Saturday, January 22, 2005

Educational Wackiness

My curiosity was piqued by a headline in London's Guardian, Head gives the boot to homework. While I am skeptical of a notion that homework is never appropriate, I am no fan of the current "mandatory homework" policies which require teachers to assign a fixed number of minutes of "homework" to students each night, even in the lower elementary grades. From what I have seen, that usually translates into mindless busy work. To put it concisely, I have seen no evidence that mandatory homework policies were needed, and I have seen no evidence (and doubt that any exists) that would suggest even the most modest of increases in student performance resulting from such a policy.

I was recently visiting some friends, and saw one of their daughters working on a homework assignment. The assignment was in essence a spatial-relations quiz - requiring that the student break down shapes into four identical components. She finished the assignment with some help, and then set about erasing one of the answers. When I inquired why she was erasing a correct answer, she replied that her teacher gives bonus points if they make a mistake and correct it - that is, she gets better grades when she gets one or two homework answers wrong than if she gets it right the first time. (And this makes sense, because....)

Getting back to the article, it unfortunately seems to reflect the opposite end of the spectrum - the notion that homework is never helpful - associated with the adoption of a new program "which rejects the notion that a teacher's job is to transmit a body of knowledge to pupils", such that they "'manage their own learning' so that they learned to love learning for learning's sake." You know, I'm all for trying new approaches to classroom learning, and agree that the traditional model can be stifling and at times even counter-productive, but... let's just say, I hope the article is omitting some facts about this program which make it seem less harebrained.

The article, commenting on the school's present policies, observes,
But there is a contradiction between the decision and the school's official policy, which states: "Regular homework is an essential element of learning and contributes to the development of sound study habits."

The school has already introduced a system by which pupils mark their peers' work, and has replaced subject teaching with "cross-curricular projects".
Oh yes.... those systems where students grade their peers' work, which numerous students in any given class will take as an opportunity to "help" their peers by changing answers and improving grades. And isn't there more than a small amount of irony in having students grade each other's work in class instead of participating in a lesson or actually doing work, while giving them homework so that the process can be repeated the following day?

Oh, I'm sure somebody can chime in with some rhetoric about how much kids can learn by grading a peer's classwork and homework, and there are some situations where, if done correctly, that can be the case. But in my experience, we're rarely talking about an opportunity for learning - the usual "peer grading" scenario involves a teacher standing before the class reading out answers, while the students mark an answer correct or incorrect, and then having the student graders call in the number of correct answers as each pupil's name is called out. What this type of "peer grading" does is save the teacher from having to teach, while also cutting down on the teacher's own "homework". (Because, I guess, homework is only good for kids.)

Homework can be a constructive part of the educational process. But assigning homework for homework's sake renders it counterproductive - giving kids busywork that teaches them nothing except that their schools and teachers don't value their time. (But then, one might cynically suggest that "do your mindless busywork", along with "sit still at your desk" and "don't question authority", is part of what many schools think of as "preparing kids for the real world".)


  1. Homework is intended to make up for the lack of sufficient learning children get during school hours.

    In the adult world, this is the equivalent of your boss requiring you to sit through HR meetings half your day, and then handing you a pile of paperwork, with the admonition that you finish it at home.

    It's a great way to make kids despise school. We aren't particularly diligent about requiring Kid Peligro to do his homework (he's in kindergarten, for fuck's sake) and aren't likely to become so.

  2. They give homework to kids in Kindergarten? That seems wrong.