Monday, October 28, 2013

Is Homework Necessary?

Now that Sophia is in kindergarten, school has taken a serious turn.  She has begun to get homework.  Each Friday, a folder full of work is sent home for her to complete and return the following Thursday. 

As I rifle through her papers, the following becomes evident to me.   Her homework is intended to:
  • Reinforce the concepts learned during the school day
  • Ensure that the parent is talking to the child about these concepts, aware of what he/she is learning in school, and provides some degree of enrichment at home
  • Be completed at the families own pace—no individual piece is due on a given date.  It can be accomplished all at once or slowly, throughout the week.
  • Teach responsibility—to remember the folder, stay abreast of work, keep it organized, return it on the correct date
  • Foster skills at the individual child’s level.  The work is mix of teacher made materials and dittos.  Often the work is creative—e.g., draw a picture and generate a related sentence/dictate a story to your parent.  At times it is simple repetition of an already-introduced skill, i.e. writing numbers.  A reading child can largely navigate the dittos him/herself.  An emergent reader is provided with consistent directions and is able to, over time, develop recognition of key words.

This, in my opinion, is about as appropriate as it gets for homework for a five-year-old.   But, is it necessary? Well, that’s a different question.  And from it, cascades a deluge of other questions:
  • Is homework ever necessary?  If so, when does it become necessary?
  • Is homework necessary in kindergarten?
  • Is homework necessary for all children?
  • Should all children be given the same homework?
  •  If not, who gets what?  Who gets how much?  How do we determine this?
  • What are the benefits of homework?
  • What are the drawbacks of homework?
  • What are the impacts of homework on the family?  Do different families have different experiences with homework?

You see what I mean?

Right now, Sophia is only mildly interested in homework.  If it looks like fun, she’ll do it.  If it looks like drudgery, she’ll suddenly have much better things to do.  If it’s easy, she’ll do it.  If it requires to much mental effort, she’ll fall out of her chair.  As a parent, watching these dynamics form, other questions take hold in my mind:
  • Is this turning her off to homework?  Already grinding her down?  Instilling that it is something to be surmounted or avoided?
  •  Is this fostering procrastination behavior at an early age?
  • Is homework taking away from time better spent doing other things?  (Playing, athletics, art, time with parents, etc.) 

Notice how none of my questions are asking about the positive effects.  It’s because, despite the appropriateness of her homework, I’m skeptical of its necessity. 

Still, I sit down and do it with her, because that’s what a “good” parent does.  And I’m not sure I want to waste my counter-cultural energies just yet.  I’ve got bigger homework to fry.  There’s the drill and kill, solve-the-odd-numbers, the-answers-are-at-the-back-of-the-book homework.  There is the-didn’t-have-time-to-introduce-this-in-class--so-do-it-yourself-homework.  And then there’s the no-way-a-child-could-do-this-on-his/her-own homework. 

Reflecting on my own after-school academic experience, I am hard-pressed to remember any positive experiences of homework—even the fun, creative projects somehow became stressful all-nighters. 

There was the Celebrate Spring project in Mrs. McConnell’s fourth grade class.  We had to make a mobile that celebrated the advent of spring.  I was obsessed with cats at the time and decided it was a period of rebirth—of kittens.  My mother and I sat sewing and stuffing kittens out of muslin and tying them to tree branches at two in the morning. 

“Never again, Melissa,” my mother growled at me at 1:59 am.

When I came home with an A, she was pissed.  “I’m going to tell your teacher that she shouldn’t give you an A on a project that you dashed off the night before. “  Mom wasn’t a behaviorist, but she knew that A was reinforcing my last minute behavior. 

And it did happen again.  Over and over and over again.  In fact, in 8th grade, the two of us did a bang up job on a poster depicting how a pinhole camera works.  My mother still considers it to be her finest work.  Eventually, it got so she was more interested in getting the A’s than I was.

Is this what homework is for?

Unless homework is a truly enriching experience or reinforces a skill that would otherwise vanish into the ether--unless homework has meaning, it’s basically just a second-shift for kids.

I know that I want to leave work at work.  I want good, healthy boundaries in my life. I want time for concentrated vocational effort, and time for play.  And I think my child—no, all children—deserve the same. 

This post was inspired by The Dinner, a novel by Herman Koch. Two brothers and their wives sit down for a tension filled dinner to discuss a tragedy that can change both families’ lives forever. Join From Left to Write on October 29 as we discuss The Dinner.

As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.


Amy @ said...

I couldn't agree more! Actually, your post is the first time I've really thought about the positives of homework. I have a 2nd grader and he does quite well in school, but I still can't stand homework. I truly feel that it disrupts the rhythm of the day, and makes time that should be full of togetherness and warmth, stressful and divisive. I don't know the answer, but I do know I cringe when the "h"-word comes up in our house.

Jennifer Wolfe said...

I've been a teacher for 23 years, and I think homework is important for many reasons-many of the ones you wrote about-but bottom line, it needs to be meaningful. One of the most important types of homework of all, in my opinion, is reading. I just don't have enough minutes with my students to spend watching them read, but we know that is one of the best ways to improve a variety of skills.

jodifur said...

Every study shows the homework for the early grades is meaningless, except for reading.