Here we are in week two of my new, non-theatrical blog challenge: to get Caitlin Moran to take notice of me and eventually become my best friend. And also to get me into the discipline of writing about something I normally wouldn’t once a week (i.e. not theatre) – something of my favourite columnist’s choosing, in the form of a letter to said columnist in response to her Saturday column in the Times magazine.
You can read more about why I’m doing it here. In the meantime, on to this week’s letter. And do feel free to check out Caitlin’s original Times piece (summary and outtakes below, the – wittier, better written – paragraphs in indented quotes are Caitlin’s words, not mine). Hey, you may even think it makes sense to read her first so you know what I’m responding to… Your choice.
In your column this week, you proposed banning school homework, which you argued, passionately, is a bane on the lives of your children and ruining your fast expiring family time.
Let me preface my response by saying that I do not have children of my own – though I am a distantly doting aunt to gorgeous nieces and nephews of varying scholastic aptitudes back in the States (one started a Masters in history at Loyola University in Chicago in the autumn – hello, Andrew, Aunt Terri is very proud of you!).
I am also a former teacher’s pet and can recall my own school days, and personal loathe/hate relationship with homework, with frightening clarity – as I’m sure most adults can – despite the passage of two decades. So here goes.
1) Never predict universal agreement.
“In my time on these pages, I’ve suggested some pretty contentious things… But this week I am going to say something that I confidently expect to win 100 per cent support. I cannot imagine a single person disagreeing with me. It’s this: We should ban homework.”
Your confidence is ill-founded, Caitlin. You must know by now that there is nothing under the sun that everyone will agree on, no matter how irrefutable it appears to be. Just mention the science behind Darwinism to a Creationist for proof. In the case of homework, you’ll find plenty of refuters – including me.
2) Banning homework will not solve childhood obesity.
“These are days of rocketing child obesity, anxiety and emotional disorders. Prescriptions for tranquillisers for children have gone through the roof. I don’t think I’m being too fanciful by suggesting that, as soon as children complete their seven-hour academic day, they should be free to run around in the park, muck about with their friends and have the chance to interact with their parents… And that this would improve the physical and mental health of British children immeasurably.”
Do you really think that homework is the main thing keeping kids from running around in the park? When I was a teenager, it wasn’t my homework that kept me from the park – my after-school afternoons were largely spent on the sofa watching soap operas and scarfing microwave popcorn.
And that was before Netflix, Facebook or any of the myriad other digital distractions which consume the youth of today and which, I would bet, are much more likely to contribute to anxiety and emotional disorders, let alone physical inactivity, in formative minds.
3) At 45, I’m still doing homework – and wish I’d done it more diligently when I was still a student.
I mean, what is this writing assignment if not self-imposed homework? We don’t learn just by sitting in a classroom and listening to a lecture, we learn by taking information home, mulling it over and absorbing it; we expand and improve by doing, by practicing, by repeating, and repeating, and repeating until a fact sinks in or a skill (like writing a weekly column) becomes habit.
“If you know, in your bones, that academia isn’t for you, those final hours of homework mean you’ve spent your entire day doing stuff you feel a failure in.”
But isn’t this a vicious circle? If such kids think they’re not smart and get let off from doing any work that may prove otherwise, they just stay ‘dumb’.
In any case, doing homework isn’t just about the immediate task at hand. It’s about flexing the muscle that is your brain. Here are some other benefits to homework:
- It gives you responsibility for your own learning and advancement
- It improves your self-discipline and time management
- It prepares you for university
- It prepares you for professional success (I can’t think of any friends who don’t regularly take work home with them – the seriously career-minded ones also commit quite a bit more out-of-office time to keeping their relevant industry skills and knowledge up to date)
4) Rather than a blanket homework ban, focus on the quantity and quality of assignments.
“They’ve got homework until 8pm and then that big history project over the weekend. Homework means our children never really leave school. Even when they’re at home, they’re strapped to that bulging rucksack full of folders: still on deadlines, still producing.”
After reading your column, I did some homework on the “great homework debate”. It’s very much a live topic, and has been for some time. This Time cover dates from January 1999 (almost back to my own student days).
Just last month in New Jersey, parents successfully lobbied a local school board to reduce homework loads (starting with zero over Christmas) after complaints that it was affecting their kids’ health.
Another American mother, Vicki Abeles in California, was so alarmed when her 12-year-old started having panic attacks, and was later diagnosed with a stress-related illness, that she made a documentary on the academic pressures placed on today’s teens. The film, Race to Nowhere, has won numerous awards and is now at the centre of a campaign to promote “Healthy Homework Guidelines”.
5) Healthy Homework Guidelines that make sense.
Here are some Healthy Homework Guidelines that I’ve gleaned from Vicki and at-the-coalface teachers and students I’ve stumbled upon (links below). Perhaps you’d like to recommend them to the headmaster at your kids’ school:
- Any homework in primary school should be short (less than half an hour). Time for homework should increase as you move towards higher education: up to 90 minutes through to Year 8, increasing to about 2.5 hours by Year 11
- There should be study hall periods during school hours, when children can work independently on their homework but also ask teachers for assistance
- Homework assignments should:
- advance the “spirit of learning”
- engage students’ curiosity
- be “student-directed” – i.e. the student has a level of choice in materials and can integrate study with their own interests (can the dog eat a YouTube video?)
- Homework should “promote a balanced schedule” – that’s the adult equivalent of work/life balance. It means kids should get a free pass over weekends, holidays and big sporting events (for instance)
- Students should not need to enlist parents or siblings to do their homework – parents should only “facilitate completion”
- Assignments should be reviewed and reinforced in class and students given individual feedback on their work in order to deepen their understanding.
Thanks for bringing the Great Homework Debate to my attention, Caitlin. It’s an interesting subject. I’ve downloaded the Race to Nowhere film (check out the trailer above – compelling stuff).
Let me know if you fancy coming round to mine to watch it. I’ll bring the microwave popcorn.
Until next week,