Homework vs. The Happy Family
We've all heard the rationale for assigning homework, and although few of the justifications pass the giggle test, we don't give it a second thought. Homework is just part of the environment, like pollution. But claims that homework extends or reinforces classroom learning are ridiculous when every kid gets the same assignment, regardless of need. Your district may even require a specific number of minutes or hours of daily homework, and the textbook industry is happy to oblige with books and worksheet packs with titles like Homework Tonight. No illusion of curricular relevance or individual skill development is necessary when every first- grader knows to complete the next worksheet each night.
My colleagues at The Pulse, contributing editors Alfie Kohn and Etta Kralovec, have inspired debate about the merits of homework. Their books, The Homework Myth and The End of Homework respectively, do a masterful job of debunking the science behind homework policies and informing the public of the unintended impacts on student equity and family tranquility. It is this last area that I wish to explore.
Homework often injects unnecessary stress, conflict and interruption into family life. The same people who long for the simpler days of Dick and Jane playing outside and baking cookies with Mom see nothing hypocritical in sacrificing the joys of childhood to one-size-fits-all homework policies. Schools recognize this burden with policies that state there should be no assigned homework on weekends. Won't the student forget everything by Monday?
People often ask me if my children and I build robots, program the computer, podcast or make films in the ways I teach educators. The answer is 'no.' "Why not?" they ask. The reason is because school consumes every minute of my kids' lives. They wake up before sunrise, return home late in the afternoon, do homework, eat dinner and go to sleep. And that is on days when they do not participate in extracurricular activities. Similarly, my primary-school-age nephews spend 90 minutes on a school bus each day, do their worksheets, eat and go to sleep. There's no time for reading, playing, exercising or practicing a musical instrument.
Do we need to replace school soda machines with espresso to get those little kids through twelve-hour workdays without naps or personal time?
In his book Dumbing Us Down, John Taylor Gatto discusses the seven lessons of school, one of which is surveillance: You are always attached to the system, and the school monitors your behavior 24/7. Homework is therefore a form of surveillance designed to ensure that the first priority of childhood is to comply with the demands of school. Having parents monitor homework puts them in roles as parole officers, and in adversarial positions towards their children and often the school itself. Why should schools interfere in the lives of families?
Schools also wreck recreation programs. For example, in many communities, particularly urban ones, recreational centers offer the only safe place for supervised play, crafts, sport and the arts. Now, however, many such facilities, including Boys and Girls Clubs, have also been deputized to monitor homework, and some require homework as the price of admission.
And kids can now read about doing homework in addition to actually doing it. For example, books with inspirational titles like How to Do Homework Without Throwing Up (Free Spirit Publishing, 1997) attempt to justify homework to young children by making them repeat "Homework is not horrible," (well, not that horrible) and "I can do my homework WITHOUT THROWING UP!" But the lame attempts at humor cannot disguise the noxious task.
One of the major justifications for homework is so that our students can compete in the global economy. We're told, for example, that our children are falling behind Singaporean students. But can you name a Singaporean jazz musician, Nobel laureate, filmmaker or scientist? Who is their educational John Dewey?
Each year I spend a month or so living with a lovely Australian family with three school-age children. The kids play outside, play on basketball teams-often two in the same season-swim competitively, take music lessons, practice their instruments, go to football practice, ride bikes and eat dinner together with their parents. The kids even read books for pleasure. The fifth-grader recently spent five days and nights reading Harry Potter with a friend aloud.
How can one explain such an idyllic childhood and serene family life? The children's schools do not assign homework. One of the daughter's fifth-grade friends just left school for a four-month family trip to India and Europe with the complete blessing of the school. They didn't even have to pack a trunk full of workbooks. The trip would be her education.
It's worth noting that the United States is fifteen notches below Australia in math according to the Program for International Student Assessments comparisons we love to use selectively to justify a get-tough approach to American education. It is ironic that students in Australia do less homework, enjoy recess, have morning tea breaks in school and still do better, as America rushes in the opposite direction.