The Case Against Homework.
April 9, 2009 7:50 AM   Subscribe

The Case Against Homework. Does assigning fifty math problems accomplish any more than assigning five? Is memorizing word lists the best way to increase vocabulary—especially when it takes away from reading time? And what is the real purpose behind those devilish dioramas? Sara Bennett wants to stop homework. Here she explains why (pdf).
posted by lunit (180 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Obviously she has a point, but it's my cynical understanding that homework is more about institutionalizing kids than making sure that they understand the material. And as my high school history teach put it: why do kids have to go to school? It keeps them out of the job market.
posted by pwally at 7:56 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


It seems fine to me if you want to eliminate dioramas and home craft projects, but the repetition of doing similar types of math problems again and again is invaluable. Eliminating that homework and just hoping that the child remembers her lectures is missing the point of school.
posted by bshort at 7:59 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does assigning fifty math problems accomplish any more than assigning five?

Yes.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:03 AM on April 9, 2009 [53 favorites]


Those 50 problems are trivial if you know how to do them. If your evaluation is going to be a big standardized timed test, then yes it makes perfect sense to do 50 of them so that you actually master the procedure and can do them quickly and accurately.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:03 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]




Show your work, Bulgaroktonos.
posted by ODiV at 8:07 AM on April 9, 2009 [25 favorites]


About the authors:
SARA BENNETT is a criminal defense appeals attorney and was the first director of the Wrongful Convictions Project of New York City's Legal Aid Society. She is an expert in the post-conviction representation of battered women and the wrongly convicted, and lectures widely. Sara and her cases have been featured in the New York Times and on 60 Minutes II, Dateline NBC, and the Today show.

NANCY KALISH is a former senior editor at Child and Cosmopolitan, has been a columnist for both Redbook and Working Mother, and is the current "Healthy Families" columnist at Selecciones, the Spanish-language edition of Reader's Digest. She has written hundreds of articles for Parenting, Parents, Real Simple, Reader's Digest, More, Ladies Home Journal, Glamour, Self, Health, Prevention, The New York Times, and other magazines and newspapers. She is also a former adjunct professor at NYU's Graduate School of Journalism
This lends no credibility whatsoever to these people as education researchers
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:09 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


My son put you up to this, didn't he?
posted by Dr. Zira at 8:09 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Math isn't taught in very efficient way at all. And a lot of the stuff that involves memorization could probably be done much more efficiently if they used spaced repetition software.

But they don't. It's kind of Amazing that something so important could be done in such a poor way.
posted by delmoi at 8:09 AM on April 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


I'm in the same camp as bshort: homework should do more of the "solve these fifty word problems" than the "go through your house and take pictures of the things you like, glue them to a posterboard, and write a poem". My daughter's gradeschool was of the "let them spell creatively until we decide to work on spelling" writing style, which means there's a bunch of 13-year-olds in her class with a writing ability (even just their handwriting) I'd call more like 2nd grade. Learning by rote was the reason for homework, and it seems to have fallen by the wayside. If they're getting all "new-mathy" about how you have to understand the concepts more than just be able to go through the motions, then, agreed, homework isn't as important. I think they're underestimating the benefit of rote learning, especially with math, handwriting, some language, etc. To answer the question: Does assigning fifty math problems accomplish any more than assigning five?, yes, if the teacher is expecting the student to learn by practicing. It's like asking, "does a violinist really do any better practicing daily than just once a week if they understand the concepts of music?".
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:11 AM on April 9, 2009 [7 favorites]


And I say that as someone who had to grind out an awful fisher information matrix for a nonlinear problem last night. I knew in an abstract way how to do it, but it'd been years since I needed to do it and I'm much more solid with it today.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:12 AM on April 9, 2009


I never did math homework, precisely because I already knew the material. I correctly identified homework as busywork that had absolutely zero value to me.

I actually made a deal with my high school math teacher that if I continued to get As on tests, she would give me the class average for the homework. This was a godsend, because either way I wasn't going to do the work but this way I wouldn't lose points for already understanding the material. I think an approach like this would be more effective than an outright ban on homework.
posted by schyler523 at 8:12 AM on April 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


I'm not in the education business, but it strikes me that this woman is just what the world needs more of -- too much free time on her own hands, so instead of being satisfied that the education system is trying to paint in broad strokes and engage families by sending work home with all kids, work that perhaps the less engaged parents might use as a gauge as to where there child might have to be in their progress with reading and math skills, she feels her precious precocious little darlings are being overburdened by being required to keep a reading log blah blah blah. Get over yourself. Get your kid through the system (or homeschool for christ's sake), enhance their education with your own marvelous stimulating ideas and if they are the wunderkind you suppose them to be they will adapt and succeed.
the last thing my teenager needs is an excuse to sped more time texting, playing video games and avoiding chores. homework never killed anyone.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:14 AM on April 9, 2009


Best line in the interview is the quote from an elementary school principal: "Well I bring home my work every night so these kids should."

Punitive and senseless! Someone's on the fast track for superintendent....
posted by palliser at 8:14 AM on April 9, 2009 [13 favorites]


"But... but... my kid doesn't want to have to actually READ or WRITE once he leaves school every day. That stuff should only be relegated to official times, and not required outside of the classroom. Because real life is like that. As an adult, you never have to do chores or budgeting or household planning after you've put in a full day at work. We'd best make sure our children don't develop any unnecessary work habits while they're young."

Honestly, a decade ago I spent a few years working in an elementary school reading lab as an educational assistant. I promise you, Sara Bennett was exactly the kind of parent we loathed: confident that she knew everything about how her children should be educated and insistent that her methods be followed, working to override trained, experienced teachers' methods at every turn, yet still somehow insistent that public school education is what their ever-so-precious-obviously-gifted-beyond-belief child should receive, rather than private school, tutoring, or even home schooling.

"Skill and drill" is still the only way to learn instant recall for subjects such as the multiplication tables. Nightly reading assignments create strong readers through practice. Student writing exercises build fine motor skills and enforce kinesthetic learning.

Teachers are not creating these assignments to be mean. They certainly aren't making them because they don't have anything to do all day if they don't have a stack of papers to grade. They do them for the same reason that we insist on apprenticeship programs for plumbers and electricians, for the same reason we want our graduated MDs to do some hospital practicum, for the same reason video games have introductory levels with building abilities and challenges. The plasticity of the human mind is reinforced by repetition.
posted by hippybear at 8:14 AM on April 9, 2009 [31 favorites]


Show your work, Bulgaroktonos.

AAAAK! God did I hate this mantra in math class my whole childhood. Why should I show my friggin' work when I can get the answer correct in my head every friggin' time? My work is shown, I already knew the answer.

Math teachers take note: that right there is exactly why I hated math, though I probably could have loved it ( mean come on, I could do the problems in my head). If you have a kid in your class that can do problems in his head, don't punish him by just dismissively saying "show your work" help him understand that later on, when things get more complex, showing his work can reveal errors and can help those that are not so capable understand your process. I would have understood that but instead felt like going back and showing my work was a chore.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:15 AM on April 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


*spend* obvs
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:15 AM on April 9, 2009


The kids who really get screwed in the current system are the ones that don't have any kind of support at home. Some kids have parents who sit down at the kitchen counter with them to work through the weekly spelling practice sheet, and some kids have parents who leave them home alone while they work two minimum wage jobs to pay the rent, get drunk and violent most nights, or just plain don't care.

Although learning outside of the classroom is definitely important, there is a big focus on homework these days that puts an emphasis on learning in an environment that the school itself has absolutely no control over. Kids who routinely fail to learn in negative home environments are usually ones who need the most help to begin with, and in many cases they just end up with bad grades and little extra support from the school to help them catch up with their peers.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:18 AM on April 9, 2009 [9 favorites]


During the process of grinding through math problems when I was a kid, I developed certain tricks. Those tricks depend on/teach math concepts. You could teach those concepts directly, but there's no better teacher than experience. So I say keep the problems.

That said, I don't think they should call that drudgery "doing math" because it isn't. They should call it "computation drills" or something. It's like doing scales in music. It isn't music, but it develops the mental and physical machinery you'll appreciate later, when you do make music.
posted by DU at 8:18 AM on April 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


Oh yeah, and I bet that 'Democratic Free School' is neither democratic, nor free. discuss.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:19 AM on April 9, 2009


A teacher might have to confirm this... but her strategy of telling a teacher that "my child doesn't learn this way" seems like the most obnoxious possible approach to engage the teacher in her philosophy.

Also...
There's so much research about how kids learn spelling... and it's not through rote memorization.

I dare your kid to spell half the words in my first sentence without utilizing memorization to learn them.
posted by pokermonk at 8:20 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


This lady couldn't possibly seem like more of a flake. I don't particularly like homework, but, excepting obvious busywork, I understand the value. Repetition leads to understanding, in many cases.

That said, I'm going to call bullshit on the "three to five hours" of homework her daughter would "routinely" bring home. Has school really changed that much in the last 20 years? Granted, I didn't do half the homework I was assigned, at least not at home, but I don't remember ever doing more than maybe a half hour in a night. Double, triple, quadruple that, and you're still nowhere near even three hours.
posted by uncleozzy at 8:23 AM on April 9, 2009


The problem with homework isn't that it exists or is repetitive. The problem is that often children are not taught well enough during the school day to be able to do the homework independantly and thus rely on their parents' help to get through it. Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, whose parents are less educated, non-English speakers, or who simply are not willing or able to help them are extremely disadvantaged in dealing with homework. So those kids don't learn, don't make the grades, and ultimately, don't succeed. If the work of learning was done during the school day instead at least there would be some hope that those kids would have a chance.
posted by threeturtles at 8:24 AM on April 9, 2009 [9 favorites]


I think these authors' arguments could be boiled down to: "my kid hates homework, therefore homework should be eliminated."
posted by bshort at 8:25 AM on April 9, 2009


No more homework? No more grounding? Boy was I born in the wrong decade.
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 8:25 AM on April 9, 2009


> why do kids have to go to school? It keeps them out of the job market.

That's certainly college/university's main function these days. A friend of mine once looked around the campus of our mid-level university and said "This place is just a day care for upper-middle class kids." At the time I thought he was just being cynical...
posted by you just lost the game at 8:26 AM on April 9, 2009


"But... but... my kid doesn't want to have to actually READ or WRITE once he leaves school every day. That stuff should only be relegated to official times, and not required outside of the classroom. Because real life is like that. As an adult, you never have to do chores or budgeting or household planning after you've put in a full day at work. We'd best make sure our children don't develop any unnecessary work habits while they're young."

Is the argument here that we should make childhood as full of responsibilities as adulthood? Children have different capacities for attention, and they have far, far more need for unconstructed time. A six-year-old who has spent all day in school does not need to spend more time at the table, sitting down, doing homework. A child that small needs running-around time, family time, game time.

This is not (as) true of adults.

And the fact that you worked for years in an elementary classroom, and yet could still argue that elementary-age children need to practice adult-like "work habits," says a great deal about the attitudes of education professionals.
posted by palliser at 8:28 AM on April 9, 2009 [7 favorites]


Look man, if you want to train droids who can handle the corporate world, can learn to manage time and meet demands under pressure, know how to be 'productive' in a work context, etc, then assigning homework, and lots of it, is precisely the way to prepare a person for life.

If you want independent thinkers, critical thinkers, people free to follow their instincts/passions/curiousity/whatever, then no, you don't need it. But come on...the world needs worker bees. Always.
posted by spicynuts at 8:28 AM on April 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


That said, I'm going to call bullshit on the "three to five hours" of homework her daughter would "routinely" bring home. Has school really changed that much in the last 20 years? Granted, I didn't do half the homework I was assigned, at least not at home, but I don't remember ever doing more than maybe a half hour in a night. Double, triple, quadruple that, and you're still nowhere near even three hours.

It depends on what grade you're talking. When I was in high school, I routinely had 5-6 hours of homework in a night. That was 10-15 years ago. But then I didn't go to public school. High school had way more work than either college I attended, for example.
posted by threeturtles at 8:30 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


That "No more grounding" story has me grinding my teeth.

> In its Monday ruling, the appeal court warned the case should not be seen as an open invitation for children to take legal action every time they're grounded.

Why the fuck not? Who's to say parents have any legal authority over their children whatsoever? Goddamn it I'm glad I'm not a parent these days (not that I was in the past, either).

Back on topic...do these women think that eliminating homework altogether is going to reverse educational trends like this? The vast majority of kids will only work as hard as you force them to, and while I don't think kids should come home with backpacks bulging with hours of homework to do every night, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect them to do some work on their own so they can learn how to learn when they're not sitting in a classroom.
posted by you just lost the game at 8:34 AM on April 9, 2009


Why should I show my friggin' work when I can get the answer correct in my head every friggin' time? My work is shown, I already knew the answer

Because sometimes if the answer was wrong, at least you'd get partial marks for the work you did do correctly. Also a good teacher/grader would point out where exactly you went wrong, so next time you'll get it right! All about learning from one's mistakes!
posted by bitteroldman at 8:38 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Go to her blog, read the 'Frequently asked questions' and wonder if anyone has ever, ever actually asked any of these.
posted by OHenryPacey at 8:39 AM on April 9, 2009


> I routinely had 5-6 hours of homework in a night.

Really? You got home from school, worked for an hour, ate dinner, then worked for another four or five hours and went to bed? And this happened enough that it was "routine"?

I'm not doubting you, I'm just amazed/appalled.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:40 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Well-covered by most of the above comments. The last thing that American kids - particularly poor and minority kids - need is less time learning. Replace homework with extended learning time in school, or even give poor kids dedicated after school time to get tutoring and do 'home' work - then, we can talk.

While the homework you got in school may have muted your creativity, consider how much worse it would have been to not graduate high school at all, like 80% of kids in Detroit Public Schools. The problem with the achievement gap isn't that poor or minority kids are stupid - they aren't. Part of the problem is home environment. But another part is a group of adults who are waiting for home environments to change to close the whole gap. There are systemic problems with our schools - in human capital, in funding discrepancies and, yes, in rigor and content. The solution to that problem isn't more homework, it's better homework.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:41 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


When I try to imagine this lady's ideal school I can't help but picture Bart Simpson's classroom during the episode where Ned Flanders became the teacher; "Not only am I not learning, I'm forgetting stuff I used to know!"
posted by Stonewall Jackson at 8:44 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pollomacho: Math teachers take note: that right there is exactly why I hated math, though I probably could have loved it ( mean come on, I could do the problems in my head).

As a mathematics instructor, I can tell you that from a grading perspective, you have to convince me that you know what you're talking about. Being able to consult the oracle and get the "right answer" every time is completely meaningless for me. How do I know you're not cheating? How do I know there isn't some deep-seated misunderstanding in your brain that happens to give you the right answer with every question I've asked you, but will result in you getting the wrong answer in other cases? (Trust me, such things can happen; I often show students examples where incorrect reasoning can lead to the "right answer" in certain cases.) Can I allow you to move on to the next course when your understanding is lacking?

Often, in my Calculus courses, I will give exams together with an answer sheet. Students, of course, love the idea before they take the exam, then realize that the exam is automatically harder because they can't get away with writing a ton of bullshit followed by the correct answer.
posted by King Bee at 8:47 AM on April 9, 2009 [28 favorites]


while I don't think kids should come home with backpacks bulging with hours of homework to do every night, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect them to do some work on their own so they can learn how to learn when they're not sitting in a classroom.

One thing I was genuinely confused about was whether she was advocating "no homework" or "ten minutes of homework per grade."

Would anyone argue against the idea that ten minutes per grade is enough? That gives high schoolers 1 1/2 to 2 hours per night, which to me seems plenty.

My cynical guess is that she wouldn't actually want to eradicate homework entirely, but that she'd like to get it down to the ten-minutes-per-grade rule she came across in her research. That doesn't make the catchiest of domain names, though.
posted by palliser at 8:48 AM on April 9, 2009


This is ridiculous. Children up until a certain age can only learn by modeling concepts and doing rote memorization. Other countries don't change their educational methods to meet the latest fashion every two years and they're way ahead of the United States.

If you want your children to spend their time painting pictures and doing interpretative dances and their basic math skills are super shaky because they haven't spent enough time practicing what they learned (yes, do a set of fifty problems to make it certain that you've learned something), don't blame companies for hiring so many H1-Bs for jobs requiring highly skilled people and don't be surprised that all science, math and engineering PhDs are all from outside of the US.

Also, I can't help but get the sense that parents like that woman are not as much interested in family time for the children's sake, but for her own amusement and self-esteem. I don't recall wanting to spend five or six hours in the company of my parents on a school night.
posted by anniecat at 8:53 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Just from talking to my younger cousins in public grade school it does seem like the amount of homework has gone up since I was in school 10 years ago. They seem to frequently have 2-3 hours of homework a night. I never really did homework, but I definitely don't remember having that much in 6th grade.
posted by meta87 at 8:53 AM on April 9, 2009


When I was a kid in China in the eighties we started every school day with a 20 minute multiplication table drill. That was on top of drills assigned as homework. For an eight year old it seemed like a totally useless thing to do, but I'm glad I had to go through all that repetition because my mental math is so much better today then it would have been otherwise. For certain rudimentary things that need to be committed to memory, repetition is the only way to go. Plus grinding out boring things is called perseverance; too many parents these days think their kids are naturally gifted and can succeed based on some inherent trait. BS. Sometimes hard work for the sake of hard work isn't necessarily a bad thing.
posted by reformedjerk at 8:57 AM on April 9, 2009 [7 favorites]


I am forcing my children to write an essay, solve an equation, or draw a map every week as part of their chores. I've seen too many of college students that lack the ability to think logically or communicate clearly that I don't want that happening to my kids. I don't know if it's a symptom of lack of parental guidance, a failure of a school system, or that kids these days are just unaware, selfish prats who should all get off my damn lawn, but after having a student come up to the desk to ask for the "King James Bibble" (as in bib + el) I'm despairing for the future.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:57 AM on April 9, 2009


"But... but... my kid doesn't want to have to actually READ or WRITE once he leaves school every day. That stuff should only be relegated to official times, and not required outside of the classroom. Because real life is like that. As an adult, you never have to do chores or budgeting or household planning after you've put in a full day at work. We'd best make sure our children don't develop any unnecessary work habits while they're young."

Yeah, god forbid people have any part of their lives that that's not filled with drudgery. Everyone knows the goal of the educational system should be to make the lives of children as miserable as those of poor and middle class adults who work all day and pay bills all night!
posted by delmoi at 8:58 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Sara Bennett wants to stop homework. Here she explains why Buy her book to learn more.

Largely seconding hippybear, I'll expand:

I'd assume that most here are pretty bright folks. We enjoy spending time snarking and debating. We mock each-other for spelling mistakes, faulty logic, and closed-mindedness. And we mock those who write on other sites with an apparently limited comprehension or appreciation for these skills and abilities. So I'd hazard a guess that for most of us, homework was by-and-large busywork. But repetition helps solidify things in your mind, even if you think you get it all in the lesson. Personal example: my first math class in college was some basic sort of algebra, because I didn't take calculus at high school, or bother to test out of the course. I was bored, it was all review, and I doodled through most of the classes. Homework was optional. I bombed the first tests, because I forgot how it all worked. When it was explained, I could jump ahead, but I didn't remember it as well as I thought I did.

My wife is a high school math teacher. She majored in math in college as an undergrad, even though some of the courses at the end kicked her ass. But she loves math. She now spends more time explaining the reason she's going through some basic lessons, and will let kids not do homework if they show a decent comprehension of the material. But once the kids start to do poorly on the tests, she'll remind them that they didn't do the homework. And kids who decide to not do homework for whatever reason also do less well on their tests. I'd hazard the same applies for science, literature, history, whatnot. Repetition sets it in your head, and there's just not enough time in class for everyone to get that done. Teachers don't like the fact that their work follows them home, too, but it's not for them - it's for the students.

If you personally were a math whiz, it sucks that you didn't have a teacher who would let you display your proficiency and skip the homework, but you are not a representative of all students. Some courses allow for everyone to become brilliant points of intelligent light, others simply require repeating the material. It's not about becoming a drone, it's about knowing what you're doing and not having to check back in the book every time you see the problem again.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:00 AM on April 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


I don't know how this would affect other kids, but I scraped by high school with a B- average, and got As on every test I took. My grades came down because I often didn't do my homework, and was penalized as a result. It's possible I was just lazy, or bored, or had poor discipline. But my father found this whole thing bewildering. He went in to talk to one of my teachers.

"Why do you want him to do homework?" he asked.

"So that he learns the material," the teacher answered.

"And how do you know whether or not he learned the material?" my father asked.

"From his test results," the teacher answered.

"He gets As on his tests," my father said.

"We can't let him be the only student in school who is excused from doing homework," my teacher said.

I witnessed this exchange, and it was the moment I realized that the goal of much of what goes on in school is not education, but to put children through a consistent and unyielding system, in which they were expected to work, even if it was useless and poorly considered busy work, and would be penalized if they didn't.

In a lot of ways, that's a useful lesson if you are preparing children for what it is going to be like to have a job.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:01 AM on April 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


Also, reading this thread, it's amazing how many people don't seem to realize that there are enormous differences from school district to school district. The education you get in one town could be completely different from the education you get at a school two towns over, let alone across the country. So some school districts may pile on the homework, and others may give you just a little.

I know I criticized math education, but there are probably some school districts that do it well.
posted by delmoi at 9:02 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]




I am the last person to call for getting rid of homework, but I am seeing a bit of a disturbing side-trend here. Hope I am not threadjacking. Invented or temporary spelling in fact does help kids along the way to conventional spelling. Teachers can address invented spelling in homework. Many might not do it well because of a variety of reasons-- don't believe in it, too lax, etc.

Just as there are stages of child language acquisition, there are stages of writing and spelling acquisition. We don't expect 2 and 3 year-olds to spit our perfectly-formed words. We model and gently correct and steer them toward developmentally appropriate forms and word choice. In the mean time, as they are trying to figure it out, we get things like "made-ed", where a child sees a rule (the past tense -ed) and applies it to a verb (make), but does not realize the irregularity of the verb (made) and overcompensates. We get it anyway, we make a comment to the kid, the kid internalizes the rule, and slowly, over time, with practice, the child develops her language.

Why do you think spelling works any differently? Invented spelling is sometimes called temporary spelling. What sort of method do you want a child to rely on when he or she is struggling to communicate orthographically? You don't go from scribbling to perfectly-formed words. You have a process. Encouraging invented spelling along the way, as a means of getting students to just write does a few things: 1) gets them writing earlier; 2) gets them used to editing multiple times; 3) gets them used to putting ideas to paper. Trust me, as a former HS English teacher, spelling is a relatively easy problem to fix. Getting a kid to put ideas to paper in a coherent manner is the hard part.

Where does this go wrong? When people hammer kids on their invented spelling-- "Spell it right Jimmy!" Or when teachers/parents don't help students into the transition-- that's where you get the consistently bad spellers. But I want you to remember that technically, the brain is still in development in high school. Some kids are still sounding out more complex words in high school. Should they practice their spelling? Yes. In homework assignments? Yes. They way we do it now? Not really.

I have some articles I can send out. MeMail me.
posted by oflinkey at 9:04 AM on April 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


Yeah, god forbid people have any part of their lives that that's not filled with drudgery. Everyone knows the goal of the educational system should be to make the lives of children as miserable as those of poor and middle class adults who work all day and pay bills all night!

Well, certainly, we wouldn't want them to have any part of their formative years teach them difficult lessons. Each child is a special snowflake and should never be challenged, only praised, during their youth.
posted by hippybear at 9:08 AM on April 9, 2009


Homework is, more or less, bullshit.

Most kids are at school between 8 AM and 3 PM, which is seven hours a day, five days a week. That's a full-time job. I played varsity sports in high school, which meant that my hours were from 6 AM to 5 PM. Suddenly, the hours jump to eleven hours a day, five days a week. Teachers want another three to five hours a night on top of that?

Bullshit.

Bullshit. Bullshit. Bullshit.

I remember how often my teachers and parents told me to "just wait and see how much harder it is when you're an adult". I'm staring thirty in the face right now, I've been out of high school for twelve years, and I'm here to tell any kid who's reading this that that line is as big a load of bullshit as it sounds.

Here's how it works: You graduate from school and you get a job. You work at that job for eight hours a day, and then you go home and do whatever the fuck you want. Any time you hear adults complain about bills, remind yourself that those bills are for things that they decided to buy. I work about three hours a day less than I did in high school (and that's not even counting homework, which I tended to ignore), and I'm still earning roughly the national average. Even after paying all those bills and taxes that my parents were always telling me would make me long for the days of homework, I still have a cool grand or more sitting in my pocket at the end of each month, and enough free time to enjoy it.

Kids and teenagers, the school system is shafting you and telling you to be grateful for it. I'm not saying that education and learning aren't important. Read. Read anything that you can find. Read fiction and non-fiction, technical manuals and science journals. Expand your mind and rediscover the joy of knowing things. Just don't ever let anyone tell you that adulthood is somehow harder than the full time job with three to five hours of pointless busy work piled on top of it that you're doing now.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 9:08 AM on April 9, 2009 [29 favorites]


Here she explains why.

Well...she talks about it. She doesn't really explain. She admits several times that she didn't know anything about homework (including whether it's assigned to 6-year-olds), and then she sort of brushes off her newfound credentials with a sales pitch, "Everything I learned about homework is in my book, so now parents can have the benefit of that knowledge when they talk to teachers." She also admits that she set out to prove homework's null value in the first place, which kind of cripples the value of her research. Per her resume: she's an advocate, not an academic.

She's honest about her basic argument: "We shouldn't be treating kids like adults. We should treat them like kids." She means that literally, too ("We told her that they weren't fun for Sophia and we wouldn't make Sophia do them any more because we wanted her to have time to do all the things she loved"), and not in the sense of, treating them like adults-to-be. Unfortunately, it's difficult to reconcile that attitude with her purported goal, "What I’d like to see us measure is how well kids are prepared to be happy, successful, ethical adults."
posted by cribcage at 9:11 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Next up, the case against shooting free throws.
posted by JackFlash at 9:12 AM on April 9, 2009


I will not rant some off-topically about how they teach math in the TDSB.

My son used to bring home mat homework - grade 4 - and there would be one, maybe two questions for a given topic. "Find the area of this rectangle" for example. And it would be drawn on a grid, so it's not hard to simply count the squares. So there's two of those. And then there's a half-page of space where YOU WRITE A FUCKING ESSAY ON HOW YOU COMPUTED THE AREA OF A RECTANGLE. Look, I get what metacognition is all about. But you don't do a goddamn exercise once or twice then start the metaevaluation of the process. YOU DO IT A HUNDRED THOUSAND TIMES and then you start thinking about how it works. Godel didn't skip long division and move straight on to proving how systems work. Godel did long division until his eyes bled like the rest of us.

And then it got worse. Or better. The next question was "Draw a figure with a perimeter of 12." Again, on a grid. So a 2x4 rectangle. Or a 3x3 square. Whatever. And the next question was "How many figures can you draw?" YOU CAN DRAW A FUCKING INFINITE NUMBER OF FIGURES WITH A FIXED PERIMETER. Are we doing Diophantine integer-solution equations in grade four now? Or exploring infinity and transfinite sets? And "Which one has the greatest area?" Holy crap, a circle is the figure which, for a fixed perimeter, has the greatest area. But it takes a hell of a lot of math to prove it.

The goddamn math curriculum was written by english majors - every page had an essay question. And many questions showed a complete lack of understand of the deeper concepts of math.

That kind of useless homework I can do without.

These days, shocked as I am to say it, the homework regine at our California school is much more sensible. Each night the kids do math, they do some free-form writing and they read. My son struggles through long division but I sit with him to make sure he does it and he's slowly getting better at it. He makes sloppy errors sometimes, but he's learning how to avoid them and how to catch them. And yes, they spend an hour or two doing it every night. Because if they didn't they'd never learn this stuff.

Bennett is welcome to have her kids skip doing homework. My kids, when grown, will need someone to double-check whether or not they wanted fries with their meal.
posted by GuyZero at 9:14 AM on April 9, 2009 [8 favorites]


> "We told her that they weren't fun for Sophia and we wouldn't make Sophia do them any more because we wanted her to have time to do all the things she loved"

I eagerly await her next book detailing how to raise a spoiled brat.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:18 AM on April 9, 2009


Hell, if it weren't for homework, I wonder if many students would ever actually do any work.

When you look at what the classroom has become...overcrowded, shorter class periods, and all the other b.s. parents and admins expect teachers to do beyond actually teaching, it's a wonder any work gets done in class. Homework must be assigned simply to get the lessons completed.

Plus, if it weren't for homework, I'd never have gotten to hear my daughter excitedly make the most improbable declaration I've ever heard..."Calculus is fun!"
posted by Thorzdad at 9:19 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's like she's on a self-appointed mission to starve our nation's dogs...
posted by 7segment at 9:20 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also, to the point that it's easy to get A's without homework - it is for some people. I certainly never did a minute of math homework in my life until university. But, as I have discovered, math ability isn't genetic and doing calculation drills really, really helps some kids. My son would be getting C's in math if he didn't do his homework. But he does it, we check it and his marks have come way, way up. Obviously one kids isn't real data, but homework has value for many kids.
posted by GuyZero at 9:20 AM on April 9, 2009


Most kids are at school between 8 AM and 3 PM, which is seven hours a day, five days a week. That's a full-time job. I played varsity sports in high school, which meant that my hours were from 6 AM to 5 PM. Suddenly, the hours jump to eleven hours a day, five days a week. Teachers want another three to five hours a night on top of that?

Bullshit.


Um... which part of that process was actually the voluntary, we're going to play games now part, and which was the education? Or do you still play sports for a living? Seems like calling the homework part "bullshit: when you volunteered to spend X number of hours in other activities is sort of backwards.
posted by hippybear at 9:22 AM on April 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


*sigh* punctuation errors. fix mentally, please
posted by hippybear at 9:24 AM on April 9, 2009


These people are trying to create some kind of hysteria in order to sell books. There's nothing wrong with homework. I would rather have teachers spend most of their time teaching rather than just sitting around while kids read a book or do math problems. I think it totally makes sense for some work to be done outside the classroom.

Also, like many people commenting above, I already knew everything in the world and didn't really need to do homework in order to do well in school. As a teenager, I'm sure I was somewhat against this tyranny of busywork. As an adult, I realize that most public school systems are trying their best to do what they can with the resources available to them. For the most privileged among us to bemoan our schools' inability to adequately cater to our superhuman genius is incredibly self-centered.

I did some homework that I didn't really need to do. Luckily, I survived and was eventually able to move on with my life.
posted by snofoam at 9:27 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't have any way to prove it, but I have this sneaking suspicion that never having to do homework until high school lead to my not developing good study habits, which means in college where homework isn't taken up, I tend to not do it and tend to do badly on tests >:[
posted by rubah at 9:32 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's my problem with homework: People take different amounts of time to get things. Homework is designed around how long it takes a sort of slow learner to figure out something. So if your quicker at figuring out the problem you'll see it dozens of extra times. If you're slower at figuring out the problem the problems will get too difficult too fast. I took the GRE and it was kind of fun. I didn't expect it to be fun. But it was fun. Because it adapted to my level of ability on the fly. It's the idea of flow, challenging without being frustrating or tedious. Giving all students the same level of homework sounds nice and fair but it means that most people get much less out of school than they otherwise would.
posted by I Foody at 9:34 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Highlights from the interview in the pdf:

"I would definitely abolish grades."

"Kate: Have we lost track of what children need at different stages? Are we too reliant
on scientific evidence?

Sara: Even I fall into that trap. Publicly, I can say there’s no reason to have
homework because there’s no proof that it works. But what I’d really like to say is:
There’s no reason to have homework because after spending the day in school
kids should be able to come home and do something else."

"I read this funny essay by Nora Ephron, who pointed out that 20 years ago the term “parenting” didn’t even exist."

"Kate: Is there a single homework issue that stands out in your mind that caused
you to become an activist?
Sara: It started with my first child’s very first homework assignment — a
reading log. Julian was six years old. Every night, he was supposed to read for
ten minutes and fill in what he had read — the book title, name of author, and
the number of pages he had read
. . .
Kate: What was the teacher’s reaction when you pointed out that Julian couldn’t
write?
Sara: She said it’d be good practice!"

"My husband and I had only an intuitive feeling that homework was a waste of time."

"Sophia would get distracted — she’d start and then she’d end up drawing all over the page or decorating one of the letters. She wasn’t learning anything and it would have taken her forever to get it done. As soon as we found ourselves battling with her over it, we stopped."
posted by Benjy at 9:35 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


My husband and I had only an intuitive feeling that homework was a waste of time

*facepalm*

Don't tell everyone homework is a waste of time because your six year-old like doodling lady. Maybe try doing a little homework yourself sometime.
posted by GuyZero at 9:38 AM on April 9, 2009


Um... which part of that process was actually the voluntary, we're going to play games now part, and which was the education?

Varsity sports are entirely education, and the playing games is a part of that. That's why you're assigned a grade for it. That it was voluntary doesn't mean that it wasn't a part of school. Just because I picked the class doesn't mean that it wasn't as much a part of my education as Math or English. My "voluntary" classes also included Drafting and Journalism, in that (like sports) I chose those classes.

Or do you still play sports for a living?

No, I don't play sports for a living. I also don't study the American Civil War for a living, read Antigone for a living, or calculate the area of a circle for a living. Amazingly, something can be educational without eventually becoming a career, and physical education is included in that.

Seems like calling the homework part "bullshit: when you volunteered to spend X number of hours in other activities is sort of backwards.

Volunteering to spend a certain number of hours in one form of education does not require someone to accept superfluous work in other forms of education. I voluntarily go to work and perform my job every day (sometimes, I even volunteer to work overtime), but that doesn't mean that I should have to accept doing a totally different job assigned by someone else when I get home.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 9:38 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I teach math at the University of California, Davis, and also work with high school students regularly.

For the naysayers, please step back for a moment and realize that the interview is making a case for minimizing needless homework (primarily) for elementary school students. This is very smart. Your boss at work can tell you to do some pretty stupid shit; teachers can do that too, and with much greater regularity, because there is no economic metric to measure against at the end of the day.

To address a particular point above, The author's children are clearly coming from a very supportive household: what's best for them isn't necessarily going to fly as public policy in downtown Detroit. But that doesn't mean it's wrong for her children. Solutions to the problem of education need not be general.

The author wants her children to be happy and eventually be able to lead happy lives of their own. She understands that these goals are not mutually exclusive, and is working to achieve a balance. She made it through law school, and thus presumably understands the value of hard work. It sounds to me like she is imminently qualified to decide what is best for her children, and to decide that piles of homework isn't it. And I think she's probably right in observing that most of the homework assigned to her kids isn't helpful to any kids. Having worked extensively with the variety of short sighted bureaucrats who enjoy disguising themselves as educators, I support her in this battle.
posted by kaibutsu at 9:41 AM on April 9, 2009 [8 favorites]


Reading this gives me an anxiety flashback like most people get when you mention "dodgeball". Having to do 50 long division problems a night made me hate math. And hating math meant I never felt like I could pursue my love of science.

I still hate math.
posted by JoanArkham at 9:44 AM on April 9, 2009 [4 favorites]


My husband and I had only an intuitive feeling that homework was a waste of time

The person who posted this excerpt failed to provide context. She's describing when she started realizing that the homework was problematic; she goes on to describing the extensive research she did before writing up her conclusions.
posted by kaibutsu at 9:44 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Other countries [...] they're way ahead of the United States.

Is this really true? I can't find any comparisons on education among adults, but my anecdotal experience suggests this is only true among children, that other countries are ahead of the United States up until the university level, but then things even out among adults.
posted by scottreynen at 9:47 AM on April 9, 2009


Why is no one speaking up in defense of dioramas? That was one of things I always knew I could get an A on.
posted by marxchivist at 9:48 AM on April 9, 2009


Lots of people are saying that this is [ridiculous/obvious] and that children [don't/only] learn by repitition, etc. Can anyone point to citations supporting their claims?

Education is one of those fields where everyone agrees that the answers are obvious, but no-one can agree on what the obvious answers actually are. It's also a very emotive topic, which makes rational discussions difficult.

There must be a ton of controlled, peer-reviewed research done into teaching techniques and how children tend to learn, even if politics means that it rarely gets implemented. Does anyone know of a good source for rigorous research in this area written up so a layman like me can understand it?
posted by metaBugs at 9:48 AM on April 9, 2009


then things even out among adults.

It would be fascinating to see what percentage of US graduate students are foreign students versus other countries.

Solutions to the problem of education need not be general.

The title of her book isn't "Why every child needs to be individual evaluated and have an appropriate amount of homework set in the subjects where it will help them the most." Her book is called "The Case Against Homework" and most of her research and writing goes toward making the case that homework is of little to no value. This book isn't a bunch of notes for her own use; it's telling people what to do.
posted by GuyZero at 9:50 AM on April 9, 2009


Lots of kids, like mine, live in 2 households. Longer term projects can be a nightmare; the notes/dioramas/projects are either at school or Dad's house. The idea was to teach kids to do projects, but tons of parents just did stuff for their kids. After a full day's work, parents come home to make dinner, and do battle over homework. O lot of high school kids have part time jobs. It's all well and good to say that the job shouldn't interfere with school, but that isn't making a difference.

There's a strong punitive aspect to homework. My son had ADHD and other troubles. Most teachers actively resisted posting homework assignments online, or emailing them. Here's a thought: reduce the number of teacher training days and early release days, and have the kids do more of this work at school. In theory, I approve of homework, in practice, it was an anti-learning tool.
posted by theora55 at 9:50 AM on April 9, 2009


Are we doing Diophantine integer-solution equations in grade four now? Or exploring infinity and transfinite sets? And "Which one has the greatest area?" Holy crap, a circle is the figure which, for a fixed perimeter, has the greatest area. But it takes a hell of a lot of math to prove it.

I think what you're missing, is that at the core, most teachers have no idea of math beyond, say, even a calculus level, especially anything under high school level. So you have the problem where they, themselves, have a rudimentary understanding of mathematics. This is not just confined to mathematics, obviously, but due to its rigorous nature, there's leeway for bad teaching. I do not know if there is a way to fix this, other than developing a standard curriculum and having teachers stick to that script. Probably not the best way to go about it, part of me sort of wants to get rid of schools all together and have kids log into Academic Earth everyday, maybe see an actual teacher once a week, but for 4-6 hours of one on one time. Of course, I'm completely missing the point that schools function in the majority of cases, as day care as much as a learning institution.
posted by geoff. at 9:52 AM on April 9, 2009


Here's a thought: reduce the number of teacher training days and early release days, and have the kids do more of this work at school.

The main reason boards don't do this is because it costs money. Homework is free.
posted by GuyZero at 9:52 AM on April 9, 2009


there's leeway for bad teaching

Grade school kids in Toronto use a standardized textbook - the teacher could be illiterate and still teach the lesson just by having the kids open the book to the right page. This is the largest school board in Canada. I would have expected that get someone with a post-secondary education in math check their textbook before they bought a million copies of it.
posted by GuyZero at 9:54 AM on April 9, 2009


Varsity sports are entirely education, and the playing games is a part of that. That's why you're assigned a grade for it.

Difference in school systems, then. At my high school, sports were before and after school, but no grades were assigned. Fascinating.

I'm still not sure how that time commitment should excuse you from the commitments required by the rest of your education, however.

I studied classical piano for years and years. By the time I was in my upper high school years, I was not only learning piano outside school but was also playing an instrument in the high school orchestra. While I was graded for the orchestra class, it did require before-school rehearsal as well as alone-time practice for difficult passages. My piano lessons were not part of my public schooling at all, but DID require 3-5 hours of rehearsal per night (at the most advanced).

None of these music activities, which amounted to sometimes 7-8 hours a day, were ever offered by me as an excuse not to do the coursework assigned in other classes.
posted by hippybear at 9:56 AM on April 9, 2009


Astro Zombie, your teacher just wasn't very good at dealing with your dad. A more accurate and informative exchange might have gone like this:

"Why do you want him to do homework?" he asked.

"So that he learns the material," the teacher answered.

"And how do you know whether or not he learned the material?" my father asked.

"We don't," the teacher answered, "because he's not doing his homework."

"He gets As on his tests," my father said.

"Yes, that's true," the teacher answered. "But tests only allow us to examine a small part of what the student knows, and tests are very blunt instruments. Tests typically don't allow us to gauge the extent to which the student actually understands something, because tests have to cover so much material that there usually is not time or space to engage in complex reasoning or to explain why they think their answer is the correct answer."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:57 AM on April 9, 2009 [11 favorites]


I don't think huge quantities of homework is really consistent with the the way things really were in the time periods that the "back to basics" people seem to idolize.

My father was constantly appalled by the sheer volume of homework that I did as a kid, and from what I understand it's only gone up steadily since then. And he went to public school starting in the late 1940s, and his experience was everything people seem to be demanding: mental math by rote memorization, perfect handwriting, basic familiarity with the Classics, names and dates of every US President and significant American historical event up to that time, etc. And all of this with, by his recollection, an hour or less of homework a night, generally much less, even into late middle school and highschool. (His confidence in this estimate stems from only ever doing homework after dinner and radio time, and having a firm bedtime that didn't get pushed back if he didn't get things done. It's entirely possible that more work was assigned than he actually did, but if it was it didn't seem to hurt him any.)

So it's not like the "good old days" necessarily had kids grinding out math problems for hour upon hour a night in order to give them those party-trick mental math skills or the ability to bitch about how nobody knows the start and end date of the Civil War anymore.

My gut feeling is that the increased amount of homework assigned today is driven by two factors. One is a desire to reduce students' free time after school, possibly because there are fewer productive (or even non-destructive, healthy) things for them to do to fill it. My father had a half-time job from the age of about 12 or 13 onwards, but even prior to that recalls entertaining himself to a far greater extent than would be practical for a middle-schooler today in an environment where you can't get around without a car. My suspicion is that if you suddenly reduced homework volume tomorrow, you'd get complaints from parents (and very probably librarians, mall security guards, and anyone else likely to have to deal with a sudden surplus of kids and accompanying unruly behavior).

The other factor is an apparent decrease in classroom-time teaching effectiveness, at least in conveying the material that people are asking be focused on (basic math, reading, handwriting, history, etc.). In large part I suspect this is because teachers are being asked to teach more and different material, and are also responsible for dealing with (at least according to the friends I have who are teachers) a lot of behavioral, language, and social-support issues that were previously not considered part of their job. I also suspect that the decline in teacher pay relative to other professional occupations with similar educational entry requirements also plays a role.

I'm not really going anywhere with all of this; I don't have a particular solution to espouse. It just seems disingenuous to claim that lots of homework is necessarily "retro", when I know for a fact -- at least anecdotally -- that this was not always the case.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:58 AM on April 9, 2009 [6 favorites]


This is ridiculous. There's no reason that schools should be banned from doing homework but limitations should be placed on the amount of homework assigned. It should be capped at 2hrs a night max. I knew some nights I spent up to five hours on homework when I was in high school and that was in 2004. I've heard that it's gotten worse since then. How can a student possibly be expected to perform if they stay up until 1am every night on homework?
posted by Pseudology at 10:03 AM on April 9, 2009


I don't have the head for this data at the moment, but if you want to review education per country, happy data-mining.

In regards to high school sports teams: same thing in college - you chose what you want to do. You can take easier classes and be able to do your homework at lunch or before practice, or buck up and deal with long nights. The most you'd get from school would be priority in choosing classes or possibly changing due dates if you have an all-day away game. Discussing how anything applies to future jobs doesn't matter, beyond dealing with your choices - you could get paid a lot to work 80 hour work weeks and sleep the weekends away, or get paid a lot less and work 40 hour work weeks, while enjoying your evenings and weekends.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:04 AM on April 9, 2009


How much of the complaining about homework is really against the idea of homework and not just the personal belief that said critic should be treated as special as the special snowflake that they are?
posted by Stynxno at 10:06 AM on April 9, 2009


I never did math homework, precisely because I already knew the material. I correctly identified homework as busywork that had absolutely zero value to me.

I'm just the opposite; math is so far from intuitive for me that it's kind of funny (or not). Even when I had good teachers (and fortunately, I mostly did), I really, really needed to have and do the homework for my math, chemistry, and physics classes in high school or I would have come much closer to failing those classes than I did. At my public high school, I probably had 3-4 hours of homework per night.
posted by rtha at 10:11 AM on April 9, 2009


I like the idea of capping the amount of time that is spent on homework, in highschool they could rotate which periods give homework on a given night for example, but, as awful as it is, repetition is still best for some things. It is good to know the principals behind solving basic problems just as it is good to know something flat out. There are different forms of knowledge, and we should be engaging them all.
posted by edgeways at 10:15 AM on April 9, 2009


[T]he interview is making a case for minimizing needless homework (primarily) for elementary school students. This is very smart. Your boss at work can tell you to do some pretty stupid shit...

If certain homework assignments are inefficient or ill-conceived, that's something to fix. Eliminating homework altogether, which is her essential argument, is pretty much a textbook example of wanting to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

For an appellate attorney, she seems to have trouble with nuance. Here's a different excerpt:
I would definitely abolish grades. ... [I]magine two students. One can write an essay that has perfect grammar and spelling and is structurally sound, but the student takes no risks with the ideas. The second student takes lots of risks with the ideas, but the grammar spelling, and structure all need work. In the typical grading system, the first student would get an A and the second would get a C.
Sure. (Because maybe it's an English class.) If you don't have a fundamental mastery of presentation—spelling, grammar, etc.—then your brilliant ideas often won't get through the door. That's life, and again, as an attorney who has presumably complied with quite a few arbitrary and archaic procedural rules in filing appellate briefs, she ought to know this. And by the way, I'd never toss off "structure" as if it were merely an aesthetic concern, and I don't know many attorneys who would.

But all of that aside, if you really do have a teacher stubbornly penalizing a brilliant student for minor mistakes, then I agree, that can be a problem. And your solution is, throw out grades altogether? This, while you're arguing from the other side of your mouth that we should loosen our embrace on blanket rules and learn to make exceptions.
posted by cribcage at 10:17 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


I never had homework in elementary school (in the late seventies and eighties). Never. I rarely had it in high school -- a little reading and studying and the occasional essay or project, but no mindless "make work" projects as seem common these days. As others have said, the time in school was as much as a full time job. If the schools can't educate in that time, there's a serious problem.

Maybe I had a skewed experience because I grew up in a rural community where there was an understanding that many kids -- myself included -- had farmwork to do and there was "education" going on after hours much more important than homework, but I do get the impression that this bulk of homework is a very recent trend (as in over the last decade or so) and has not historically been the norm. I certainly wasn't behind and graduated with great grades and a full scholarship and had no problem keeping up in University, and I definitely don't feel like current high school graduates are ahead of where my classmates and I were at.

My daughter goes to a Montessori school and has no homework, and is significantly ahead developmentally in comparison to peers in the public system.
posted by glider at 10:18 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


What's really annoying is that I think a strong case can be made for homework reform, and for the elimination of certain practices. This book makes some very weak arguments (based on the excerpts I've seen since... reading this post), and is still getting making the morning-show rounds. Stuff like this has a way of connecting with parents (see: vaccinations) that drier-but-more-substantial research and articles don't, and just ends up increasing the noise level.
posted by Benjy at 10:23 AM on April 9, 2009


metaBugs: Lots of people are saying that this is [ridiculous/obvious] and that children [don't/only] learn by repetition, etc. Can anyone point to citations supporting their claims?

I thought Harold Stevenson and James Stigler's The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools Are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education was pretty good. It's based on classroom observation from elementary schools in Minneapolis, Chicago, Beijing, Taipei, and Sendai. Summary by Paul McFarlane. Obituary for Stevenson.

McFarlane's summary mentions that Asian students do more homework. To me, though, what stands out is that American parents and teachers tend to assume that abilities are inherent--Johnny's just bad at math, end of story. Asian parents and teachers, on the other hand, tend to assume that all kids can get As if they work hard enough (and therefore if they don't, they're just being lazy). They emphasize the "plasticity of the human mind," as hippybear put it. If other kids can get it, so can you; if you're not doing well at math, you need to work harder. Conversely, if math is easy for you, you can spend time helping kids who find it harder.
posted by russilwvong at 10:25 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


BTW, continuing on the "education at home" meme, I know that my daughter gets a lot more gain from us playing chess, reading, going to museums, learning real skills that I can teach, various extra-curricular classes and activities, and so on, than she could get from school work. I'd hate to waste her time with a repetition of what she's learned at school.

As I said before, I really feel that if schools can't meet our dismal standards of education in the allotted time, there's something seriously wrong... And piling homework on kids isn't going to fix it.
posted by glider at 10:26 AM on April 9, 2009


Homework is for the most part idiotic rote nonsense and anyone who doesn't think that has never had a kid in a public school. And, the poorer the school district, the more inane the homework and the more there is of it. When my daughter was a student in a Baltimore city elementary school she was routinely handed 3 hours or so of homework a night. This was in 4th or 5th grade. Most of it was busywork; most of it was never, ever graded. It was completely insane; it makes any afterschool activities logistically nearly impossible, cuts into dinner and generally turned me against homework for life. If you asked about it the teachers would say something about how they expected the parents to do it too: it builds family involvement. Builds family misery, more like. Take two kids with that level of homework and if you don't rebel you can look forward to doing nothing but homework with attendant tears and grief every single night of the school year. No time for anything else. Even as a parent who likes art projects - dioramas rock; I am the queen of the styrofoam solar system - it was way out of hand. And then there's the punishment homework: writing the same sentence 70 times. That's a learning experience.

I have nothing against good homework, that reinforces learning or really is creative. But the homework I saw my kids bring home time and time again did neither of those things.
posted by mygothlaundry at 10:27 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Godel didn't skip long division and move straight on to proving how systems work. Godel did long division until his eyes bled like the rest of us.

First of all, you don't know that. Second of all Godel didn't own a calculator. Third of all, you don't need to be able to do long division quickly on paper to understand the the kind of math that Godel and his contemporaries were working with.
posted by delmoi at 10:28 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


kaibutsu: Point taken. Still, I think that we ought to have a careful discussion about what education problems are the most problematic lest we lose sight of some really big gaps in our education safety net. If we spend all our time catering to kids who can get As on the test without doing homework, then time and energy is lost.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:33 AM on April 9, 2009


If certain homework assignments are inefficient or ill-conceived, that's something to fix. Eliminating homework altogether, which is her essential argument, is pretty much a textbook example of wanting to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

I want to say things as clear and true as this but I often get sidetracked. Exactly.

First of all, you don't know that.

Well, ok.

Second of all Godel didn't own a calculator.

It's long division. You don't use a calculator. That's why it's "long".

Third of all, you don't need to be able to do long division quickly on paper to understand the the kind of math that Godel and his contemporaries were working with.

Well, that was kind of my point. The TDSB seems to want kids to skip doing arithmetic and move straight on to mathematical theory. Yes, arithmetic isn't a strict prerequisite to advanced graduate-level math, but skipping over learning arithmetic isn't exactly the right way to get their either. That they asking kids the relationship between area and perimeter for 2-d closed figures is interesting, but it could probably wait for, say, grade 8 or maybe high school.
posted by GuyZero at 10:34 AM on April 9, 2009


My daughter goes to a Montessori school and has no homework, and is significantly ahead developmentally in comparison to peers in the public system.

People who self-select into a system that costs $10K+ annually are going to have kids that outperform the general population. Montessori is great and I think it is a truly better system of pedagogy, but honestly, if it was the same curriculum as the public school next door the kids would still do better. It's selection bias.
posted by GuyZero at 10:36 AM on April 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


Varsity sports earned you a grade??? Holy Jesus - please tell me that in your school Drama Club, Photography Club, Yearbook, Chess Club, fuck..even Dungeons and Dragons for People Who Will Never Have Sex Until ComiCon Club also earned grades. How can something that you have to try out for, meaning only a certain small number of people will have the opportunity, earn a grade that goes into your cumulative average? So your good at basketball but suck at Math so you are afforded the change to bring your grade point up by playing basketball. How about the guy who is great at Math but sucks at English - is he allowed to bring his gradepoint up by being in the pit orchestra in Drama Club?

Weird.
posted by spicynuts at 10:43 AM on April 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


2nding GuyZero - education is more than time in classes or hours of homework, and the difference between 5 and 50 math problems. It's the teachers (engaging the students, balancing discipline and respect, etc), the class (sufficient personal space and supplies), and the support system outside of school (home-life, family, friends, space to do homework or read). Oh, and the teaching foundations - are kids being taught to pass standardized tests to ensure future funding for the school, or are they being taught to understand material as a foundation for the next course and their future learning? Some kids thrive in terrible situations, others fold and give up.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:48 AM on April 9, 2009


summing up this thread: good homework good, bad homework bad.
posted by barrett caulk at 10:48 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


sorry. that was inappropriately dismissive of what has actually been a really fascinating discussion. apologies to all who care enough to offer real opinions.
posted by barrett caulk at 10:50 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'll concede that a kid that has parents that are well-off and involved in and concerned with their development have an advantage, but studies of kids that lost in lotteries to get into Montessori schools show that the ones who got in have an advantage both academically and socially over those in the control group.

My main point is that there's more than enough time in the day to meet all the educational standards without hours of homework, and I see that in my daughter's experience, and I saw it in my own experience in the 70s/80s when this kind of homework expectation was unusual. Something is going wrong if it can't be taught successfully inside school hours, and I don't think that adding more homework can solve that problem.
posted by glider at 10:51 AM on April 9, 2009


Varsity sports earned you a grade???

It earned me a grade in that it took the place of my physical education class. Were you not graded on physical education in high school? I was under the impression that most schools graded it.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 10:55 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I went to high school in Texas sports had a grade. It was only a P.E. class and didn't factor into your gpa for college. Other peers that didn't play sports had to take a certain number of other p.e. classes like dance, band or just p.e.

Still playing sports definitely took a ton more time and most of the extremely serious students avoided sports because of the time commitment.
posted by meta87 at 10:56 AM on April 9, 2009


It earned me a grade in that it took the place of my physical education class.

We got pass/fail.
posted by spicynuts at 10:59 AM on April 9, 2009


lunit: "Does assigning fifty math problems accomplish any more than assigning five?"

Holy shit! Back in high school, our English teacher had us write one paper every day in response to some trite historical quote or question. Also, each one had to be one page and adhere to standard essay-writing style. Finally, I did so many of these that I was able to churn them out by rote in the 15-minute break before class. In this comment I will show that these essays were a crappy experience that hampered my writing for years.

First, the material was poor. Cliché truisms like "brevity is the soul of wit" or "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." Their meaning was transparent and there was little to do with them except prevaricate for a few paragraphs. I got very good at this.

Second, the style was annoyingly rigid. Five paragraphs, four sentences each, introduction, thesis statement, supporting statements, and conclusion. And an "attention-grabbing start." It became more about thinking of ways to waste sentences rather than say anything meaningful.

Finally, the pace was oppressive. We had to write so many, so often, that we eventually did so without thought. Ten minutes in the hallway and I could churn out another essay on any topic, even in cursive! It was mechanical, joyless, uninteresting.

In conclusion, such assignments are a terrible bore that didn't accomplish much. My writing took several semesters to develop into something worthwhile. And I still can't look at a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations without getting a cold shiver down my spine. And that is why busy-work is bad.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:01 AM on April 9, 2009 [30 favorites]


summing up this thread: good homework good, bad homework bad.

Well the whole point of this thread is that this woman published a book that actually disagrees with this fairly simple premise. It's not dismissive at all. What's shocking is that anyone disagrees with it.

but studies of kids that lost in lotteries to get into Montessori schools show that the ones who got in have an advantage both academically and socially over those in the control group.

I don't know if there's a formal name for it, but it may be a cohort effect - kids do better when surrounded by high-performing peers. Personally I tend not to worry about elementary school achievement as I don't think it has much correlation with success after university. It's a long journey and to be ahead when you're 10% of the way done isn't necessarily a long-term achievement.

Something is going wrong if it can't be taught successfully inside school hours, and I don't think that adding more homework can solve that problem.

Teaching ideas and achieving competence are two different things. My son has two little league games every week and two practice sessions. Would you advocate that they don't practice because they're playing two games anyway?

And why should the math geniuses in class be forced to stare blankly into space while the kids who struggle take up class time practicing rote work? I love my son, but really, if he needs to do twice as much long division as the kid next to him, cut the other kid some slack and do it at home. School doesn't revolve around my two special snowflakes alone.

Also, not that I want to get people's backs up with an identity politics discussion, but the people who complain most about homework are families where both parents work, at least in my experience. I think the rise in complains about homework have less to do with any shift in pedagogy and more to do with the huge shift in the structure of American families over the last 20+ years. I was surprised by how many kids go to private school here in silicon valley but eventually I realized it had less to do with hyper-competitive parents and more to do with having an integrated system of school & childcare where your kids was kept busy and happy from 8 AM to 6 PM while both parents work. People tend to mention the child care element of school sort of dismissively but for families where everyone works it's at least as important as academics from a day-to-day standpoint.
posted by GuyZero at 11:06 AM on April 9, 2009


Other peers that didn't play sports had to take a certain number of other p.e. classes like dance, band or just p.e.

This is how it was for the high school I went to as well. Sports, cheerleading, marching band, flag core, etc. were all graded alternatives to normal PE classes. Interestingly the end result was that since all of the jocks and band geeks were exempt from gym class, it was filled with the various spazzes, burnouts, and ne're-do-wells who were left over. It was kind of like being in a scene from The Bad News Bears every day.
posted by burnmp3s at 11:09 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


"Since when are people born needy? In need, for instance, of education? Since when do we have to learn the language we speak by being taught by somebody?

...Our society doesn't only produce artifact things, but artifact people. And it doesn't do that by the content of the curriculum, but by getting them through this ritual which makes them believe that learning happens as a result of being taught."

- Ivan Illich
posted by regicide is good for you at 11:10 AM on April 9, 2009


If you want independent thinkers, critical thinkers, people free to follow their instincts/passions/curiousity/whatever, then no, you don't need it. But come on...the world needs worker bees. Always.

Riiiight. Cause kids in uni – the ones who coasted through high school never needing to touch a book – don't suddenly realize that they have no idea how to make themselves study, and for the first time, need to.

Nope. There’s corporate droid world, and then there’s happy creative world, and never the two skill sets shall meet…
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:11 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


A six-year-old who has spent all day in school does not need to spend more time at the table, sitting down, doing homework. A child that small needs running-around time, family time, game time.

Double amen to that.

working to override trained, experienced teachers' methods at every turn

See, the first thing we know about young children, say under the age of 10, is that they absolutely need that "running-around time, family time, game time" and unstructured time.

They can tolerate some sit-down-and-sit-still time (more so as they grow older) but there is a definite upper limit before it becomes counterproductive.

So you take your kid to 1st grade and find out they are in school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with one 15-minute recess period (of which maybe half will be taken up with lining up to go out and then lining up to go back in) along with two sixty minute periods of PE each week.

And on top of that, let's start with an hour of homework a night for first graders and move up from there.

It's not about whether a kid needs some repetition or not.

They do.

It's first off, why can't you get all the repetition you need out of a first grader during that 30+ hours per week you've got him cooped up sitting at a desk in a classroom?

Second, after spending all day sitting in a room at a desk, does the first grader really need to sit down and do another hour of (invariably useless, frustrating busy-work type) homework?
posted by flug at 11:12 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


My son has two little league games every week and two practice sessions. Would you advocate that they don't practice because they're playing two games anyway?

If your son's little league games were 15 hours a piece I might advocate that!

Really, the educational standards, the things kids are expected to learn, are pretty limited. There's more than enough time in school to teach them and spend plenty of time practicing them as well.

As far as Montessori systems, it's not a "trademarked" concept, nor is it exclusive to expensive private schools -- it's been integrated into some public schools for a long time and has had great results in public schools, especially in low income public schools.
posted by glider at 11:13 AM on April 9, 2009


after spending all day sitting in a room at a desk, does the first grader really need to sit down and do another hour of (invariably useless, frustrating busy-work type) homework?

Nope, but a 10 year-old does. A lot happens in four years.

Again, she's not proposing a metered, reasonable approach to homework. She's against it, period.
posted by GuyZero at 11:14 AM on April 9, 2009


I think it's worth mentioning John Taylor Gatto again.
posted by glider at 11:17 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nope, but a 10 year-old does. A lot happens in four years.

Besides indoctrination into work-camp culture, what good comes from forcing a kid to do "invariably useless, frustrating busy-work type homework"?
posted by glider at 11:19 AM on April 9, 2009


Your words, not mine. When my kids were getting that kind of work I went to school every week and complained about it. My kids currently average more than an hour a night and not one second of it is useless, frustrating or busy-work. It's useful work that when my kids apply themselves to it pulls their test grades up. When they skip it their marks go down.

My issue is the assumption that all homework is useless. it's simply not true, regardless of how true you think it is for you or your kid.
posted by GuyZero at 11:23 AM on April 9, 2009


That said, I'm going to call bullshit on the "three to five hours" of homework her daughter would "routinely" bring home. Has school really changed that much in the last 20 years?

Obviously this varies from place to place, school to school, and teacher to teacher. And there might be some exaggeration going on in the 3-5 hours estimate (though I've personally known high school students with a regular 3 or more hours of homework every day, and elementary school students with well more than an hour daily).

But yes, in general the amount of homework required has gone up quite dramatically.

Again, much of the question is why is this needed when they are already in school all day long? In the hours of the school day there is already all the time needed to provide all the structured learning a person can absorb in a day--day after day for 12-16 years.

It's a bit like if you required workers to work their regular 40 hour/week shift and then made them do a couple or three more hours of work every night at home.

To the employer, this sounds like a great idea--more free work from employees equals more productivity for the same cost.

But in reality, productivity drops with the extra hours of work.

(And that doesn't mean just productivity per hour, but overall productivity: "at approximately eight 60-hour weeks, the total work done is the same as what would have been done in eight 40-hour weeks." The same holds true for schoolwork and you could make a pretty good case that requiring hours of homework **in addition to hours already spent working at school** leads to an overall decrease in learning and a loss of productivity of the hours spent at school.)
posted by flug at 11:25 AM on April 9, 2009


Yeah, I hated math for a while. But some of us actually move on from the things we hated in elementary/high school.

not to add anything useful to the discussion...
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 11:27 AM on April 9, 2009


Also if you have a grade school kid and you don't want him to do homework you can just let him not do homework. Maybe he'll get bad grades, but who cares? Maybe the teacher will assume your a bad parent, but who cares. There really aren't any external consequences for grade school performance. Now maybe your kid will fall behind or get to a point in his academic career where he will need to acquire discipline and that will prove too difficult. I don't know, it could happen. Then I guess you would have made a mistake, but maybe it would make your kid happier and you happier and have no effect or positive effect. Then enjoy. Except for the formative impact there are no external consequences for how your kids do in school for the first 8 years. So you can tell your kids that they don't have to do homework. The kids can not do homework. They can get bad grades and you can tell them not to worry about it and you being the grown up can deal with the trivial resistance you encounter and gaze smiling at the sky which against all odds shall remain aloft.
posted by I Foody at 11:28 AM on April 9, 2009


It earned me a grade in that it took the place of my physical education class. Were you not graded on physical education in high school? I was under the impression that most schools graded it.

My district graded PE, but sports were in addition to it, not in place of it, and entirely ungraded.

As for homework: Sure, 10 minutes per grade level would make sense. My sister's a brilliant student, and as an honors-college student with two majors, she now has far less work than she did in high school, when she'd literally have five to seven hours' work a night. I know grad students with less of a workload than they had in ninth grade.

Homework isn't a bad thing in and of itself. The problem is that homework is incredibly easy to over-assign, or stupid-assign, and the average experience seems to be that it's done poorly far more often than it's done well.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:29 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's long division. You don't use a calculator. That's why it's "long".

That's also why it's "worthless". The point is, if Gödel learned long division, it was because he didn't have a calculator. Since people now have calculators, they don't need to be proficient with the long division algorithm. We also don't teach kids how to use a slide rule or abacus. I think kids should learn arithmetic, but they should learn how to do it quickly in their heads, not on paper.

That they asking kids the relationship between area and perimeter for 2-d closed figures is interesting, but it could probably wait for, say, grade 8 or maybe high school.

Because god forbid kids learn anything interesting before they get to middle school! It's much more important that they drill, drill, drill in obsolete pen and paper techniques that no one uses outside of elementary school. They'll never use but if they're not forced to do it they might not even hate math!

Seriously, when I was in 8th grade I was learning basic algebra. I remember leaning about the relationship between area and perimeter very early, in second or third grade at least (since I changed schools). The idea that kids don't need to know that is just weird.
posted by delmoi at 11:29 AM on April 9, 2009


By the way, as far as improving education in this country. One of the easiest (well, in terms of complexity, or in terms of getting over people's preconcived notions) is to improve nutrition for poor children.

It's harder for kids to concentrate when they're hungry, and unfortunately poor kids don't get as much food as they could be. Giving kids breakfast before school, along with lunch would probably do a lot to help poorer kids learn. More social welfare for children would also help immensely. Matt Yglesias has been blogging about this recently.
posted by delmoi at 11:32 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Cause kids in uni – the ones who coasted through high school never needing to touch a book – don't suddenly realize that they have no idea how to make themselves study, and for the first time, need to.

Happened to me. It turns out that a few years working in factories will provide enough motivation to get you through undergrad and (so far) at least three semesters of grad school.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:33 AM on April 9, 2009


flug: indeed, school has changed greatly in the 10 years since I worked in one. Being an educational assistant, I had recess duty, so I was quite aware of how much recess the kids were getting. Between before school playground time, morning break, lunch recess, and afternoon break, the children had about 90 minutes of unstructured playtime per day. Coupled with PE, which was instructed and structured (but hardly formal sports education), which was another hour or two a week, the kids at this elementary school seemed to have plenty of opportunity for physical movement, socialization, etc. And you say school goes until 5pm? We let out at 2:30.

Again this was a decade ago. And, again, school discricts are all different.

I do have to say, the circumstances you relate sound fairly awful.
posted by hippybear at 11:33 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


If we're going to quibble over the exact number of hours assigned to average students, then we should clarify: Are we counting the number of hours necessary to completion, or the number of hours ideally spent? Because you can mine a lot of learning, if you're willing to sit there, out of assignments that really only take 15 minutes to "complete." And in my experience, teachers often quote one, while students learn to hear the other.
posted by cribcage at 11:34 AM on April 9, 2009


Actually, there is a specific way to determine whether or not homework is effective/useful and that is assessment. Many teachers will use summative assessment (ie, quiz, test, project) and others use formative assessment as well.

I used to teach technology. For 7th graders, I discovered through formative assessment that most couldn't convert common fractions to decimals without a calculator. Since I knew that a lot of my assignments were going to involve exactly this skill, usually as part of a larger project done where calculators were either inconvenient or too slow, I made it clear that I wanted every student to know how to convert at least thirds, quarters, and eighths (sixteenths were not mandatory, but some chose to) back and forth to decimals on demand. I assigned homework, I did in class drills, and then I observed the changes in the pattern of work - the students could measure something with a conventional ruler using either English or Metric units accurately and quickly and communicate those measurements through a diagram that another student could follow.

One could say that it was my stubborn determination that, dammit, my students would never again convert 2/3 into the decimal 2.3 (I shit you not), but I'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have success without drills and homework was one form of drill. So yeah, I'm pretty sure that homework worked on that front.

In other years, the students had the skills, so I didn't need to reinforce it. No need? No homework.
posted by plinth at 11:38 AM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


A lot of the commenting here has characterized those in favor of limiting (for high schoolers) or eradicating (for elementary schoolers) homework as the molly-coddlers, the parents of special snowflakes who shouldn't have to do anything they don't want to.

I think that's not an accurate association to draw here.

The kids in my suburb who went to the 5-hours-of-homework-per-night "magnet" school were utterly coddled at home. They never did a chore, they never cooked a meal, they didn't even do their own laundry, for goodness' sake. They didn't have time.

If you want children to develop a balanced work ethic, a sense that they must contribute labor to a home as well as to a job, they need chores, and time to do them.
posted by palliser at 11:40 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


"'Skill and drill' is still the only way to learn instant recall for subjects such as the multiplication tables"

Which begs the question (yes, I'm using "begs the question" correctly): is instant recall for the multiplication table something worth knowing?

Sure, that's useful for doing multiplication. But arguably not for doing math. There are plenty of ways to do multiplication without having instant recall of multiplication tables: calculators and computers are ubiquitous.

But so far there's only one way of doing math, and that's in the head. My worry is that in learning to memorize multiplication pushes out learning math, as students come to see math as merely an unsorted bag of unrelated facts to memorize, tricks and algorithms to be applied without understanding how or why those tricks work.

8 times 4 is 32. But why is it 32? because we have memorized a that fact, "eight times four is thirty-two"? No, because 8 * 4 can be decomposed into its prime factors ( 2 * 2 * 2 ) * ( 2 * 2 ) . Or it's 22 * 22 * 2. 32 is two sixteens, and sixteen is four fours, and a four is just two multiplied by itself:

32
2 * 16
2 * 4*4 + 4*4
2 * 2*2 * 2*2

And understanding that allows the student to construct in his head, not snippets of memorization, but a whole construct of multiplication, and what it means and why it works, and that's a way of understanding that can be analogously applied to other problems.

Having joined the ranks of the unemployed, I've been spending a lot of time on stackoverflow.com, an askmefi-like site for programmers to ask questions. And I've noticed that while many of the people asking questions can instantly recall things, only a smaller number can see the underlying unity or similarity in things that allows those known facts to be applied to novel situations. Perhaps this is because they've never been trained to reduce problem to its essential part, to see one problem as fundamentally similar to another.

Far more valuable thaat instantly recalling that "eight times four is thirty" is understanding why that is, and what that means for 64 and 128 and .... We teach math, far too much, as a series of unconnected facts, with arbitrary and unrelated "tricks" to "solve" the problems. In doing that, we've taught our kids to become calculators (and test takers), not the people who can design and build calculators, who can think their way through problems to find solutions.
posted by orthogonality at 11:40 AM on April 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


but they should learn how to do it quickly in their heads, not on paper.

For kids for whom math does not come naturally, how exactly are they going to learn to do this without practicing with pencil and paper?

Arithmetic isn't the end all and be all of math, but it's pretty darn important and without practice most people aren't going to acquire any proficiency in it at all. All I'm saying is that to skip practice in basic skills and then fast-forward to a question that's above their current skill level (this is grade 4 remember) demonstrates a poorly constructed curriculum. Certainly, have some fun and do some advanced stuff for those who are interested. But spending the majority of the math class on process metacognition is putting the cart before the horse.

obsolete pen and paper techniques that no one uses outside of elementary school

Are you going to tell me that I should take my kids out of swim class next because we invented boats? We did bode plots by hand in university too although that's not likely to impress anyone in a job interview. More wasted time when i could have been learning a useful workplace skill like... making coffee?
posted by GuyZero at 11:40 AM on April 9, 2009


My worry is that in learning to memorize multiplication pushes out learning math

I can explain how to do front crawl until your ears bleed but you're not going to be any good at it until you swim a lot of laps.

I can explain a host of deep insights into the relationship between numbers but in my experience the only way to internalize them is to use them a lot which mean doing a lot of exercises.

Perhaps this is because they've never been trained to reduce problem to its essential part, to see one problem as fundamentally similar to another.

I would suggest they haven't seen enough problems to be able to piece together the deeper underlying patterns.
posted by GuyZero at 11:46 AM on April 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


                                                                            
│       │                                                                   │
│       │                                                                   │
│       │ Coment of the day                                          Rhaomi │
│       │                                                             Mefi  │
│Holy shit! Back in high school, our English teacher    4/9/09 │
│       │had us write one paper every day in response to some trite         │
│   O   │historical quote or question. Also, each one had to be one         │
│       │page and adhere to standard essay-writing style. Finally,          │
│       │I did so many of these that I was able to churn them out by        │
│       │rote in the 15-minute break before class. In this comment          │
│       │I will show that these essays were a crappy experience that        │
│       │hampered my writing for years.                                     │
││
│       │     First, the material was poor. Cliché truisms like             │
│       │"brevity is the soul of wit" or "a foolish consistency             │
│       │is the hobgoblin of little minds." Their meaning was               │
│       │transparent and there was little to do with them except            │
│       │prevaricate for a few paragraphs. I got very good at this.         │
││
│   O   │     Second, the style was annoyingly rigid. Five paragraphs,      │
│       │four sentences each, introduction, thesis statement, supporting    │
│       │statements, and conclusion. And an "attention-grabbing start."     │
│       │It became more about thinking of ways to waste sentences rather    │
│       │than say anything meaningful.                                      │
││
│       │     Finally, the pace was oppressive. We had to write so          │
│       │many, so often, that we eventually did so without thought.         │
│       │Ten minutes in the hallway and I could churn out another           │
│       │essay on any topic, even in cursive! It was mechanical,            │
│       │joyless, uninteresting.                                            │
││
│   O   │     In conclusion, such assignments are a terrible bore           │
│       │that didn't accomplish much. My writing took several semesters     │
│       │to develop into something worthwhile. And I still can't look       │
│       │at a copy of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations without getting        │
│       │a cold shiver down my spine. And that is why busy-work is bad.     │
│
Oh yeah. I still got it.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:49 AM on April 9, 2009 [119 favorites]


I made it clear that I wanted every student to know how to convert at least thirds, quarters, and eighths (sixteenths were not mandatory, but some chose to) back and forth to decimals on demand. I assigned homework, I did in class drills, and then I observed the changes in the pattern of work - the students could measure something with a conventional ruler using either English or Metric units accurately and quickly and communicate those measurements through a diagram that another student could follow.

This. This is awesome.
posted by GuyZero at 11:51 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Parasite Unseen: but that doesn't mean that I should have to accept doing a totally different job assigned by someone else when I get home.
you're not married, are you? and surely you can't have any kids of your own. can you?
posted by msconduct at 11:51 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Holy shit!.... Second, the style was annoyingly rigid. Five paragraphs, four sentences each, introduction, thesis statement, supporting statements, and conclusion. And an 'attention-grabbing start.' It became more about thinking of ways to waste sentences rather than say anything meaningful."

I see what you did there. But it's confusing my sarcasm detector.
posted by orthogonality at 11:51 AM on April 9, 2009


Also if you have a grade school kid and you don't want him to do homework you can just let him not do homework. Maybe he'll get bad grades, but who cares? Maybe the teacher will assume your a bad parent, but who cares. There really aren't any external consequences for grade school performance.

Wrong. My nieces and nephews get recess-time detention for failure to complete homework.

So the child who has a hard time sitting for an hour after sitting all day gets to sit inside during recess.

I don't blame you for not coming up with this possibility on your own. It's pure eeeeevil.
posted by palliser at 11:52 AM on April 9, 2009


You misspelled "comment" in the title. -1.
posted by GuyZero at 11:53 AM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


A review of the literature I read says that in elementary school, homework is not associated with increased learning. There is a weak association in middle school (where it is probably best used to develop good study habits), and a strong association in high school.

Many teachers I know (I teach in a private prep school) say that they give homework because the parents consider it important and a sign of high standards, and those parents are upset when it isn't assigned. Teachers begin to depend on homework assignments as a way of getting writing assignments done and as a way of doing reading for which there is no time in school. The parents promptly start doing it with or for the kids, so they can guarantee them good grades.

I'm a sixth grade teacher, and I do almost all serious assigned writing in school because otherwise the parents do it or it is plagiarized. My homework assignments are intended as brief review or creative use of concepts taught in class. I have watched my students do it when they have study halls or time left in class, and it takes them no more than five or ten minutes. However, their parents swear up and down that the homework takes them ages. I suspect some creative dilly-dallying.

The school year and the school day are not long enough to do the kind of work that results in serious learning.
posted by Peach at 12:05 PM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


GuyZero: "You misspelled "comment" in the title. -1."

Well you see, I was kind of in a rush? Because my last class got out late? So I had to write really fast. But thoughtfully!

And I tend to blend letters like that together, anyway.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:07 PM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, bonus points for equidistant spacing of the holes and underlining your title in red.
posted by GuyZero at 12:10 PM on April 9, 2009


is instant recall for the multiplication table something worth knowing?

Yes, I would say, having basic recall about how the "times tables" work backwards and forwards is a useful skill which will assist one throughout life.

The difference is between knowing that those $.75 oranges are going to cost you $3 to get them for your family of four, and having to get out your iPhone and punch all those numbers in before you have that answer.

Anyone who has ever stood at [insert retailer name here] and watched the math-poor sales clerk try to count back change when they accidentally slipped on the "amount tendered" key knows what I mean. And that isn't multiplication, that's addition / subtraction.

Knowing how and why the multiplication tables work the way they do and how to bend them to suit your needs is a great thing. But instantly recalling that "eight times four is thirty" isn't useful.

sorry, that was mean, but I really couldn't resist after the first part of your post.
posted by hippybear at 12:14 PM on April 9, 2009


I think homework is useless. Always did. Maybe that is a result of the fact that I am one of those fortunate people for whom math comes naturally and repetition is a brain melting bore. I coasted through anything mathematical right to the end of grad school. I also enjoyed reading and learning what I wanted to learn on my own time as a kid, and busy-work homework got in the way of that. As a result, I rarely did homework at home - only if I was forced to, and I hated every second of it. When I did homework, I did it before class started or on the bus on the way to school. I don't think elementary school kids should have assigned homework. It is a waste of time and a lost opportunity for a much more valuable use for kids after school time -- free time, family time, play time, reading time, soccer games, whatever. At any rate, now that most households have both parents working, even if schools let out by 3 kids often don't get home until 5 as they are stuck in an after school program. There is no time for dinner, free time, household chores, family time and a pile of homework before a reasonable bedtime.

My wife is a teacher (grade 3 to 5), and doesn't assign homework. Instead, they are expected to finish at home any of the class work they couldn't finish in class. Seems to me to be a completely reasonable compromise.

Don't even talk to me about the batshitinsane proposals to do away with summer vacation or for 8-5 school days.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:15 PM on April 9, 2009


russilwvong Thanks, that looks interesting!

As an anecdote, my girlfriend grew up in Hong Kong and describes her school days as the rote learning-focused, homework-heavy stereotype that the summary you linked to tries to dispel. Still, Asia is a huge and diverse place; perhaps HK is an exception here. My education was much more about pattern recognition and problem solving: where possible I was tested on underlying principles rather than remembering details.

This is reflected in the way that my gf and I work as adults: She's better than me at accumulating a detailed background knowledge of a subject and making her work very thorough, and I'm better at analysing data and suggesting new ideas and hypotheses.
posted by metaBugs at 12:17 PM on April 9, 2009


Don't even talk to me about the batshitinsane proposals to do away with summer vacation or for 8-5 school days.

It would save families where both parents work something like $15K annually per child. Closer to $20K for many families. It would certainly save my neighbours that much. I don't think it's a good idea, but it's not hard to see why people like the idea.
posted by GuyZero at 12:20 PM on April 9, 2009


GuyZero Yeah, I know that is the justification, and I can see why people like the idea. And I know my family is lucky in that, as my wife is a teacher, she can be home for the kids after school and during the summer. It just seems to me to be a very blunt instrument that punishes children for a societal-level problem. And living in socialist Canuckistan, I also think a better solution is for a subsidised daycare/afterschool care programme, like Quebec's $5 a day daycare.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:25 PM on April 9, 2009


True story: the eight year-old girl who lives next door to us didn't know what summer vacation was until we said that our kids would be away for a month visiting friends. She'd been in year-around private Montessori school since forever. Anyway, it was funny when she finally figured out that not every kid goes to school 51 weeks a year.
posted by GuyZero at 12:45 PM on April 9, 2009


Blast from the past: the Junior Anti-Homework League (circa 1999).
posted by Rhaomi at 12:59 PM on April 9, 2009


Year-round school is usually structured with the same amount of off-time as "traditional" schools (months of summer break), but split up into longer seasonal breaks. The idea is that kids will retain more over shorter breaks. This, I can support.

School 8am-5pm just sounds dumb. They're still kids, not some proto-adults.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:02 PM on April 9, 2009


That's also why it's "worthless". The point is, if Gödel learned long division, it was because he didn't have a calculator. Since people now have calculators, they don't need to be proficient with the long division algorithm. We also don't teach kids how to use a slide rule or abacus.

You picked a really bad example here.

The division algorithm (known to most people as "long division") is actually quite generalizable. It works in any Euclidean domain, which includes (but is not limited to) the integers and one-variable polynomials.

This may seem really unimportant to you, since this is all higher-level mathematics. However, when you're doing integral calculus and dealing with rational functions, it's nice to be able to do long division on polynomials. And an absolutely necessary step to understanding long division of polynomials is understanding the division algorithm on the integers, where it's about as simple as it can get.

I guess my point is: you're talking out of your ass and you should stop.
posted by TypographicalError at 1:15 PM on April 9, 2009 [5 favorites]


For kids for whom math does not come naturally, how exactly are they going to learn to do this without practicing with pencil and paper?

You can practice with a pencil and paper, but you should be practicing a technique that's easier to do in your head. We had a big thread about this a while ago, where some of the other methods kids are taught to do math these days was discussed. They were talking about this "TERC" method for doing math, that was supposed to teach kids a better understanding of the fundamentals of what they were doing. In particular, they don't try as hard to teach division, I'm not sure of the details but I'm guessing they teach something that would work for most numbers.

Long division, more so then addition and multiplication is really the biggest waste of time, in my view. But when I do math in my head I rarely sit there and try to memorize all the carries and whatnot that I learned in elementary school. When I need to calculate something I can't do in my head, I'll use a computer.

Arithmetic isn't the end all and be all of math, but it's pretty darn important and without practice most people aren't going to acquire any proficiency in it at all

Math is important. Long division is one small part of math, and is not important. Rather then being able to do long division, you should be able to figure out that 32/492 is "about 3/50ths" and therefore "about 0.06"

Are you going to tell me that I should take my kids out of swim class next because we invented boats?

More like not bothering to teach them how to multiply or divide in Roman Numerals.

This may seem really unimportant to you, since this is all higher-level mathematics. However, when you're doing integral calculus and dealing with rational functions, it's nice to be able to do long division on polynomials. And an absolutely necessary step to understanding long division of polynomials is understanding the division algorithm on the integers, where it's about as simple as it can get.

Yeah, because what 4th grader doesn't need to divide polynomials? I realize long division can be helpful for advanced math, but I doubt exposure to it in grade school would make it easier to pick up. Of course I don't really know, the calculator I used in all my calculus classes could divide polynomials as easily as it could integers.
posted by delmoi at 1:50 PM on April 9, 2009


For those arguing that repetition is important to understand things, I'd argue one point. Repetition is fantastic to drive home a point a student already understands. Unfortunately, it does nothing if the student has no clue how things work. My experience with math, pretty much uniformly throughout my education (from 1st grade to college) was "Read this chapter, do these problems, and we will talk about why you didn't understand them tomorrow." That seems to entirely miss the point, and to be as about as ass backwards an approach as anything could possibly be. Particularly if you happen to be fundamentally bad at certain types of math and have a very low frustration tolerance.
posted by strixus at 1:53 PM on April 9, 2009


Also, I love how basic, highschool calculus becomes "integral calculus dealing with rational functions" which is of course "higher-level mathematics". What part of calculus, other then basic derivatives, is simpler then that?
posted by delmoi at 1:59 PM on April 9, 2009


Integral calculus isn't high school math, depending on where you live. I never saw an integral until university, while the CEGEP kids from Quebec had done it for years and slept through calculus until second year. The kids from out west where there had never been a 5th year of high school hadn't even seen matrix algebra and struggled with eigenvectors, etc something terrible. Some had never done basic derivatives either. And we had all been accepted into the same engineering program somehow.
posted by GuyZero at 2:08 PM on April 9, 2009


That seems to entirely miss the point, and to be as about as ass backwards an approach as anything could possibly be.

So bad pedagogy is bad?
posted by GuyZero at 2:09 PM on April 9, 2009


In mid 1978 we pretty much stopped getting homework. When I was a Sophomore. I think the magnate program kids got tons of homework. And everybody else? The school district just figured the world needed ditch diggers maybe. They even stopped parent/teacher meetings unless the parents initiated it. I think parents were relieved because then they could them completely ignore their kids. So our down time was spent smoking pot.

I'm not sure why. There were lots of budget cuts during that time of infamous "malaise." But I think in the late seventies people were tired of thinking about what teenagers were up to. Since there was no war to send us to I think maybe they were giving the culture a break on eating up the youth. And that included expectations. I dunno.

I regret it. I regret not developing those study skills back then. What a shock it was in college when they expected you to just have them. But nearly everybody was as pathetic as I was, so most colleges just pointed you to liberal arts and breathed a sigh of relief when you were gone.

It's been an uphill battle ever since.

So. Yeah. Give kids lots of home work. For Christ sake don't let them turn out like me.
posted by tkchrist at 2:17 PM on April 9, 2009


Integral calculus isn't high school math, depending on where you live. I never saw an integral until university, while the CEGEP kids from Quebec had done it for years and slept through calculus until second year.

Well, I learned it in highschool. Derivatives first semester, and integrals second semester. I just thought it was funny that TypographicalError seemed to think it was some super-advanced thing that I didn't know because I didn't mention doing long division on polynomials. On the other hand, I didn't learn linear algebra in highschool or college. I actually just taught myself using MIT open coursewear last year.

Also, high school in Canada is 5 years?
posted by delmoi at 2:33 PM on April 9, 2009


I graduated high school the last year when you could do it in 5 years. So, no, not for 20 years. But I was only able to graduate in 4 years by taking summer school every summer. Afte rI left they reduced the # of courses you needed to take to get your HS diploma. CEGEP is totally different in Quebec and I don't know how it worked then or how it works now, but somehow they all seemed way ahead of kids from Ontario. Plus they spoke French and knew how to hold their liquor so, you know, they weren't as stressed out as I was in first year.
posted by GuyZero at 2:41 PM on April 9, 2009


I taught remedial reading in a private school and this was my experience. YMMV.

Each semester where was a standardized test of skills learned. If we hit every chapter in the unit in a strict schedule, then we covered everything in the test. If we slowed down and spent an extra day on a chapter, it would cause mayhem. These tests were almost a third of the semester grade. If our class did poorly, we had the administrators and parents demanding answers.

We got those kids for about 40 minutes, and god help those who had the first class of the day, the class before lunch, or the last class of the day. Getting those kids to focus was much harder. Minus the time it took to troop them in and settle, take attendance, collect assignments, and packing up at the end - we had a solid 15- 20 minutes to teach. That's 15- 20 minutes barring fire drill, assemblies, surprise classroom interruptions, and dealing with the class clown.

Now if the parents, all of them and not just the notable exceptions, took an interest in their kids education and worked with them at home, then homework might not be so important. But parents are working long hours for horrible pay and come home exhausted. They simply want to send their wild child things to school and get back intelligent and mannered miniature adults.

Twenty minutes of teaching in an environment full of distractions, on a schedule that does not allow for learning at the student's pace, with no support from home is just not enough time. Homework is needed for some reinforcement. There's just no way around it.

It sucks that we're teaching to tests, but if a district drops in tests scores there's consequences to all the schools. It sucks that the parents are dropping the ball, but we can't ask them to work less when some are working 60 and 80 hour weeks and are still barely covering their bills.

But you can't just look at the hour worth of homework your kid has and declare it wrong unless you're prepared to overhaul a lot more than that teacher's lesson plans.
posted by FunkyHelix at 2:43 PM on April 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Homework in elementary school?
Well, it would explain why I never see the neighbor kids running around like we used to do.
The only thing I brought home from elementary school was my Star Wars lunch box (complete with rusted steel pointy edges and broken handle).

As an about-to-be parent, this is a discussion that my wife and I have been having on and off for quite a while now.
Making my six-year old self do a "reading list" would have been pure torture. I was that kid who always had a book in his hand and to make my free-time activity into a school activity would have sucked the fun out of it in an instant.
My wife, on the other hand, didn't really read at all when she was a child, so a "reading list" might have encouraged better reading habits than she has today.

The discovery of homework in 6th grade was a huge shock to me. The idea that school could last longer than the time you were actually there was a horrible concept. My grades took an immediate (and as it turns out, permanent) nosedive because, quite frankly, my 10 year old self had much better things to do than write essays or do math problems.
I honestly don't know how many hours of homework we would have been assigned back then, but the anecdotes above of 2-3 hours seem quite excessive. How does one enjoy being a kid if all of your evening time is taken up with schoolwork?
I can say that I would have a real problem if my child was penalized for not using her free time outside of school to do schoolwork.

I'd like to hear from some teachers to honestly explain why 42 minutes (or however long your class is) 5 days a week isn't enough time to teach a particular subject.
posted by madajb at 2:52 PM on April 9, 2009


Sorry, I would have gotten here sooner, but I was teaching all day. As a public middle/high school teacher, I can tell you that for me, MeFi does education about as well as cat-declawing threads. Comments like this, this, and to some extent this make me roll my eyes so hard I practically fall over from the centrifugal force.

I'd like to hear from some teachers to honestly explain why 42 minutes (or however long your class is) 5 days a week isn't enough time to teach a particular subject.

It's an educational technique called gradual release of responsibility. First, you teach the students the new skill by modeling it for them. Then you do it together. Then they do guided practice in your classroom so you can still course-correct and help them work through misunderstandings. The final step is for them to go home and attempt the skill on their own, without the teacher's guidance. This homework can then be used as a formative assessment, and the teacher can determine if reteaching is necessary.

There must be a ton of controlled, peer-reviewed research done into teaching techniques and how children tend to learn, even if politics means that it rarely gets implemented. Does anyone know of a good source for rigorous research in this area written up so a layman like me can understand it?

Classroom Instruction that Works by Marzano and Pickering tends to be the more widely accepted text used for teaching teachers in the up-to-date, advanced districts. Also, What Works in Schools by Marzano.

Also I have a last request. The classroom and teaching as you have known them changing and growing. Any teacher in California who has gotten their credential post-SB2042 has gotten the most modern, research-driven, and holistic view of education yet, and we're constantly working harder and harder to improve the system. Flinging snarly attitudes about how school is bullshit etc. only damage any work we've done by devaluing it. We can't demean teacher quality in one breath, and then scare/dissuade highly qualified would-be teachers from it by perpetuating the lack of professional respect the job has carried with it for so long. /soapbox
posted by mdaugherty82 at 3:52 PM on April 9, 2009 [14 favorites]


Ugh, that last paragraph is plagued with spelling and grammar errors. As an English teacher, I'm appalled. I blame it on working with kids all day long frying my synapses.
posted by mdaugherty82 at 3:54 PM on April 9, 2009


It's an educational technique called gradual release of responsibility. First, you teach the students the new skill by modeling it for them. Then you do it together. Then they do guided practice in your classroom so you can still course-correct and help them work through misunderstandings. The final step is for them to go home and attempt the skill on their own, without the teacher's guidance. This homework can then be used as a formative assessment, and the teacher can determine if reteaching is necessary.

Indeed, independent work is important, but is there a particular reason it needs to be done outside the school?
Does peer-reviewed research say that independent work at home is more productive than independent work at school? Can the technique not be taught on Tuesday and practiced on Wednesday?
posted by madajb at 4:01 PM on April 9, 2009


Can the technique not be taught on Tuesday and practiced on Wednesday?

The Wednesday when they're supposed to be learning technique #2? Thursday is reserved for technique #3. Etc.

And how are they supposed to practice it without the teacher's guidance if the teacher is there?
posted by rtha at 4:27 PM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


School in Quebec: you enter maternelle (kindergarden) at 5. Then 6 years of primary school (from 6 to 12), then 5 years of secondary school (from 12 to 17). In the last two years of secondary school you have a choice between a more advanced math + science track or an easier one. If you want to go into engineering, you take pre-university science in cégep (2 years). Mandatory math in cégep is Vectors & Matrices, Diff. Calc., Integral Calc.; you can also take an optional 3rd Calc. course, which someone going into engineering would do. I did, and it allowed me to breeze through the first engineering math courses in university.

There was very little assigned homework in primary and secondary school; in secondary school, I could do most of it during lunch hour, or not do it.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:37 PM on April 9, 2009


Indeed, independent work is important, but is there a particular reason it needs to be done outside the school?
Does peer-reviewed research say that independent work at home is more productive than independent work at school? Can the technique not be taught on Tuesday and practiced on Wednesday?


I've never seen a study measuring the efficiency of independent practice at home versus in a school setting, to be honest. I would imagine there are environmental factors in both directions that couldn't quite be accounted for.

I wish I could find it, but I've seen some education texts that suggest 10 minutes of homework for each grade level a student has completed is about right on average. (So a first grader does 10 minutes of homework, a 12th grader does two hours worth. If said 12th grader has a traditional 6 class schedule, this works out to roughly 20 minutes a night per subject, which, to me, doesn't sound unreasonable.)

And honestly, if we are really and truly operating with the goal that all students will go to college from high school, preparing seniors to sit down and do 2 hours of independent work seems like good preparation, based upon my university experience.

And then, as was mentioned above, some parents see homework as a sign a school is a "good school." I had a mother at a recent Parent/Teacher Conference Night admonish me because her daughter hadn't brought home homework in my class for a while. And no matter how many ways I explained to her that we are at the beginning of a unit, building the foundational skills and thematic links - so there isn't much to be done in the way of homework - she gave me a look like "what kind of teacher doesn't give homework?"
posted by mdaugherty82 at 6:28 PM on April 9, 2009


Yea. I'm taking a lot of AP's in high school right now and homework is definitely necessary. I certainly hate it because I'm getting 2 hours of sleep a night when you add the extracurriculars in, so there is very little time to 1) be interested in school 2) be fully functioning 3) have fun 4) be happy.

Obviously homework is counter-productive when there is too much. Then you know you're giving homework for the sake of homework. Of course without it'd be impossible to cover most of the material in my classes in a year without doing reading and reviewing outside of class (utterly impossible).

In elementary school, we hardly got homework. Some subjects I think it was necessary. Math is awful for me so I need homework to practice. There is definitely a difference between 5 and 50 problems; after 50 I know which types of problems I need help with.

Homework is sort of forcing you to confront the material. If I didn't have homework I'd just read and fuck around with pastels or something all day, which would be great for my English and History scores and general cultured-ness but not too great for my math classes.
posted by mmmleaf at 6:39 PM on April 9, 2009


One issue with education is that so many people think of it only in terms of extremes. Either children are giving up their entire afternoons and evenings doing homework, or they aren't doing homework at all. Either children are undergoing "skill and drill instruction" day in and day out, or they're "just exploring their environment" all day with no formal instruction. One of these approaches is 100% right, the other is 100% wrong. Which is right and wrong depends on who you are, where you live, who your friends are, your own upbringing and education, and countless other factors as well. The middle ground seems to be lost, hidden somewhere in the immense shadows cast by these two aforementioned extremes. If only more parents and teachers could spot said middle ground, and take some time to figure out how to apply it effectively, the state of education might be vastly improved.
My understanding of education is primarily restricted to the early childhood years, birth to second grade. Those years are very important for building a foundation. If teacher don't succeed in teaching children certain key skills and concepts in those early years, it will be considerably more difficult to learn them later. Conversely, if too much time is devoted to "skill and drill" and rote memorization, children may learn what they're "supposed to," regarding said skills and concepts. They are also likely to learn to hate school, which is likely to impact their achievement throughout their formal education, and possibly beyond for those who wind up dropping out to find themselves facing an extremely limited job market.
At least in the early years, children learn primarily through play and active exploration. I could give specific examples of concepts that can be learned through play and active exploration, but if I did, this comment would likely morph into a novel. Thus, I will restrict myself to more general terms. Ideally, teaching should involve all five senses. This means that children should have the opportunity to look, listen, touch, and explore. Repition is important to learning, but ideally that should take the form of aproaching a given concepts in a variety of different ways as opposed to teaching the skill or concept using the same approach again and again and again. The teacher can read a book about it with the class, assign a project on said concept to be done individually, in small groups, or as a whole class. If applicable, the class can be taken on a community walk to recognize said skill or concept's relevance to the wider community. Graphs and charts can be created, if applicable, as can KWL charts (What do you know about XYZ, What do you want to know, and at the end of a lesson, what did you learn?). Additionally, the teacher can send home a worksheet or activity to supplement and reinforce what's being learned in school.
Wow, when I get started on the topic of education, I can't stop. Let me get to my point: Inventive spelling and such do serve a useful purpose developmentally. However a teacher needs to be aware of when and how to transition to more conventional spelling and such. Homework has its place in education, and should NOT be abolished. However, homework should be dispensed in reasonably small doses. For the sake of mental health, children need the opportunity to "be kids" and have a life outside school.
*steps off soapbox*
posted by edupoet81 at 7:52 PM on April 9, 2009


The big theme in my education class right now is differentiated instruction, or the theory that teachers should be flexible in presenting curriculum to students. We started the unit this week and so far everything seems kind of common sense. Well of course every kid starts at a different point, and of course it's the teacher's job to structure the curriculum around their different abilities. How could you not realize that?

The Bennett interview and some of the stories in this thread have fixed my misperception. As much as I hated her arguments and her smug attitude, she makes some good points. If the homework isn't working for her kids then she should do something about it, and talking with the teacher is a good start. Her kids should have the option of different types of homework based on their skills and interests. All the people who did poorly in math class because they already knew everything should have had their own lessons and assignments that taught them a deeper understanding or introduced them to a different topic. So, if nothing else, this post came along at the right time for me -- thanks!

What I thought was missing in Bennett's arguments was assessment. Yes, homework assignments can be busywork if you know everything already, but how does she know her kids already knew it? How does she know it wasn't too challenging and they weren't learning anything? I assume they were doing well on the tests, but they can't possibly know everything about everything. There have to be some areas where they struggle. What does the family do then? It seems like her theory breaks down in areas where her kids don't already excel. I'd really like to see this area covered, but I doubt it would be in the book.

mdaugherty82, we're about to start reading Classroom Instruction that Works in my education class. It gave me a little thrill to see someone in the real world recommend it. You made my day.
posted by lilac girl at 7:59 PM on April 9, 2009


Get rid of homework?!?! Well, if you get rid of homework, you get rid of programs like this, which is what allowed me to work full-time during high school and get one-on-one time with teachers and take extracurriculars without the early morning to late afternoon bullshit in between. Instead of going in to school and sitting there for 8 hours, hey, I roll up anytime between 9-5, turn in what I have, ask questions, get asked questions, get more homework, take it home, and do it on my own sweet time. I went in about twice a week, advanced two grades in a year, spent the rest of my days alternating between the local coffee shop next to the music store and college radio station where I volunteered, and then, at the end of that year, was told, "Hey you, you know, we'll pay for your first year of college if you want to go, and you can get high school credit for it!"

You know what I had to do to get into that program? I had to literally drop off the map for 6 months to qualify for truancy status. It's not hard, you just have to not show up for class. And I can't believe that's what it had to be. I can't believe that that's the option we reserve for the kids in trouble. "Oh, you wanna buck the system? You realize this sucks and won't show up and want to take your head out of our district count for state/federal funding? Okay, fine, we'll give you the real education. Just don't tell the suckers over there, k?" They were like fucking used car dealers.

Homework has decent applications. My high school education pretty much was homework, and nothing else. It's just that in the public education pipeline, it's not used very wisely.
posted by saysthis at 8:06 PM on April 9, 2009


lilac girl, nice to know I made your day! I almost hate to (potentially) reverse that effect.

The Bennett interview and some of the stories in this thread have fixed my misperception. As much as I hated her arguments and her smug attitude, she makes some good points. If the homework isn't working for her kids then she should do something about it, and talking with the teacher is a good start. Her kids should have the option of different types of homework based on their skills and interests. All the people who did poorly in math class because they already knew everything should have had their own lessons and assignments that taught them a deeper understanding or introduced them to a different topic.

This is one of those "boots on the ground/generals in the war room" type issues. Differentiated instruction is a FABULOUS idea - until you get into a classroom with 35+ kids X 6 classes a day and it can look daunting... how much time do you have exactly to plan for each kid, and make materials, and then have a different rubric, etc, etc.

"Fair does not mean everyone gets the same, fair means everyone gets what they need" is a great way to approach curriculum design and planning, but can be a beast to put into practice.

But as edupoet81 mentioned above, education is not a black and white world. Some teachers make differentiated instruction work magically across the board. Others, like me, make it work in smaller groups of similarly-able students - more clustered instruction than individualized instruction. (But then we run the risk of ability tracking... whole 'nother can o' worms there.)
posted by mdaugherty82 at 9:18 PM on April 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


"'Skill and drill' is still the only way to learn instant recall for subjects such as the multiplication tables"

Which begs the question (yes, I'm using "begs the question" correctly): is instant recall for the multiplication table something worth knowing?


You're not really using it 'correctly,' you've flipped it around confusingly, orthogonality. "Should we assign 'skill and drill' homework problems?" is the question being begged, the part you've quoted from another user is the question-begging argument, and the part after your colon is the contentious fact being assumed so as to make the argument question-begging and (to the point) not itself the question being begged.

Your sentence actually makes more sense if we assume that you're using the phrase 'incorrectly', which it just now occurs to me that you might be doing on purpose as a clever flanking maneuver in some language war, in which case, very clever indeed, and bravo to you. "Begging the question" is a mellifluous phrase that deserves a wider audience than the minor league technical meaning that it once held exclusively afforded it.
posted by Kwine at 9:20 PM on April 9, 2009


I made it clear that I wanted every student to know how to convert at least thirds, quarters, and eighths (sixteenths were not mandatory, but some chose to) back and forth to decimals on demand

1/8 = 0.125
1/4 = 0.25
1/3 = 0.33 (repeating)
3/8 = 0.375
1/2 = 0.5
5/8 = 0.625
2/3 = 0.66 (repeating)
3/4 = 0.75
7/8 = 0.875

I did that in my head just now - is it correct?

And 1/16 = 0.0625?

I like fractions. Helps with statistics too, what with everything being between 0 and 1. But why do your students need to do this? Usually when you are in fractions you stay in fractions.
posted by jb at 10:08 PM on April 9, 2009


The Wednesday when they're supposed to be learning technique #2? Thursday is reserved for technique #3. Etc.

Which is an argument for revamping the curriculum, not using non-school time for schoolwork.

And how are they supposed to practice it without the teacher's guidance if the teacher is there
?

Well, my teachers spent a lot of time doing other things (grading tests, reading the paper, etc) while we worked on projects. I'm not sure how "gradual release of responsibilty" is any different.
posted by madajb at 12:50 AM on April 10, 2009


I would imagine there are environmental factors in both directions that couldn't quite be accounted for.
I suppose there would be a hue and cry if you started experimenting with different learning principles on children.

. If said 12th grader has a traditional 6 class schedule, this works out to roughly 20 minutes a night per subject, which, to me, doesn't sound unreasonable.)

I dunno, 2 hours on top of whatever time they spend in school seems a lot like overwork to me.
I know I'd have been quite put out if my school asked me for an extra two hours out of my day.

And honestly, if we are really and truly operating with the goal that all students will go to college from high school,

If a school is truly chasing this unworkable dream, I suppose it would explain a lot about the school's attitude towards homework.

And then, as was mentioned above, some parents see homework as a sign a school is a "good school."

There are likely parents like this in every school, but instructional techniques should be based on repeatable results that aid children, not on mollifying parents.
posted by madajb at 12:59 AM on April 10, 2009


Sure, just for you, I'll excuse your kid from homework every day if they can pass a short oral interview covering the material instead, so that I know that they know it sufficiently to move on to the next thing.

I'll bet they have to study just as long as the homework would have taken to pass my interview, though.
posted by ctmf at 2:41 AM on April 10, 2009


I suppose there would be a hue and cry if you started experimenting with different learning principles on children.

No, there would result the patchwork of non-congruent systems and methods that currently exist called "the US public school system."

Teachers and schools are constantly "experimenting" with kids. Every know-it-all parent like Sara Bennett forces an experiment of some sort. Each year's worth of inservices and workshops and conferences includes any number of competing theories about how to get the little bastards to pay attention and fucking LEARN for once. From learning the alphabet through dance and working with clay, to exciting ways to use egg cartons to help with times tables, teachers are exposed to more information about teaching/learning and pre-packaged programs to assist in this than any other profession I can think of.

Except maybe doctors. And teachers aren't given free pens and clipboards, even though they really need them.
posted by hippybear at 7:19 AM on April 10, 2009 [2 favorites]


Man, education threads are such beautiful trainwrecks. Despairing teachers, stories of brilliant but troubled childhoods, highly technical pedagogical theorizing, random uninformed theories. Good stuff.

My son starts public school in two years (he can't wait to go to "big kid's school") and I'm kinda terrified. I was a mediocre student, his dad was a terrible one. Our school district is big on homework, according to other parents whose kids go there. Which means not just that he'll be doing a lot of work, but that his dad and I will too.

Maybe we all resent the homework that we didn't need. I know I was greatly helped by driling on multiplication tables, but extremely irritated by having to write summary paragraphs about the, to me, boring and low-level books we were assigned in class, instead of the much more interesting books I preferred to read. I still have grudges against Johnny Tremain, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Alas Babylon for that reason.
posted by emjaybee at 7:39 AM on April 10, 2009


But why do your students need to do this? Usually when you are in fractions you stay in fractions.

Initially, collect measurements of the heights of static objects using student made theodolites (theirs were made from paper, string, a washer, and a drinking straw), use the angular measurements and their height, and distance from the object (int calibrated strides) to plug into a web page that did the trig to give them object height in meters. It's easy to estimate strides in quarters or thirds, but harder in decimals, but the final heights were going to be in meters and decimals (from the web page), and from that they needed to calculate an average. By the by, for such cheaply made measuring instruments (I paid for the soda straws and washers out of pocket), I had students who could repeatably measure 4m tall objects to within 5 cm accuracy.

This was later used to calculate the highest altitude of a soda bottle rocket they made. Conveniently enough, no student measured their own rocket but instead took measurements made by every other team while it was being launched.

The soda bottle rocket was a unit covering Newton's third law of motion, with elements of prototyping, design, and testing. The specific learning outcomes was that the student could explain Newton's third law of motion, how it applied to rocketry, describe a force, define a prototype and its importance in design. Build parts from a scale drawing. Select appropriate building materials. Measurement was the previous unit.

As a side note, I had a student who wanted to know exactly the calculations used in the web page, so I took some extra time to present him with the elements of trig angle relationships (you know, some old hen caught another hen taking one away), so he knew which buttons to push on his calculator.

I haven't taught in the classroom for almost 5 years now. It was units like this that kept me in teaching in the first place.
posted by plinth at 8:11 AM on April 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


Which is an argument for revamping the curriculum, not using non-school time for schoolwork.


Given the teach-to-the-test that most public (elementary, at least) schools are stuck with, with the tight timeline they have to teach the kids what they need to know in order to pass the test, I'd say the likelihood of this happening is un.

In high school, I discovered that I could do my chemistry problems pretty easily in class. But doing the work at home was much more difficult for me, and helped uncover areas of (quite basic) math that were severe weaknesses for me thanks to changing schools when I was in 4th/5th/6th grades - like, I missed out on a lot of basic fractions stuff, and never quite felt caught up. So the homework was good in that sense. If I remember right, regular homework wasn't graded, but you did have to turn it in and show you'd done it, or at least tried. Our chem teacher was wonderful with some of his denser students (me).
posted by rtha at 9:14 AM on April 10, 2009


plinth - that sounds like a tough, but very cool, unit.

But you didn't answer my question - did I get my conversions right? (I'm all on eggshells here.)
posted by jb at 10:58 AM on April 10, 2009


One thing I've noticed, and this speaks arguably more to me, my math, especially any sort of complicated algebra, has totally atrophied since I don't have homework assignments and don't really need it on any regular basis. Of course, I'm out of school, and it's been years since I tested out of the math requirement for college, but every now and then something comes up and I'm like, y'know, I used to be able to do this, but now I can't.
posted by klangklangston at 10:59 AM on April 10, 2009


But you didn't answer my question - did I get my conversions right?

Um, yeah? I didn't think you were serious. You can always use the inbuilt checks (value for 1/4 x 2 = .5, val for 1/8 x 2 = 1/4, val for 3/8 = val for 1/4 + val for 1/8, val for 5/8 = .5 + val for 1/8, etc), but I still truly believe that the recall for these should be instantaneous.
posted by plinth at 1:25 PM on April 10, 2009


I want to be in plinth's class.
It sounds way cooler than anything I ever did in school.
posted by madajb at 3:56 PM on April 10, 2009


I wish I could find it, but I've seen some education texts that suggest 10 minutes of homework for each grade level a student has completed is about right on average.

This was mentioned by Sara Bennett in the interview linked in the FPP as a reasonable guideline that was consistently violated at her children's elementary school, which was partly why she started her crusade. She said Harris Cooper and the NEA recommended it.

Next time, please do your reading before class, Ms. Mdaugherty82.
posted by palliser at 9:12 AM on April 11, 2009


I think Rhaomi's essay is an excellent argument for assigning essays like that. It's clear, succinct, easy to read, makes definite points, and brings home its argument convincingly.
posted by Miko at 7:55 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


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