In my last article I presented the case for the failure of homework to prove its value as a means of improving learning or building character. This is especially true for elementary school children where there is simply no basis for assigning homework. The results of research are more mixed as children get older, but even at the high school level the evidence for the value of homework is very equivocal. Equally important is the growing evidence that homework is actually harmful and unfair. It causes chronic stress for children and families and ignores the substantial differences in the homes children return to after school. Having made these points, I believe I have a responsibility to share my vision of school without homework. To simply criticize without offering an alternative is unfair.
Have you ever noticed that when politicians and school bureaucrats make recommendations about improving the quality of education, which has now become a euphemism for raising standardized test scores, the focus is nearly always on making systemic changes. Longer school days or longer school years, better trained teachers, improved facilities, more drill (i.e., back to basics, whatever that really means), school vouchers or choice, and statewide testing are some of the most frequent “cures” for our public education problems. In addition, issues of poverty, the breakdown of morality and character, the lack of parental involvement, and the influence of TV and video games are also on the list of what ails our schools. Some of these issues, e.g., poverty, are proven to be strongly associated with academic problems. But what always strikes me as the missing piece is the absence of talking about how children learn and what can be done to create a learning environment that maximizes a chance for all children to get a reasonable education.
Educators and psychologists have amassed a tremendous amount of valuable research and theory over the past few decades. Very little of it has been integrated into public education. Classrooms today bear a striking resemblance to classrooms of a hundred years ago. A group of children with a wide range of ability sitting in chairs listening to a teacher and being engaged in what can best be described as a passive learning experience that fails to take into account what we now know about child development. Children of all ages are egocentric in the way they view and engage the world, interested in what has some immediacy to their experience and learning best through hands on, interactive experiences. Actually most adults learn best the same way! At the elementary school level play is a significant tool for learning as is imitation. Sitting still for long periods of time is counter to the developmental level of young children and the constant restrictions against social interaction is not only developmentally inappropriate for all children but retards the growth of the most important factors in achieving a successful life, namely social and relationship skills.
Our classrooms remain too teacher-centered. Yet I could also argue that they are not adequately teacher-led. Teachers typically have their hands tied to external curriculum and are not encouraged to be creative. Classes become cookie cutter duplications instead of unique experiences constantly reshaped by the flexible response to the unique annual interaction of a creative teacher and a different set of children in a world that is always filled with new events and trends.
In addition one of the most incredulous aspects of education is rarely discussed, the teaching of simultaneous, multiple courses that have no connection to each other. Children are required to make constant transitions from one subject to another, a multi-tasking challenge that few adults could successfully manage. It gets worse as the children move up through the system. By 7th grade children are usually taking several courses a day in what becomes a very impersonal system where students and teachers are unable to create a relationship context that fosters learning. The majority of students are unable to successfully keep it all straight. Disorganization, forgetting, and increased resistance to what feels like a punitive, disconnected process results in education becoming a laborious process of attempted survival of the fittest. Only students who have the right personality for this system remain successful. Others slide into mediocrity or failure.
My vision of a better “mousetrap” is a school where student-centered learning and block scheduling prevail. The former refers to a teaching approach that works from the child out, i.e., allowing children to learn by focusing on material that has inherent interest to them, that uses group interaction and students-helping-students as a routine classroom process, and encourages teachers to be more creative. Children would write about their life experiences, read books that grab their attention, and learn math as it relates to their real world. As children get older I have always believed a daily newspaper could replace textbooks. Everyday there are events around the world that would serve as a basis for teaching history, social studies, science, reading and writing. It would add discussions about money, law, politics, and important social issues. Most important it would produce high school graduates who understand the world they are living in and teach thinking and problem solving. Which is more likely to really educate a teenager – reading a boring text on ancient civilizations or trying to understand the complex crisis in the Middle East?
This student-centered approach would make the concept of learning relevant to their lives and produce many young adults who would have a desire to learn more. Those who are so motivated would go on to college where they can study the classics and do more independent learning. It also allows for each student to find his/her strengths and make a valuable contribution to the learning process. Those who are better at people skills than mastering information would have a chance to demonstrate that in the more interactive, teamwork approach. Those who are artistic or mechanical could contribute their unique talents to the success of group projects.
As for homework, by using the block scheduling approach, students would only take a few subjects at a time but spend much more time on each subject. A course would not be artificially designed to fit an academic year but would be given the hours it needs to achieve its goals. Schedules would change over the course of the school year so that the entire year is not one long repetition. Most important, if a teacher has two or three hours in a day to work with students on one subject, it allows for more creative use of time, including socializing, moving around, and doing independent assignments (formerly known as homework) in the classroom. Then the teachers, and other students, are there to immediately offer assistance and correct mistakes before they become learned. When the child leaves at the end of the day school is over. They, and their family, can focus on other aspects of the children’s lives without the chronic struggle over homework.
I have taken the time to write about homework and public education because I believe there is a much better way to teach children. I hope that parents and educators will begin to demand that we use the knowledge about how children learn to design schools that truly benefit children in all aspects of their lives.