Why do we give homework?

Bird Droppings February 17, 2010
Why do we have homework?

For the past nine years I have avoided giving homework. Basically I did not like it when I was in high school and secondly if kids can not get it done in class it can wait till tomorrow. Far too often if it is not done in class and they do not know how to do it what good does it do to do it wrong and have to do it again.

“If children are not required to learn useless and meaningless things, homework is entirely unnecessary for the learning of common school subjects. But when a school requires the amassing of many facts which have little or no significance to the child, learning is so slow and painful that the school is obliged to turn to the home for help out of the mess the school has created.” Parents magazine, November 1937

Alfie Kohn author and educator addresses the myths and fallacies of homework in his book The Homework Myth. After thinking for a few days about remarks in a recent article on the closure of our county Career Academy I ended up speaking with our principal at the high school this morning. In numerous papers and presentations I have used the fact kids will learn when they want to be there and secondly when it is relevant to them.

“Education means all round development; it is best obtained through action. Education has to be through a craft, not merely through books and abstractions. The basis of true education is character building; an educated person should become an ideal citizen. Education should be self-supporting as far as possible and also equip the pupil to better his own economic conditions. Education should be based on non-violence and should work for communal harmony.” Mahatma Gandhi, Basic Education 1954

I wonder if Gandhi read John Dewey. Many of the premises Gandhi uses are almost directly from John Dewey’s thoughts and writings. The idea that comes from Dewey is of experience and in Gandhi’s writing a craft which was also a way for Indians to get away from relying on British industry and goods. Gandhi felt strongly it took education to create a citizen of society which is what Dewey wrote about in promoting Education and democracy. Both men were against war.
“Society exists through a process of transmission quite as much as biological life. This transmission occurs by means of communication of habits of doing, thinking, and feeling from the older to the younger. Without this communication of ideals, hopes, expectations, standards, opinions, from those members of society who are passing out of the group life to those who are coming into it, social life could not survive. If the members who compose a society lived on continuously, they might educate the new-born members, but it would be a task directed by personal interest rather than social need. Now it is a work of necessity.” John Dewey, Democracy and Education, 1916
I wonder if either of these great thinkers would give homework. As I spoke with my principal earlier I wondered given our discussion if he would give homework.
“Finally, we know that the better our students become at connecting rigor and relevance, the deeper the learning, the greater the retention, and the overall sense of accomplishment for them.” Mark Mitrovich, superintendent of Naperville Unit District 203, Chicago
Research backs this up and not just one study but numerous research projects and in my own case over the years making the material relevant to students brings a new dynamic to the classroom. Kids want to be there and want to learn. Going back to statements from kids at our Career Academy relevance was a key issue.
“If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job.” Donald Quinn
I would add to the list of professionals, politicians. Maybe if they saw what it was like to try and teach they would legislate in a meaningful way. Quinn mentions kids who do not want to be there and as a teacher I can say I have had some of them. Over the years many motivational approaches and many ideas have been tried successfully and unsuccessfully. As I got older and watched however it was not the tricks and crazy ideas that were working but my own demeanor and example the kids saw. I treated them as people. Children I have said many times are taught to not want to learn.
“Children come into the world with a desire to learn that is as natural as the desire to eat and move and be loved, their hunger for knowledge and for skills, for the feeling of mastery as strong as their appetite. They learn an amazing variety of things in the years before they enter school including, miraculously how to talk in the native language.” Robert Fried, The Passionate Learner
I recall many years ago learning about a language acquisition factor and that children through age four could theoretically learn many languages fluently if taught during this period. Why do they stop wanting to learn. Over the years I have had many chances to have our Early Childhood Education class come by my room for field trips. I will get out Stevie the ball python and show the kids other animals in the room and they will ask questions. Much the time their questions will be stymied by their high school students who are their teachers. The four year old asks a question often what is considered silly to the high school student. How does a snake go to the bathroom? It takes a time or two of telling high school kids to not under no circumstances stop a small child from questioning. This is where we as teachers kill the desire to learn. We stop the questioning. There is not enough time, that is a stupid question, ask you mom, and we need to move on now are all standard responses from teachers when kids ask questions. Teachers kill the desire to learn. We all have done this somewhere along the line and we need to address this. Instead of homework which often gets copied from someone else lets re-instill the desire to learn. We might be able to get one up on our kids by saying no more homework you guys got everything done in class.
As I sit and wonder about why we do this and why we continue in education to do the same things with differing names year after year when answers have been there all along. Build in relevance and build in a desire to want to be in the class. You as a teacher want to be there and show that to your kids it truly makes a difference. As the sun has set and dinner over I offer solutions are in our hands and it is not more money and research and new books or programs it is simply setting thee example and as Robert Fried says being passionate about learning. Please keep all in harms way on your mind and in your heart.

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