Wednesday, September 16, 2009


I may be the only adult in the country who thinks our kids need less homework, not more. I remember when I was a kid back in the 80's, one of the key ideas of education reform was that schools needed to assign more homework so we could keep up with the Europeans and East Asian countries. I hated the idea then, and I'm not too crazy about it now.

My kids spend 7 hours a day in school. I would think that that would be plenty to educate them in whatever they need to know. Maybe older kids who are targeting college need more homework, but I don't see how it could help 8-10 year olds. How much patience for study can they be expected to have? What is so important for them to learn that they need to spend more than 7 hours a day learning it, to the detriment of having a life?

I also don't believe in giving impossible assignments. My 5th-grade son came home last week with an assignment on the Bill of Rights: rephrase them in your own words and draw pictures of them. There is no point in rephrasing them; summarizing, perhaps, but even in a summary I would use exact quotations such as "cruel and unusual punishment," "right to a speedy and fair trial," etc. And how do you summarize or rephrase the 10th amendment? "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Even today, I have trouble understanding that language. I know what it is supposed to mean, but I'm not sure I could get from the text to its meaning. And what about drawing a picture of it?? There is no way, period, to draw a meaningful picture of the 10th amendment, or the 9th, or even the 5th, for that matter. I can see what the teacher is trying to do: he wants the students to think about the amendments in different ways, so that they understand them as more than just words. This works great for the 1st amendment, maybe the 2nd, 7th, and 8th, but it is a disaster for the others. My son was asking me how to draw a picture, and I had no idea. Maybe the teacher didn't expect them to come up with anything good on those amendments, but why assign it, then? Why give students something that baffles them and makes them frustrated? This was just a bad assignment.

You'll not be surprised to learn that I'm contrarian on many other things concerning education. For one, I'm not against "teaching to the test." I'll go further and say that I'm not sure what the argument against teaching to the test would even be. If there are certain facts that we want students to learn, we should teach them those facts, not throw a bunch of facts at them and hope that the right ones stick. Sure, you want them to be able to "think independently," as some people are always harping, but that's a different goal. When you're teaching multiplication tables, you most definitely teach to the test -- you drill on it, over and over. When you're teaching a foreign language, you teach to the test: specific vocabulary words and grammar rules. Why not teach to the test when you're teaching about the causes of the Civil War? You can give reasons on both sides and then ask the students to draw their own conclusions -- supported by the evidence -- on the test, but you need to teach them the reasons. It might be nice if, someday, the student could read historical works, infer the reasons on their own, and make an argument from that, but that is hardly appropriate for elementary-school children. In fact, I would suggest that even adults would normally be taught the basic reasons and then allowed to expand from there.

Here's my problem. In graduate school, I was a teaching assistant for a course in Western Civilization. The instructor would stand up and lecture in a fairly standard narrative way about one civilization after another. Then, on the test, he asked, "Compare and contrast the military organization of three of the following five civilizations." Students were baffled, because he had only made passing remarks about military organization all semester. Their essays were correspondingly bad, and I had to grade them. I went very easy on them, because I felt that it was the teacher, not the students, who deserved a bad grade. He was trying not to teach to the test, but he ended up testing on something he hadn't taught -- and that, to me, is not the point of a course.

There is a well-known sample from an 1890's textbook that has circulated on the web (I can't find it on, unfortunately). It is for kids in about 8th grade, I think, and it asks a series of extraordinarily difficult questions -- ones that any adult would be stumped on. It is, of course, a hoax. In fact, if you look at older textbooks, you'll find that they are far simpler than modern ones. They're probably too simple even for me, but I think they had the right idea: teach some basic ideas, and let the students learn from there. Modern schools try to do too much, and end up doing less than they should. Rather than worrying about teaching students independent thinking, they would be better off concentrating on teaching main principles, and have independent thought as a parallel part of the curriculum -- not a replacement for fundamental learning.

1 comment:

  1. Homework redefined!! Check it out!!