Thursday, September 9, 2010

Don’t sign the homework (part 1)

When I was in school, my homework habits were halfway to abysmal. I had no routine. I worked on the floor, at the dinner table, in my bed, almost never at my desk. I frequently did my homework, as I did many, many other things, in front of the television. (A disproportionate number of my vocabulary sentences involved Mork and Mindy.) If the television demanded my full attention, or if my brother offered to play gin rummy or ping pong, the homework could wait. I didn’t pace myself; I put big projects off until the eleventh hour, then lost sleep to crank them out. I raced through great novels on the day before we had to discuss them. I wrote reports on books I never read; once even on a book that didn’t exist (Up Mount Everest). My performance wasn’t terrible -- I generally did well in school, and I almost never missed a deadline -- but no one would have called me disciplined.

Homework was a pain, the deadlines were sometimes stressful, and in retrospect a lot of it was probably unnecessary busy work. But I don’t remember ever being genuinely bothered by it, ever feeling any real angst over it. The only time homework caused me any emotional turmoil was when my mother would nag me about it. “Did you do your homework?” “Don’t you have homework to do?” She couldn’t help herself, even though she knew it was counterproductive -- the last thing I was going to do, in response to those questions, was pull out the books -- and even though it caused ongoing tension between the two of us. In retrospect, it’s hard to see why I got so upset about it; she might only ask about it once or twice, and she certainly never asked me to show her that I had done it or, God forbid, to let her read it. (I don’t recall showing any of my homework to either of my parents, ever.) Yet I can still feel the agitation her inquiries provoked in me. As I saw it, my homework was my business, and my mother needed to mind her own business.

I look back on that time and I think: be grateful for what you had. I was lucky. My mother’s compulsive inquiries aside, the people who constructed my world -- my schools and my parents -- gave me something that today’s kids aren’t often given: autonomy. I was in charge of my schoolwork. If I succeeded, the success was mine. If I messed up, it was my problem. I was allowed to make mistakes, and to decide for myself whether I regretted them. It’s funny what you learn from mistakes when someone else isn’t telling you what to learn from them. I never did develop good work habits, but I learned my limits. I learned my own ways of doing things. I think it’s served me well, and even if it hadn’t, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Last year, my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher required her students to have their parents sign their homework before they turned it in. This practice -- which I never heard of as a child -- is apparently increasingly common. I have a number of objections to it, which I’ll spell out in part two of this post. But here, I want to make this one point: The teachers who use this practice may be well-intentioned, but they are taking something from your child. I don’t just mean educationally, though I think learning to manage your own affairs without unsolicited help is important. I mean psychologically and emotionally. Some degree of autonomy over your own life isn’t just an educational strategy, it’s an essential ingredient in human dignity. To take it away is demeaning and dehumanizing, all the more so given that most kids would probably be unable to put those feelings into words. That little island of autonomy in the sea of compulsory education went a long way toward keeping me a sane and relatively happy kid instead of an alienated teenage burnout.

Were my standardized test scores as high as they would have been if I had been made to conform to more conventional study habits? Who knows. Should I care?


UPDATE:  I see that Alfie Kohn has tweeted a link to this post, so maybe it's about time I get around to parts 2 and 3 of the argument.  Stay tuned; I'll include links here to those parts.  In the meantime, here is a brief description of this blog for new readers.

UPDATE: Part 2 (long overdue) is here.

7 comments:

Indie said...

The only thing I would add to this is that it contributes to a sense of "learned helplessness" among students. I face a similar problem every day.

I teach high school history at a 1:1 laptop school, and the school culture is such that students and teachers are in almost constant contact. Many students have come to rely on that connection, with the result that I often get questions about how to complete even the most basic assignment.

I remember vividly one example from a couple of years ago. I had posted a link to a news article I wanted my students to read, but unfortunately, the punctuation that followed the URL got swallowed up in the link. So when students clicked on the link, the page didn't load. When they got to class, only three students had done the reading--the rest simply said, "The link didn't work." Maybe this could be attributed to laziness, but I've come to believe that it's something else.

I believe firmly that when students have too many crutches, when they fall victim to "learned helplessness," they get totally lost when something goes wrong or when instructions aren't spelled out in the most minute detail. They simply either give up (as my students did that day) or they ask someone else to solve the problem for them (as my students do via e-mail almost every day).

Bottom line: when students begin to think that they're not solely responsible for their own success or failure, they VERY quickly come to expect others to pick up the slack.

That's the real danger here, I think.

Chris said...

Indie -- Interesting. I think one of the strange things about NCLB is that it's created a world where the student's success is more important to the teacher and the school than it is to the student. If the student doesn't do well (as measured by standardized tests), it's the school, and not the student, that faces consequences. I do think that creates a strange and unhealthy dynamic between teachers and students.

ML said...

I'm curious your stance on requiring 'chores' for kids - things around the house that need to be done, dishes, laundry etc. Same thing? Nothing compulsory asked of them, ever?

Chris said...

ML -- Thanks for commenting! No, it's certainly not my thought that there can be nothing compulsory, ever. My point is that compulsory *learning* is fraught with problems and unintended consequences. As for compulsion in general, I just think you should use it only when it has a sufficient justification, and that the greater the compulsion, the more compelling the justification should be and the more confident you should be that the benefits will outweigh the costs. I think that's basically the same standard we want the government to apply to us, but I don't object to imposing chores any more than I object to the government imposing taxes.

There is one difference, which is that adults have a say in what taxes are enacted, and kids may have no say in what chores are imposed. I don't think that necessarily makes chore-assigning wrong, but I think it's not a bad idea to keep that in mind when you figure out how you're going to handle chores. I also think asking nicely is preferable to demanding, at least when you're willing to take no (or "later") for an answer. But in general, I'm not riled up by the idea of chores.

Chris said...

ML -- I think compulsory eating might be the closer analogy to compulsory learning. Of course I want my kids to have a healthy diet, but I also think that trying to make them eat a prescribed diet, regardless of their preferences, would cause way more problems than it would solve. We don't make our kids eat any particular food, but, on the other hand, we don't mind limiting the universe of foods that we have in the house. I don't know what the perfect approach is -- I still wish they ate more healthily, but we're not the perfect models, either. Anyway, I think it's important to recognize that there are multiple (sometimes conflicting) values at work.

My feelings about school are similar. It's one thing to ensure that the kids are spending at least some of their time in educationally worthwhile ways, but it's a different thing to dictate the activities so closely that the kids are bored and unengaged or begin to associate learning with drudgery and being bossed around.

It sometimes seems like people think that kids would learn nothing if they were not compelled to in school, which I think is ridiculous and disproven by all kids under age five. I think people exaggerate the benefits of compulsion/micromanagement and understate the costs.

Julie S said...

My son is in public school second grade and the teacher requires a parent signature on all homework. The penalty for unsigned homework is losing a good behavior cube. The kids start each day with four cubes and lose them for various infractions of the rules (talking, interrupting, not standing in line properly, leaning back in their chairs, etc.) The school is heavily PBIS and Son is on a behavior IEP (he's also a 2E student, which was not addressed in the IEP.) Some of the things the school does makes me seriously consider homeschooling.

Anonymous said...

I responded by sending a note to school that I'd already completed 4th grade and wasn't required to rematriculate. Assessment is teachers job not mine, and it's not their place to teach or monitor my parenting. 9/19 times, the signed work receives no further attention, which leads me to believe that the purpose is to alleviate grading.
Rewards at school are especially irksome. Just make up for them at home with your own system.