So Amanda’s post here last week got picked up by the BBC who thought she was “maligning a whole generation.”
Maybe she was. Maybe she wasn’t. I’ve long disagreed with Amanda on the “kids need more homework” but I don’t think it’s so much a disagreement on what we think the kids should be doing, as that we’ve encountered different forms of school-stupid.
My particular form of school stupid was my kids being given HOURS of homework that had no possible redeeming value. No, seriously.
Look, I’m not the sort of parent who thinks that rote, repetitive tasks have no value in education. On the contrary. I learned to read and write in a village school where even the slow kids learned to read and write and cypher too: largely through never-ending repetition. What is more, I suspect I had the same sensory and hand coordination issues as my younger son. For instance, I didn’t start enjoying detail work, like sewing or embroidery, until after sixteen which is typical. That type of work was incredibly difficult to me, all out of proportion to other kids my age. And the same with you know, all clothes “itched” etc. What’s more, when I started reading/writing I had the same issues. BUT since my father – before I entered school – believed in rote learning, he set me to do a page copy a day (and the pages got more text as we went on.) By six I wrote slow but not disastrously so, and by fourth grade I wrote faster than other kids. (Mind you ANYTHING else I needed to do with my hands was a disaster.)
In fact, when younger son came home to homeschool for a year, and he was dealing with all these sensory issues and difficulty in focusing that made him write verrryyyy slow, the optometrist gave us a million exercises for him to do. I have issues visualizing written instructions. I was supposed to supervise his exercises and I had NO clue what he was supposed to do or in what order. There was all this stuff with beads and string and rulers, and frankly I’m not smart enough to even know what to do. So I ditched all the professional advice. (eh!) Instead I set him to copy a page – increasing to three pages – a day.
By the end of the year, not only was his writing much faster (though still slow for his age, but not badly so) but he had impeccable spelling and grammar.
In the same way, I’ve taught language, and I can tell you the way they teach it in our schools, trying to make it fun and giving the kids colorful magazines written in the language, before they even know the basics is not only insane – it’s counterproductive. When neither of my kids could learn French, I asked for their books and looked through both instructional materials and notebooks.
Guys, I TAUGHT languages. The only way my kids could learn languages from what they were given was to be naturally gifted on the order of my brother, who could be dropped naked in the Amazon forest and would emerge two weeks later speaking the language of the nearest tribe like a native.
I’m not like that and neither are my kids, and neither are most people. Most people NEED a basic vocabulary which includes a couple of verbs and some grammar rules, before you drop them into the deep end head first. And the easiest way to acquire a vocabulary is to memorize lists. Which is boring, and rote, but by gum it works. (It is in fact all that most language learning software does.)
Now, after you have the basics, say about second year level, then you need to be dropped into the deep end head first. I did this with older son (younger never really wanted to learn French, so he scraped by with a b, and then stopped taking it) by teaching him lists and lists and then, over summer, having him read Dumas in French (with dictionary at hand.) Once he finished the Three Musketeers he had a very tolerable command of French. (And an outdated swearing vocabulary. Apparently Ventre Saint Gris said in class made his teacher – native – say “oooh, lala.”)
Anyway, I realize that because it worked for me and mine, it doesn’t mean it works for the entire population. But kids used to come out of school minimally competent in reading and writing and now they don’t. And in my area at least – though apparently not Amanda’s – kids do more and more homework.
I realize #2 son had issues that slowed his writing, so stuff took longer, and I won’t use him as an example, but #1 son, who was faster than average, usually had 4 to 5 hours homework. EVERY night through high school.
Now I don’t know about you, guys, but when I was a kid my homework took at most two hours. Three if we were ramping up for a test. Which left me time free to read, spend time with my family, have hobbies.
But what was weird was the nature of the homework. Part of the reason it takes so long is that it tries to be “fun fun fun” instead of just having rote memorization.
Look, let’s say you’re trying to teach your cat to fetch paper balls. Yes, it can be done. I did this with Pixel (best cat evah.) — well, I had no kids, and I was bored. Shut up – by throwing the ball, picking it up, bringing it to him, throwing it again. Eventually a light bulb went on in his head, and he started bringing me the paper ball.
Now imagine that you’re told cats only learn if it’s fun. So, first you soak the paper ball in sardine juice and throw it. It seems to work better, because the cat goes to it immediately. But then he tears it apart. So then you fill a water bottle and spray the cat when he starts eating the paper. Now the cat is afraid of the paperball and you must add catnip to make him go near. Now he’s playing with it but not bringing it to you. So you put sardine juice on your fingers. He comes, but he doesn’t bring the paper ball…. Etc. Ad Nauseum.
As tedious as the first process is, the second, as you can see, can extend to absurd lengths.
Well, it’s sort of like that with teaching. Say they’re trying to teach basic French vocabulary. They can’t give a list like “Fille->girl” because that would be rote and bad pedagogy. (And besides any idiot can learn that way, so what’s the fun in that?)
Instead the homework will involve going through the fun fun magazine printed for French teens, finding every picture of a girl and writing down the page number of the page where the girl is. Then looking at all the captions (without reading French, remember) and finding the common words. Then you write all those down. Then you write your answers as to what “girl” is in French.
Guys, writing down Filleàgirl twenty times affixes it your mind better and takes five minutes (TOPS at kid speed.) To do the other? An hour. And at the end of it, the kid is tired, cranky, and has learned nothing, because girl could be fille, or it could be gamin, or jollie, or elle or…
So my kids had HOURS of homework which not only didn’t teach them anything, but didn’t leave them free to learn anything on their own.
Not only that, but because the homework wants to teach kids in ways the kids don’t know they’re being taught, most of the exercises come across as utterly pointless.
Like most kids I HATED vocabulary lists. I HATED copies, and there is nothing more despicable than multiplication tables. BUT I knew why I was being given these. I was supposed to memorize them, duh.
The kids don’t. What I mean is, no one could. Most of the stuff makes no sense for its stated purpose. They just know they have hours after school of putting tab a in slot b and coloring tag c and they have to do it because homework now a days counts way more than it did in my day. (I should know. I was very good at spacing homework.) So even if you have all As in tests but don’t do homework, you’ll fail. (Trust me, younger son tried this.)
So what the kids are taught is that they must perform senseless tasks they don’t want to do, which accomplish nothing, or be punished…
Worse, as I found out, the teachers don’t even remind the kids that homework is supposed to be turned in. “Oh, I told them two weeks ago. They’re supposed to remember.” This is used as early as elementary when most kids CAN’T remember, so unless the parents remember it for them, it’s not going to happen. (Surely you DO remember being young and the sense of floating in timelessness? That’s neurological. You’re not good at keeping track of time at that age, and I was told by a psychologist friend this can persist till 14 in boys.)
OTOH when older son had to have surgery and we asked the teachers for homework for the next two weeks, we found that they didn’t know it and had no plan. From then on our reaction to homework was “the children must plan, because I can’t.”
This too is a bad thing. Someone in power who does what he/she pleases while the kids/peasants must scrupulously follow the rules. Bad precedent.
My point is, calling for more homework isn’t going to fix this mess. The teachers happily pile on more and more mind bogglingly stupid homework, designed to avoid that awful “rote” and thereby more or less utterly pointless.
Now they’re talking about year around school, because the kids just don’t have enough time to learn. (Rolls eyes.)
Oh, and they say that “it’s because the kids have so much more to learn.” Poppycock. This reminds me of publishers saying that “people are reading less because there’s so much more entertainment.” When in fact, people were reading less because they had trouble finding anything they wanted to read.
How about you teach kids to read and write and let them pick up “all that important stuff” on their own? Because, guess what, they do to the extent they need/want to. And if they can’t read/write, the rest won’t happen EITHER.
Guys, there will never be enough time so long as we try to teach the kids without the kids knowing they’re being taught.
I come to praise rote, not to bury it. Sure, if ALL you learn is by memorization, you create a learning system like China’s, where people can’t reason over what they learn. But what we’re creating is exactly the same – a sort of behaviorist hell, where we’re trying to teach people things through other actions, but which ends up imprinting the idea that obeying pointless instructions is good.
Basic skills can be acquired through memorization. I would skip the wooden ruler on the knuckles for memorizing the multiplication tables, because all it did was make me incapable of speaking when called on (I was likely to mentally transpose and say 45 instead of 54, and then the ruler would descend.)
And after you have the basics, you should move on to more challenging things.
If you’re trying to learn the basics without rote, you’re doing it wrong. If you have the basics and still doing rote, you’re doing it wrong.
Removing all rote from learning because it’s bad after a certain point is like making strollers illegal because kids are supposed to learn to walk. All it does is limit people’s choices and take away the time parents should be doing other stuff. (OTOH some parents would become Olympic lifters. I mean, Robert weighed fifty pounds at 2. And he wasn’t fat. I have pictures.)
Right now? Homework or no homework? I’d say homework is a tool for keeping your kids FROM learning, unless your kids go to an exceptional school.
Agitating for more homework without checking on content is not the answer.
In fact, the more I look at it and hear, and exceptional schools like second son’s second high school excepted, I’d say the best thing you can do, if at all possible, is bring those kids home and make them do some copies and memorize their multiplication tables. At least they’ll be bored for a reason.