Before Noah became a student at our local public school a year and a half ago, he attended a small, private, progressive one about thirty minutes north of where we live. A particular private school that not only avoids assigning regular homework, but also doesn’t administer tests. Ever. It was quite a significant transition: from having completely unsanctioned after-school time to needing to complete at least an hour and a half (often two) of homework every night–for Noah and for all of us.
This homework (that is compulsory and deemed necessary by the Common Core) that hangs over our heads every afternoon makes us turn grumpy and cranky and annoyed with one another almost as soon as we walk into the house after pickup. Our afternoons have become one long negotiation: Yes, you can have a snack and watch a 20 minute show on Netflix, but as soon as you’re done you need to start your math. Yes, you can go outside and play basketball with Jack, but only for 30 minutes because then you need to come in and practice your spelling words. Yes, you can take drum lessons/be in the play/take ballet/be on the swim team but as soon as you get home from rehearsal/practice/the training session you’ll have to SIT RIGHT DOWN AND DO YOUR HOMEWORK. It is a dispiriting routine for everyone.
The thing is, Noah’s a pretty good student and he wants to get good grades. The work itself isn’t really all that difficult for him, it’s usually just time consuming. And also boring. The worst part, though, is what I see happening to his spirit of inquiry (and enthusiasm for learning) when he sits down in front of thirty long division problems or six pages of comma-rule exercises. You can almost see the enthusiasm leak out of him. His shoulders slump. He scowls. His buoyancy just withers up and disappears.
Kids are born to learn. They are natural investigators. Hang out with any three year old for long enough and your head will soon be spinning around the sheer number of questions a toddler’s mind is able to generate (and the rapidity with which they can deliver them). Compare that to the experience of hanging out with a middle schooler. Only the most precocious will ask questions. Many will remain silent, fidgety, unsure. Sure, being reserved is a personality trait and the shyness of ‘tweens’ is partially the product of a self-awarness that comes with age, but I think the reticence of adolescents also has something to do with them forgetting how to ask things, of not knowing how, or learning, to consider. Most homework doesn’t encourage exploration, it only concerns itself with answers so, somewhere along the way, many kids stop asking and just start regurgitating.
To be sure, sometimes the kind of homework that children are assigned is flawed. Hollow text-book activities are not knowledge-inducing; the completion of a worksheet, even correctly, doesn’t necessarily mean a skill has been mastered. But my bigger issue with all these hours of homework is the time it burns up. The time it takes away from our time together as a family. The time it takes away from Noah’s after-school afternoons–time that Noah could be spending playing with the dog or painting or listening to music or riding his bike or laying on his bed doing absolutely nothing.
Busy-ness does not always mean growth, and saddling kids with work in order to “build character” only produces worker bees.
Yes, some things must be learned through memorization and rote practice and it’s important to understand that some work we must do can seem boring, and sometimes a worksheet really is the best practice for a specific task. It’s important for children to understand these things. I want Noah to learn these things–all the things–but I also want his learning to be laced with passion and delight as often as possible and the thing is, kids discover their passion during games of pick-up soccer by the river or when they teach themselves a new chord when they are messing around on their guitar. Kids find delight in mud puddles and hornet’s nests and in the freedom of walking to a friend’s house on the first afternoon of spring. There’s very little passion or delight to be found in homework just for homework’s sake. Or in assigning homework because of this basic distrust we’ve developed regarding our children’s choices during their downtime.
My problem with homework are the things it displaces–even when the homework is good. Freedom. Stillness. Time. Agency. The raw ingredients necessary for true intellectual and creative edification.