Archive for Thursday, September 7, 2006

Excessive homework counterproductive

September 7, 2006

Labor Day, which signals the unofficial end of summer has come and gone. The heat wave seems to be broken. Our soccer, volleyball and football teams are already bringing home wins and the cross country team is running its grueling schedule.

In additional school news, the Eudora News reports that our high school students "achieved a composite score of 21.6 out of 36 in the national ACT test." School officials are encouraged that "the scores will continue to climb as the district has started preparing students for the ACT earlier."

Speaking of academic performance, while recently visiting with my 13-year-old grandson, he told me he had spent three hours the previous evening on homework -- the bulk of it in math. This reminded me of two recent articles, one from Newsweek and one from Time magazine concerning educating our children these days.

The first article from Time written by Claudia Wallis, "The Myth about Homework" cites a recent book "The Homework Myth" by Alfie Kohn who states, "Homework...may be the single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity."

The article further quotes "top homework scholar" Harris Cooper of Duke University as concluding homework does not "measurably improve academic achievement for kids in grade school" and that "doing more than 60 to 90 minutes a night in middle school and more than two hours in high school is associated with lower scores." The author of the column refers to her sessions with her 12-year-old as conversations that become "nagging sessions," which sometimes end up at 11 p.m. when both parent and child are exhausted. If this is happening in many homes, it is easy to see why the "flame" of learning can quickly become extinguished.

I don't remember ever having homework until ninth grade in public school after graduating eighth grade from a small Catholic grade school. Sisters Cecilia, Clarentia and Delphine taught me to read, write (in cursive), memorize the times tables, spell and sort of maneuver fractions without homework.

Perhaps it was the small classes that were more effective, but I can't ever remember getting a lot of individual attention with any of my subjects. In fact, Sister Clarentia cared much more about music than math and for two years in third and fourth grade we often sang, "When the wind is in the east it's neither good for man nor beast," accompanied by sister on a small organ rather than having math class. She must have hated math, but not nearly as much as I hated that song. I rode a bicycle to school or walked and can only remember carrying my lunch in a brown paper bag -- not school books. In fact, the books were expensive -- maybe that's why they didn't come home with us -- they needed to last for the next class.

Anyway, when we joined our public school class in ninth grade, many of my friends were ahead of those who had been in the public school system. Only then did the homework begin -- piled on by Latin and math teachers and sometimes English and social studies as well.

In another recent Newsweek article, Michelle Cottle takes on those making ridiculous claims marketers make in touting their products as learning tools. She writes, "Nowadays toys, classes, even cartoons carry high concept 'claimers' detailing how said item or activity is preparing your preschooler for a Supreme Court clerkship. She mentions that her son on his second birthday was given sponge-on paints that were to "provide him with an opportunity to do original planning and thinking while creating expressive art" and all the while she just thought he wanted to "paint his sister purple."

My class of grade school graduates did pretty well for themselves in high school and later in college -- none of them ended up in jail. They were mostly super achievers who made it without loads of homework or nifty learning tools or backpacks that threaten to cause scoliosis. They had not much else except a few number two pencils and a big chief table and later on perhaps a slide rule and a spiral notebook.

I don't know what creates that learning spark in children, but I have a strong hunch it is not simply poring on homework at an earlier and earlier age. I do know for sure that nothing will improve educational results more than instilling in children the desire to learn. Maybe we ought to kick back a little. What's your thought?

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