October 25, 2005

Against Homework

Question of the day: Is homework even necessary? Ayelet Waldman demands answers:
I also learned from professor Cooper -- aka the homework guru -- that there is no correlation between how much homework young children do and how well they comprehend material or perform on tests. [n.b., see also this study.] Why? … Because their attention spans are just too short -- they can't tune out external stimuli to focus on material. Second, younger children cannot tell the difference between the hard stuff and the easy stuff. They'll spend 15 minutes beating their heads against a difficult problem, and leave themselves no time to copy their spelling words. Finally, young children do not know how to self-test. They haven't the faintest idea when they're making mistakes, so in the end they don't actually learn the correct answers. It isn't until middle school and high school that the relationship between homework and school achievement becomes apparent.

So why the hell do Zeke and I have to spend every afternoon gnashing our teeth… The reasons, Cooper says, extend beyond Zeke's achievement in this particular grade. Apparently, by slaving over homework with my son, I am expressing to him how important school is. … When younger kids are given homework, Cooper says, it can also help them understand that all environments are learning ones, not just the classroom. For example, by helping calculate the cost of items on a trip to the grocery store, they can learn about math. The problem is, none of my children's assignments have this real-world, enjoyable feel to them. My children have never been assigned Cooper's favorite reading task -- the back of the Rice Krispies box.

The final, and perhaps most important, reason to assign homework to young children, says Cooper, is to help them develop study habits and time management skills that they'll need to succeed later on in their academic careers. If you wait until middle school to teach them these skills, they'll be behind. I suppose this makes sense. Spending their afternoons slaving over trigonometry and physics will come as no surprise to my kids. By the time they're in seventh grade they won't even remember what it's like to spend an idle afternoon.
I guess that settles that: Everyone go out and play. Seriously. Also, let me call bullshit on Dr. Cooper and doubt very much that homework "help[s children] develop study habits and time management skills." Generalizing from a single experience here, when I was in elementary school, I remember very distinctly cutting corners on virtually all of my homework. Math problems would get scribbled frantically in pencil on paper during homeroom. (In fact, what little creativity I have owes entirely to those ingenious, sweaty-fingered minutes spent trying to make it appear as if I had thought very hard about, say, problem #23(a) but just couldn't get the answer.) The spelling workbook, I quickly discovered, didn't need to be filled out at all—if you worried about grades you could always recoup your losses by getting the "bonus" spelling words on quizzes right. "Homework" always denoted something to do as little of as physically possible. Ever since, I've always had terrible study skills, and while I blame my own laziness, all that useless homework gets part of the blame.

But let's do Waldman one better and say it flat out: homework is most likely evil. Yes, evil. Any educational system that relies on parents at home to help with the "learning process" will only end up perpetuating inequality, as long as some parents can help their kids and some cannot; as long as some parents can speak English and some cannot. And homework, for all its uselessness, is far more likely to put undue stress on family life than anything else. Of course, let's also be honest, the whole point of public school isn't to turn students into well-educated citizens but rather to produce good consumers and dutiful worker bees—people with short attention spans who follow authority, care deeply about status, and will attend with all due diligence to humiliatingly pointless tasks. Get used to working overtime, kid, you'll need it. In that regard, homework is indispensible.
-- Brad Plumer 8:59 PM || ||