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Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Case For Homework or 'After-schooling'

A lot of Western research suggests that homework is detrimental in the early years. Kids should play and relax when they come home, and parents should not be “burdened” with the responsibility of homework supervision. Now, as a parent and a teacher, I don’t think this is true at all. I think that homework, whether it is mandated and prescribed by the school or simply created and planned independently by the parent is very important even in the early years, perhaps especially in the early years.

Why? Despite what Alfie Kohn and the other anti-homework guys say, I think that young kids (ages 5 to 10) benefit from twenty minutes to one hour a day of structured academic work at home (reading, writing, math).  The amount of time will obviously vary based on the kid's age. My reasons for this belief are listed below:

·     In school, kids learn in a group setting. Whether the teacher engages in whole group instruction or breaks the class up into smaller groups and gives each group an activity to do, each student is rarely spending significant amounts of time working through a particular skill on his/her own. As a teacher myself, I know that I can introduce a concept or skill in class and I can get kids to think critically about a piece of text in a discussion. However, the actual mastery of the skill can only be achieved if the student spends a significant amount of time working with the material independently at a pace that works for him/her.  Now, the fact of the matter is that I don’t have enough class time to let kids wrestle independently with material as much as they should and practice skills as much as they should. They have to do this part on their own at home. 

Furthermore, this skill reinforcement works best at home because kids are less distracted and pressured by their peers. There are definite limitations to the kind of learning and the depth of learning that occurs in a large group setting (classroom setting).  Large groups are great for presentations, discussions, and activities. However, they don’t work as well for skill reinforcement and mastery of content and skills.

·      In the early years, kids absolutely have to master a range of foundational skills. If they fail to master these skills, middle and high school are going to be nightmares for them. Between the ages of five and ten, kids have to become fluent readers, develop a substantial vocabulary, and master grammar and spelling conventions. In Math, they have to master basic numerical work and problem solving techniques (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, time, money, percentages, basic geometry, word problems).  These foundational skills are necessary to survive in our complex modern world, and they are crucial for future academic success.  What I find as a high school English teacher is that many students lack these basic elementary skills. For example, I often have kids who don’t end sentences with periods (full stops).  Some of my high school students (and I teach at an elite private school!) still don’t understand when to use an apostrophe. Some of my students have very weak vocabularies. I believe strongly that all young kids have to spend time at home mastering these foundational English and Math skills, and while teachers should introduce these skills/concepts and provide activities and avenues for practice, ultimately, parents have to ensure that their kids master these skills. I use the word “master (mastery)” very intentionally. These skills have to be mastered and completely internalized; it is insufficient to merely expose kids to these foundational concepts/skills and hope that they “get it”.

·      Homework is also important because it teaches basic study skills. I have students in high school who cannot get their act together and get down to work. One of my students, for example, told me that she doesn’t know how to organize herself and get her homework done. She literally falls apart when she is asked to read a book, write a paper, or study for a test.  Kids need to learn these skills early on so that high school doesn’t feel like a mad assault for which the kid is totally unprepared. The best way to teach kids how to work independently is to make sure that they sit down in a quiet space every evening after school and do forty minutes to an hour of structured academic work. They have to learn to focus their minds, practice their skills, and sit still.  And they have to learn that they can in fact control their time and get their work done.

While they do this, they will also begin to realize the high correlation between effort and achievement, and they will begin to understand the satisfaction involved in intellectual work. While advocates of a fun and playful childhood might lambast homework as a spoiler of fun times, I believe that learning can be extremely satisfying. I think that working through a math problem can be very interesting and fulfilling, as can reading a chapter of a book, or crafting a thoughtful response to a story. I also think that drill style learning in limited doses can be fun. When a student has to work through a list of math problems, they may seem dry and boring, but the child will enjoy his own sense of achievement as he figures out the answers. And he’ll be able to see that practice does, in fact, make perfect. There is something innately satisfying about learning, and contrary to the popular notion that all learning has to be a song and dance routine to be fun, I fully believe that many kids find real, challenging academic work satisfying, if not “fun.”

Even if a child does not enjoy homework, it teaches important study skills, and it makes a child realize that sometimes we have to get work done whether we like it or not. This is a real-world lesson that kids should learn early on.  I’m a teacher, and while I love being in the classroom, I find marking papers torturous. I absolutely hate marking. Yet, I mark every single piece of paper that my students turn in because it’s part of my job. Kids need to learn that they have to do all parts of their job, and some parts will be fun while others won’t. That’s life.

·      A final benefit of homework: it allows parents to make sure that their kids get the education they need. I have worked in a number of schools, and I know that schools are not perfect. If a parent relies entirely on the school to ensure that her child is well-educated, she could be in for a rude shock. Parents have to be involved, and they have to supplement what the school does. If your child’s school is experimental and progressive, and if it espouses the ideas of experiential education and holistic education, then it is probably doing a great job of getting your child to think creatively and building your child’s self-esteem and confidence. These are very worthy and important skills and qualities, and the school should be congratulated and supported in what it does. However, the down side is that the school can’t do it all, and what gets shafted in the process is mastery of foundational skills and the development of hard-core discipline and work-ethic. In contrast, in a more traditional school (I’m thinking about Asian schools particularly), the school may focus so much on foundational skills that they neglect the more fun and creative projects and discussions that are so necessary to promote creative and critical thinking. Parents in this case might have to supplement in the other direction (more open-ended projects instead of drill).

The fact of the matter is that schools and teachers absolutely cannot reach every single child to the degree that they need to. What parents don’t realize is that their child is one of many at a school. Even the best, most expensive schools in the world have teachers that teach many children as opposed to a one-on-one tutoring system; at all the schools I’ve been in, a full-time teacher’s load is fairly overwhelming. An elementary school teacher, for example, teaches, on average, 20 kids in a class (and I’m talking about developed countries. In Indian schools, for example, classes can have over 40 kids.). There is no way that one teacher can give each student much one-on-one time.  Furthermore, she’s busy trying to make sure that the naughty kids stay in line and that the class is not overly chaotic. And she’s bogged down by report writing, lesson planning, and a whole host of nonsensical administrative tasks.

As a high school teacher, I often teach up to 100 students (four or five classes) each semester. And I am inundated with marking, report writing, and admin work. And when I’m in a classroom of 20 kids, I can’t possibly give each kid much one-on-one feedback. The number of kids, the constraints of time, and the demands of classroom management all preclude working individually with kids. If I assign an activity to the group and then spend time working individually with students, you can be totally sure that at least two kids are wasting their time updating their status on facebook or surfing the web (I teach in a one-to-one laptop school that chooses not to block facebook), and another three kids are chatting  (either out loud in the old fashioned way, or on their computers). So, the opportunity cost of one-on-one instruction in a classroom is relatively high. This one-on-one work has to happen outside of class, either at home or in a library.

So, in conclusion, I’m a fan of homework. It’s absolutely necessary, and all children should do it every day whether their school prescribes it or not. If the school doesn’t assign homework, then parents should.

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