A Fresh Look At Schooling: The Role of Homework (Part 2 of 3)

By: James P. Krehbiel

(Continued from A Fresh Look At Schooling: The Role Of Competition (Part 1 of 3))

There are those in our educational system who argue that children ought to have early experiences in whatever they are going to face later in life so that they can get used to it. However, people don't get better at dealing with unhappiness, failure and disappointment because they were deliberately exposed to difficulties as youngsters. To the contrary, it is one's experience with success, affirmation and unconditional acceptance that helps kids deal constructively with later frustration and failure. In other words, there are enough problems posed by life without schools creating unnecessary conditions that promote disappointment and failure.

According to educator Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, multiple educational studies have found that contrary to our currently accepted thinking about schooling, competition actually holds children back from doing quality work. A cooperative environment in schools is the most effective framework for producing exceptional achievement. Dr. Kohn states, "I noticed that many people who are committed to the idea that competition is a good thing simply stop talking about achievement. Instead, they insist that there must be other benefits for the individual involved. Rather than rethinking the value of an arrangement in which one person must fail in order for others to succeed, they smoothly shift to the claim that competition 'builds character'. Something very similar happens in the discussions of homework."

Against all empirical evidence that dispels the notion that there is any causal relationship between compulsory homework and increased student achievement, parents and schools attempt to find justifications for its value. Compulsory homework for students is rarely questioned by school personnel, parents or students. The assumption is that "homework is good for you" and "more is even better."

The idea that homework must be assigned is a premise that is rarely examined by the school establishment or parents. Why should it be explored?

According to William Glasser, psychiatrist, educational consultant and author of The Quality School, the way to solve the homework problem is to drastically reduce compulsory homework and emphasize the importance of quality class work. Students should be taught to evaluate their own work and be given the opportunity to raise their grades by improving it. Students should be encouraged to take their work home to re-evaluate its quality and most students would do this without question.

Currently, students do homework because they are supposed to, not because they want to or consider the work meaningful or relevant to their experience. Compulsory homework promotes a climate in which students, parents and teachers lose respect for the educational system. Coercive approaches to gain compliance generally increase and the opportunity to promote quality work is thwarted.

Although the merits of compulsory homework are questionable, student can easily be persuaded to do meaningful homework as an extension of classroom work. For example, students can finish uncompleted assignments or improve classroom work. They may also do tasks such as interviewing people regarding careers, watch educational television programs associated with school themes, do research within the community, volunteer service to the community, or play educational games with family members. There are many enjoyable experiences and games that involve reasoning, problem-solving, and logic that may be valuable learning resources.

Although, the consideration of eliminating compulsory homework applies more specifically to elementary and middle level education, the implication also impacts high schools. For example, some high schools have their exceptionally talented students involved in an educationally elite and competitive experience called the International Baccalaureate Program. Teachers flock to Las Vegas, New Mexico to receive training to become instructors for the IB Program. Teachers like this concept, because it provides them with a sense of academic prestige, lowered class sizes and exceptionally bright students. Prior to the beginning of the school year, the IB teachers conduct an open-house for students who they pre-select as candidates for the program. The merits of the program are discussed with the students and parents and students are made to feel that they are special for being invited to be placed in the program. Many students eagerly commit to the program only to find out later that the amount of compulsory homework is overwhelming. Students often told me that they would spend as much as five hours a night on homework, including weekends. Many students and parents felt that the program educators misrepresented the amount of homework necessary for success. Students felt extreme pressure as all other activities in their lives were overshadowed. Many students reluctantly felt the need to drop out of the IB Program against the wishes of the teaching staff.

Most high schools (without considering the IB Program), have advanced academic programs anyway. They have accelerated classes for underclass students along with AP (Advanced Placement) classes for others. After talking with several Ivy League college recruiters, it became clear that involvement in the IB Program was not a necessary road-map for college recruitment and placement. In fact, the recruiters of these renowned universities reiterated what I had already known. All things being equal in a student's academic profile, the most important ingredient for college placement was a student's capacity to be a leader among leaders within their school and community. Along with a strong academic profile, civility, compassion, and leadership skills are the most important qualities that colleges are looking for in a student.

Schools need to promote academic programs to reflect quality. As psychiatrist William Glasser indicates, quality may be hard to define, but teachers and students tend to know what it looks like when they see it. It certainly is not the rote, meaningless, irrelevant busy work that students currently receive in many of our schools. As administrators, school board members and teachers re-evaluate their curriculum and add meaningful, purposeful tasks to the learning experience, quality work will emerge. Students will be more willing to "buy-in" to a program where quality work is the norm, not the exception. Once quality work becomes a commitment and is established in the schools, students will be more likely to adhere to non-compulsory learning experiences that can be accomplished at home.

In Part 3, I will focus on the role of grades in education.

James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., LPC is an author, educator, freelance writer, and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He can be reached at krehbielcounseling.com.

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