Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"The Homework Myth"

The title looks intimidating, especially for those of us who have grown up to expect our children to get homework from their teachers. We feed on such expectations (the giving of homework) readily like Octopuses gobbling up crustaceans for their snacks. Often, expectations feed on expectations and we allow such thinking to envelope any rational sense. We fail to question the merits/demerits of homework-giving. We simply accept them as a way of learning for our children. Question is: What if we are wrong?
  • Are we as parents guilty of using homework as a babysitting tool to make our kids behave?
  • Are we using homework as a defacto standard to make our kids learn?
  • Are we simply trying to sooth our own guilty consciences of not personally teaching our kids the basics of education?
  • Will the giving of homework and the doing of it truly teaches children the independence to learn things joyfully and purposefully?
Many of us simply expect teachers to give homework, for without it, what will our children be learning? In "The Homework Myth," the popular lecturer Alfie Kohn, argues against this trend. He feels that the widespread use of homework as an educational tool is not based on solid scientific proof but on an erroneous belief that homework is good for our kids. This ‘myth’ that homework is good is so well entrenched in society that people simply consume them without thinking through, and uses homework as a ‘default’ learning mechanism for their kids. There are three myths that Kohn tries to debunk, that homework:
  1. Promotes higher achievement;
  2. Reinforces learning;
  3. Teach study skills and responsibilities.
Kohn in the book gives 6 reasons as background why this 'myth' is so tightly held by society around the world.
  1. Homework makes one feel good, that something productive is happening. That means that many of us are not prepared to let facts get in the way;
  2. People rarely challenge this paradigm;
  3. Wrong understanding of what learning is all about;
  4. Blindly accepting that giving 'higher standards' (giving more homework) lead to better students;
  5. Taking it as the norm unquestioningly;
  6. Keep the children busy.
I think these are valid points. For me, the most powerful reason against homework is the conscious and unconscious substitution of one's personal involvement with the children's learning. We treat homework sheets like a automatic scanner for learning deficiencies. We force children to complete their homework simply because we want to assert the philosophy that childish and wilful behaviour that rebels against work must be put down. We insist on our children to do more homework so that they can be 'better' than the rest. Kohn attacks such thinking by asking "Why our kids get too much of a bad thing?"

  1. Change the default. Instead of homework as the standard bearer of learning, why not 'absence of homework' to allow kids to explore learning opportunities that suit them best.
  2. Quantity: Simply put, lesser homework means more time to do it well;
  3. Quality: If homework is not of a certain quality, why do them?
  4. Set appropriate assignments Like reading, suitable home-based activities and learning through constructive play;
  5. Choice: Give kids the chance to participate in proposing various avenues of learning;
  6. One Size Doesn't Fit All: Mass production of homework assignments does not mean it benefits all students.
  7. Stop Grading: Putting a check tends to force children to comply that their learning is right/wrong. Life have too many things that is gray already.
  8. Individualize: Personal attention is much lacking in our culture nowadays. How about personal attention to the needs of individual students?
If you are interested to know more, check here. A word of caution is appropriate here. While many ideas of Kohn make sense, Kohn has also been known to be rather controversial. His comments on teaching children the meaning of September 11 terrorist attack have not gone down well with many.

While some of his ideas are rather controversial, even disturbing, it should at least stir up some of us to question ourselves about the benefits of homework. Maybe Kohn does have some valid points. Homework can wear down a family, often create stress in an already stressful society. Not giving homework means time for other things. Unless of course the parents are too busy for their kids. That said, sometimes parents use kids as an easy excuse. In their adult circles, they will say they need to 'spend time with their family.' At home, they instruct their kids to 'spend time with their homework,' while they spend time pressing buttons on their TV remote control or flipping the pages of the newspaper. That said, I think Kohn's main contribution is to help anxious parents re-look and re-evaluate the traditional meaning of homework. Granted, there may not be much direct benefits in giving homework. There may even be a valid argument that kids do busywork instead of beneficial meaningful work. Traditions and long-held assumptions will take a long time to change. The next best thing is not ‘no homework,’ but better quality-over-quantity homework. It is an uphill task trying to change deeply entrenched beliefs about homework.

What I particularly appreciate is the trust element. If our giving of homework is due to our basic philosophy that distrusts our kids to learn things by themselves, we make them continuously study for the sake of the parents. Distrust of our children's own capacity to learn is proportional to our understanding of what true learning is all about. There is a Chinese proverb that says:
"A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study."

" The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. (Alvin Toffler, in "Foreword" of Rethinking the Future, p255)"
This is important. Some groups have taken on the challenge of re-looking at newer educational techniques for the new century. I think that education is not something that we learn, but something we have to 'unlearn' as well. With this technological age, with the deluge of data glut, leading to complaints about information overload, we should not be too concerned about getting information into our brains. Neither should we be paranoid about the worry of not getting the right information. We ought to develop our whole selves to be discerning about what we learn and to be humble that sometimes we can be wrong. Learning includes taking in useful facts, and releasing wrong paradigms. Learning is not only input, but unlearning the wrong things. We need a brain scrubbing now and then, under the guidance of a mentor. Education is lifelong. Not only should we expect our children to learn, we need to put on a learning attitude ourselves. This includes both learning and unlearning.

Alfie Kohn powerfully quotes a Katharine Samway who rationalizes as follows:
“You have our children for six hours, five days a week. Can’t we have some time with them to do what we choose?” so she determined to tell her son: “No, you can’t do your homework until we have returned from the show/returned from the bike ride/finished the ball playing/read the book, the chapter, or the poem.” If the schools’ priorities were askew, that didn’t mean she had to accept them. Family comes first, she decided. Children come first. Real learning comes first. (198)
Perhaps, as we reflect, we will not only learn to ask good questions but recognize that as imperfect beings, we cannot simply do things just because it has been done successfully in the past. This is because times have changed. The environment is constantly changing. Technology and science are accelerating such changes through many ways. People also change. If our educational beliefs do not change, or keep up with changing times, we risk becoming more ignorant, intellectual bigots in stale knowledge and worse a illiterate who refuses to unlearn the wrong stuff. Such a illiterate will speak like the Emperor who insists that his transparent new clothes are the best in the whole kingdom.
"Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still;
teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning." (Proverbs 9:9)


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