognize that this is a very recent conception of these roles. Until the late nineteenth century (and the twin births of the industrial revolution and compulsory schooling) home had always been the primary context for learning. Schools have removed learning from home and created a conception of education as something that is bestowed upon students by trained professionals and that parents simply aren't qualified.

This division creates all kinds of bad blood between parents and teachers, both of whom tend to think that they are being asked to take on responsibilities outside of their accepted roles, and homework is often a major catalyst for these conflicts.

The idea that homework is a way to bridge this divide, a divide wholly manufactured by schools themselves, is ridiculous. It's just one more way for schools to assert that their content is more important than the infinitely more essential learning that should be happening in the home.

Which is all a long way around to saying I'd much rather be Finland.

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