Thursday, September 14, 2006

Forget Homework?

Ashley always sends my way any education articles she finds, knowing I'm interested :). Recently she sent me an article on homework. Should homework be banned from classrooms, or severely limited? Specifically, should assignments in elementary schools be lessened? This Slate article discusses the issue.

Although not in the article's original scope, I think it is good to assess homework loads for not only elementary students, but middle and high school as well. Really, I would suggest that the majority of homework assignments given to middle and high school students are pretty much worthless - "busy work" at its finest. I student-taught in the public schools and was forced to assign quite a bit of busy work :(. Some homework is really assigned just to keep the kids busy. For example, I think factoring quadratic polynomials is a skill that comes with practice. But I don't think an excess of 200 problems in one week is the right kind of practice. But the week of factoring, between my mentor teacher and myself we had a funeral and a flooded house, as well as just a lot of time that we had set aside for factoring. . . So the students practiced factoring, and practiced factoring, and practiced factoring. That's what I call torture. . . and that's what makes kids hate math. It forces already-overscheduled kids to focus on getting through the problems, rather than understanding the problems.

But I think the problem with homework isn't just the exorbitant amount that is often assigned. It's also the fact that a lot of that work could be done during the time that is wasted in class. A structured class environment has its benefits, for sure, but often the time spent in class is a total waste. This is a bit of a different scenario, but when I student-taught Algebra 1 in a public school, we were on block scheduling, but they gave an entire year for Algebra 1. This meant that I had 90 minute class periods, without the usual rush of block scheduling. Can you say busy work? The kids were far from well-behaved, and my mentor teacher's solution was to keep them occupied for the whole class period - and really, the problem was not of her making to begin with, so my point is not to solely place the blame on her. So each class period I did a lot of examples of each type of problem. . . Then we did class work. . . We took a lot of quizzes. . . And we spent forever going over homework. Frankly, it was close to torture.

My whole point being, a lot of the class time could have been spent doing all that homework that was assigned! I don't think five 50 minute class periods a week (or in my case, five 90 minute blocks) are necessary for most classes, even math. That's not teaching kids, that's babysitting kids. Many educators think more class time is the solution to our educational woes, but I think less class time would actually foster more student responsibility and free up more time for real assignments, not just busy work.

For example, I teach at Heritage Classical Study Center, a part-time classical Christian school. Students meet only once a week for each of their classes. They usually come one day a week for "core" classes, and another day for math and science. I have 90 minutes a week with my Algebra 1 students and 2 hours each with Statistics and Geometry. It's not easy, but it's doable. And it teaches the students good independent study skills.

This model is becoming more and more popular in recent years. Dominion Classical Christian Academy just opened up this year near me, leasing space in my church, and they and Heritage aren't the only two part-time classical schools in the area. DCCA opened with students through 6th grade, but their plan is to eventually add up through 12th grade. They meet 3 times a week, MWF. I think that is more than enough time for elementary school. I think 2-3 days is more ideal for middle and high school (rather than one day, like Heritage), but I think one day is doable as well, as evidence by the quality of education students receive at Heritage.

The more I study and observe the part-time model, the more I like it. It means concentrated, meaningful classtime without busy work, which gives students more time to do independent homework and projects. This allows teachers to assign meaningful individual assignments, but without requiring students to stay up all hours of the night to get homework done before the viscious cycle repeats the next day. There is a full-time Christian school near us that boasts of requiring a lot of homework from their students - up to 7 hours per day (this "positive" information comes from the administration, mind you). My question is this: if they are already in class all day, 5 days a week, what are they doing during that time, if they are required to then do approximately 35 hours of homework per week? A large amount of work does not immediately imply rigor, nor should that sort of workload be forced on any high school student! That doesn't mean that students should be coddled, academic rigor is well and good, but the real kind.

At Heritage, students come once a week for "core" classes, which at Heritage consists of Literature (where they actually read a lot of the great classics - Shakespeare, Austen, you name it), Social Sciences (History, Government, Economics - they actually read The Wealth of Nations(!), Philosophy, etc., depending on level), and Language Arts (where they actually are required to learn grammar!). For middle school, they take a year of informal logic and a year of analogies. For high school they rotate through a year each of advanced logic, argumentation, apologetics, and great speeches. Middle school students take 2 years of Greek, and High school students take 2 years of Latin, followed by an optional 2 years of Spanish. They fit all this one day of classes per week. In literature, they read real books - and a lot of them. In the social sciences in high school, they mainly eschew textbooks for "living books," or they read books that are recommended reading for graduate students. They memorize pieces of literature, they debate, they analyze, they answer in-depth questions on reading assignments. They write - a lot!

This isn't an Ivy League school, mind you; it's for "average" home school students. . . But they are turning out top-quality students. And they are only "formally instructed" once a week. Heritage's students have a lot of homework, as properly defined as work done at home. But it's not busy work - the headmaster of Heritage (my boss) hates busy work in fact! And because they only meet for classes once a week (twice if they come for math and science) they have time even after their rigorous assignments, time to pursue extracurricular activities. Heritage has a large number of students involved in the fine arts like dance, music, and theater.

So that's my (unprofessional) opinion of the great homework problem. Less classtime, and more meaningful assignments. What do you think?


Bernadine said...

I am an elementary teacher who totally agrees with you. I perfer to spend my time in class teaching and ensuring that my students understand each concept taught than going over homework that a lot of the times is not done properly. Also, I don't place too much value on Homework because many time it's parents' work and not student's work. However I have been reported several times by parents for not giving homework so I often give just enough to keep the parents happy but not too much that it stresses out my students.

Miss Elisabeth said...

My mom was an elementary teacher, though she mostly worked with 5-8th. She hated busy work, just like you do, and now that she teaches science to JH students, she follows the college model - classes one day a week, homework assigned the other days. At my online school ( I take two classes that meet twice a week, and one that meets once - they work out very nicely! I personally like the once a week role for non-intensive subjects - literature, history, some sciences (biology, botany) and the twice a week for languages and harder science, as well as math. But that's just me - what I find easy. :-)

Ella said...

I attend a classical homeschool program (like the one you teach at) two days a week. It amazes me how skeptical people are about "doing school only once a week", but I definitely agree with you about how much learning is accomplished. One learns self-discipline and the ability to find out things and learn for oneself.
I agree with you also about the problem of busy work. One thing that really confuses me about the whole homework thing is that parents ask for homework for their child. It is almost as if they feel that their child is not getting enough without it. It also hurts to see a society where parents are not very important in a child's education. And a society is which parents gladly relinquish that privilege and responsibility. It was interesting what you said about babysitting the students.
Both of my younger siblings go to school, and I feel like so much of what they do is a waste of time(I don't mean this judgementally; long lists of random, dry facts, worksheets to fill time...)
School is about learning; it should be exciting. The goal of education is to deepen our knowledge of God and His Creation. Even Christian schools where I live often miss that point. School is not separate from God! I will not say that my schoolwork is always "fun", but I do enjoy learning. I love that I know how to learn because of my homeschooling and classical education. I personally feel that I would have missed that aspect if I had gone to school.
However, I am not criticizing those who go to "regular" school. God does not call all of us to the same thing. In my life, I am so thankful that the Lord called my mother to homeschool me (from second grade up) because I think that my natural love for learning would have been killed, had I been sent to a public or private school. But this is probably not true for everyone.
Anyway, I suppose your original post was just on homework. I'm sorry I rambled for so long! :-)
Thanks for your blog; it's very encouraging and thought-provoking. I love reading comments, studies, ideas about education. I have to often re-prioritize my own studies so that God is the focus and not the state or worldly achievement.
All glory be to God!

Angie Moge Wali said...

I think that even the idea of homework is a little over the top. I mean, kids are in school around 7 hours every day. I would think that they could learn all they needed to in class, without having to do homework, too. And, if they're at school that long, and then have homework on top of that, when do they have time to have a life? How do they spend time with their families? When do they play? When I was home-schooled it never took me more than 3 or 4 hours a day to learn all my subjects, and now that I'm in college, I only have classes 2 days a week, so I have a hard time understanding why some schooling takes up so much time. I do know one thing though, I thank God that my parents decided to home-school me!

Beth @ The Natural Mommy said...

I think that one reason homework is important today is so that students learn responsibility and how to deal with deadlines. The problem is, the students who really need to learn those lessons have parents who also need that. So the homework is never finished and the lesson is never learned. I taught third grade for a year before my daughter was born. I spent that whole year trying to get two students to learn that lesson. One of them missed recess almost every day because he wouldn't do his homework at home. There were times when he would come to school with his homework done in his mother's handwriting! I hated taking away what was probably the only time of day where he could be active (and he needed it!), but how else do you teach responsibility and consequences to someone whose parents refuse to do their part? Otherwise, if the parents are doing thier jobs and the children already have a grasp on responsibility, then I agree with Angie. I would love to just spend the day teaching and doing experiments!

zan said...

I totally agree with you, Susan.

Susan said...

Bernadine, that is so true about much of elementary work being actually parent work! It's sad and not a good example for children.

Elisabeth, I agree that the harder sciences (I would suggest all, in fact) and math is best 2-3 times a week. I would love to have my math students twice a week so I could be a more regular presence and catch mistakes earlier than one week later. But the once-a-week I do is doable.

That is interesting that you attended a part-time classical program, Ella! That format (classical, Christ-centered, home/school combo) is my main interest in school options right now. I think it is a good idea. And I love what you said here: The goal of education is to deepen our knowledge of God and His Creation. Most schools do miss that, you are right. Of course we must then use that knowledge to glorify God and enjoy Him forever (WSC Q:#1).

Angie, I also only spent about 4 hours a day total on schoolwork for much of homeschooling. I would say it is definitely enough for most of the lower grades. I've heard before that a homeschooler defines cruel and unusual punishment as having to do school past lunch. My homeschool experience wasn't like that, but I didn't have to toil for 7 hours a day and then do my homework!

Awww. Olivia is so cute in her flower girl dress, Beth. She was adorable at the wedding, by the way :). Your stories just confirm one of the main problems with education today: parents are not responsible and properly involved in schooling, and they are not teaching their children respect and responsibility.

Oh, and hi, Zan :). There, I didn't ignore you that time ;). Do you feel better? ;)

Becky Miller said...

Susan - when you get a moment, I would love your input on my latest post about fruitfulness.

Susan said...

Thanks for the heads-up :).