In” My Daughter’s Homework is Killing Me”, a recent article in Atlantic Monthly, Karl Taro Greenfield writes about his daughter’s struggles with homework. Greenfield’s daughter Esmee is an eighth grader at a selective public school in Manhattan and routinely slogs through four hours of homework every weeknight. Weekends do not bring much respite as the homework assignments continue unabated. In order to cope with the workload, Esmee’s mantra is ” Memorization, not Rationalization”. In other words, she relies on memorizing because there is not enough time to understand the material. Even so, Greenfield writes that Esmee sometimes goes to bed around midnight, pretends to sleep, then secretly gets up to study for another hour or two, No wonder she sometimes trudges off to school , exhausted and teary-eyed.
Reading Greenfield’s article reminded me of the time my own children were in middle school more than twenty years ago. My son too was a very conscientious student , just like Esmee, and it was a rare night that he went to bed before we did. I remember one night he was still beavering away at 1:30 AM and I ordered him to get some sleep and upset him no end. Finally , we struck a deal ; he agreed to knock off at 2 AM after another half hour of work.
My son turned out all right and I’ve no doubt that Esmee will too but … is this the sort of school experience we want to subject our children to ? Greenfield likens their workload to that of an office-goer who works all day and then has to put in another four hours of work at home. Can someone who has to keep to such a grueling schedule retain a love for learning ? I think not and it is no surprise that even good students do not look back fondly on their schooldays.
Why is it that our children are assigned so much homework? And why is it that some parents would be happy if the homework load was further increased? Greenfield ties it to the perception that our kids are falling behind in comparison to East Asian kids, kids from South Korea, japan , Singapore etc. That and the parents’ idee’ fixee that more homework will lead to better grasp of the subject and better grades. Unfortunately, they couldn’t be more off base. Beyond a certain level, more homework only causes resentment and boredom. Worse, it forces students to memorize rather than understand ; it’s the very opposite of what one would want. In my opinion, rote learning is good only at the elementary school level particularly when it comes to things like the multiplication tables. That is why I feel Kumon classes are good for younger students but not afterwards when they have developed good study habits.
This is what I feel about the homework our students are assigned:
1.The biggest problem is that each teacher assigns homework as if he is the only one doing it. The math teacher doesn’t seem to realize that his students also get homework assignments from the Science teacher, the English teacher, the French/Spanish teacher, the history teacher and so on. It is the cumulative workload that is staggering.
2.Subliminally, teachers seem to have bought into the idea that homework is good but more homework is better. As I’ve already said this is a fallacy. Studies show that there is no correlation between the amount of homework and student performance. I wish teachers would give more meaningful homework but less of it. In other words, HW that actually reinforces the precepts that you are trying to convey.
3. Teachers seem to have forgotten what it was like when they were kids in school. I work with some kids( mostly high achievers) and some of the homework assignments are difficult beyond belief. In math, for instance, students are asked to calculate the areas of irregular figures some with dimensions like 14-11/32 and 9-3/8 Yes, students should be comfortable with fractions but is n’t this a bit too much. In English Lit, teachers sometimes miss the forest for the trees. In discussing Kurt Vonnegut’s stories, students are quizzed on post modernism, meiosis( bet you don’t know what that means!, I didn’t) and the like but they are not told what the title of the short story ” Tom Edison’s Shaggy Dog Story” means. Literature is dissected and analyzed to death and , as a consequence, students do not develop a love of reading. I asked one student what she read for pleasure and she said ” Nothing. I don’t have the time.”
4.( Some/ many)Teachers speak from both sides of their mouth. They decry the lack of parent involvement but when parents do take an interest in their children’s schoolwork, they are blown off. When Greenfield brought up the issue of homework with his daughter’s teachers, they were unsympathetic , to say the least. They either acted as if they had no control over it or said that she needed to be better with her time management skills. One even suggested that if she was having difficulty keeping up she should go to a remedial class.
I can’t help feeling that all this homework and testing ( two midterms every term!) and discussion groups ( which the teacher observes but does not participate in ) are convenient ways of getting out of doing actual teaching. What I would like to see is
a) less but more meaningful homework.
b) more time spent in class actually teaching the material
c) more empathy from the teachers. Less insistence on rules (Greenfield writes about his daughter getting a C even though all her answers were correct; her crime, not writing them down in a segregated column on the right hand side of the page).
US college education is reckoned the best in the world but school education leaves a lot to be desired. The blame for our students falling behind the kids of other countries usually falls on our kids( lazy, unmotivated) and their parents ( uninvolved) but some of it should also be assigned to teachers and the education system.