In the ‘getting it off my chest’ department:
I gave a talk to a national society last week on the future of learning. An off-hand comment on ‘homework’ got more interest than I expected. My point was that there are limits to reactivation. However, given the battles I know so many are having with schools on homework, and we too, some thoughts.
The underlying mechanism, roughly, for learning is associations between related neurons (and, at a bigger scale into patterns). However, our brains saturate in their ability to associate new information. Some activation a day is about all a brain can take. Re-activating is key, over time. That is, the next day, and the next. And, of course, the feedback should come quickly after the effort (not the next day). And, let’s be real: some kids need more practice than others. Why aren’t we adapting it? And are we really rewarding achievement? In elementary school, my first-born noticed that by being smart, he got more work than the other kids with the ‘stretch’ assignments, and wondered why being smart was punished!
So, in theory, a light bit of homework on a topic that was first visited in prior days might make sense. So you see it on Monday in class, say, and then visit it again in homework. Note that reactivating it in class the next day in a slightly more complex problem is better. And, as, John Taylor Gatto has hypothesized, everything we need to learn in K6 really ought to take only 100 hours to learn, if the kids are motivated. With the feedback coming the next day, it will also be harder for the learner to be able to make the connection. This post I found while verifying the 100 hour claim is fascinating on the amount of time really necessary.
However, that’s not what we see. I’ve seen my kids complaining about trying to solve more of the same problems they saw in school that day. That’s not going to help. And it’s too much. If every teacher wants to get an hour out of them, they’d be overloaded with homework. This is middleschool, but the same problem manifests in K6, and I’m only dreading what comes next.
And then we get the ‘coloring’ assignments. I’m sure the argument is something along the lines of ‘by seeing the information represented as they color, they’ll remember it’. Sorry, no. If they’re not applying the information, or extrapolating from it, or personalizing it, processing it, it’s not going to lead to anything but prettier classrooms for open house. I’m sorry, but don’t spoil my child’s youth to pretty up your room. And it’s very clear that, at least in our school, largely the mothers are doing it.
And then there is the weekend homework. I’m sorry, but I do believe kids are entitled to a life, or at least most of one. Why have work hanging over them on the weekend? Now, if you give them long term projects and it replaces some homework, and they decide to put it off ’til the weekend, well, I suppose that’s ok, because I think interesting overarching projects are valuable (and bring in important meta-skills). So then there’s the homework assigned on Friday that’s due on Tuesday, so supposedly you can get it done on Monday so it’s not really homework, but who do you think you’re fooling?
So, my first-born got hammered with homework the first year of middle school. Worse, it was idiosyncratic; so it was luck of the draw whether your kid got a teacher who assigned lots of homework. My school admitted that while the math teachers were pretty much in synch, the science department had great variability, and didn’t explicitly admit that they can’t do anything about it (*cough* tenure *cough*). This had been going on, but now my better half had me behind her as she rallied the other mom’s into a persistent force against what was happening. There’s now a homework policy, which still gets violated (oh, this is a honors class at highschool level, so we have to assign weekend homework). Nope, sorry, don’t buy it.
My second has not been hammered by the first year of homework (luck of the draw, the science teacher who doesn’t believe in homework), and hasn’t had her love of schooling squelched. The first, however, has had to have serious support by us to not turn off completely. I really believe that the middle school (a good one) has a belief that the only way to deal with all these coddled elementary school students is to hammer them the first year. Frankly, I’m not convinced that most kids are ready for middle school in 6th grade. But I’m getting away from my point and getting personal…
Some reactivation, within limits of the overall load can’t keep kids tied to desks hours after school’s out, can be understandable, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s not really that necessary. If we tap into motivation, we can accelerate learning and get more utility out of school. Doing the same problems at night, overloading from too many classes, and weekend homework don’t really provide enough advantage to justify such assignments.
I’m not sure whether they’re teaching the principles of homework to teaching students, and whether there’s any education of existing teachers from whatever path, but we’ve got to get it right. If Finland can get by minimal homework, I reckon we can too.