The H Word

At the website of a lady known for her advice on homework I recently read a few pages that prompted some reflection of my own. These thoughts are based on my experience, and they also draw on my memory of an article that appeared in The Economist in the early 1990s[1].

That article discussed the difference between the United States and European countries in the amount of homework assigned to high-school students. American pupils tended to have much less than their European counterparts. It made the claim, which I have not seen anywhere else, that an education study showed the assignment of graded homework to be the most closely correlated predictor of success in university—even more closely correlated than, for example, the family’s “socio-economic status” or the level of the parents’ education.

Though startling, this finding makes some sense. If students know that they must do homework in order to succeed in a course, and if they have been brought up with the discipline and support from their parents and teachers to attend to it, they are developing intellectual and also moral habits that will prepare them for their university careers, where homework is a serious fact of life.

At my own university we expected to work roughly two to three hours outside of the classroom for every hour we spent in it. That figure includes reading, but, yes, it worked out to about 30 – 50 hours of homework a week. Students who are taught to manage demanding loads of work handle it much more effectively than those, like me, who come to their freshman year from high schools where homework made up a much smaller part of the week. These favored students’  intellectual habituation includes stamina, facility at handling ideas in print, ability to seize the important matter in a long assignment, and relatively good skill at keeping ideas in mind for current and future use. Their moral habituation includes a sense of their obligation to work seriously and the ability to regret ignoring their work or doing it poorly.

But it is not just universities that expect a high level of attention paid and work done inside and outside the classroom. High-school programs like the International Baccalaureate require constant attention to the demands made not just by academics but also by extracurricular pursuits in the program of Creativity, Action, and Service (CAS). And individual schools can can have their own demanding programs  too. A school that I worked at in Egypt used to play host annually to a group of students from a justly famous New England college preparatory school known for the rigor of its program and its students’ success at gaining admission to excellent universities. These students spent a good portion of every day on their trip to Egypt pursuing their regular studies and the additional work generated by their Egyptian explorations. This work included reading short stories by the wonderful Naguib Mahfouz. The teachers invited me to speak to the students about the stories and told me that they would be receptive to any insights I might be able to give. True to advance billing, they were marvelous, even though I dealt with some relatively arcane stuff such as a disguised appearance of the Azrael, the Death Angel of Islam, in one story and the affinity of another story with the ending of Proust’s chapter “Madame Swann at Home.” They took good notes and asked good questions. They appeared bright-eyed and keen, not gaunt from Dickensian workloads. One teacher came back to me after the talk and told me that a couple of them even thought they might have a look at Proust! When I complimented their interest, attentiveness, and diligence, she said that they had been well prepared. So they had.

This kind of preparation, whether in the IB program or in the homegrown program at a good secondary school, cannot take place without hard work and discipline. It is therefore distressing to read the homework lady’s prescription that homework must not exceed two hours a night for seniors, and ten minutes less per night for each grade under 12th. My distress is not due to a belief that all students regardless of educational goal should have heavy homework loads, which I do not hold. It is due to a problem with truth in packaging. If the homework lady and the NEA are making a blanket recommendation for a maximum of two hours’ homework a night, then they are being unrealistic or perhaps not entirely frank about what is needed if a student’s goal is solid college preparation.

The homework lady also recommends letting teachers know, by means of a typical weekly agenda kept to the hour, what occupies a student’s time after hours. The page containing the agenda strongly implies that the purpose of communicating the agenda to a teacher is to let him know that Junior has other things to do than homework. Very well, if the student and her parents have previously discussed the work week with a realistic eye to making hard choices and setting genuine and not magical goals. But if the point is to get a teacher to accept a student’s uncritical choices of how to spend time, it is misguided. One of the possible occupations on this agenda is personal computer use. What if the student blocks out two or three hours a day? Must parents and teachers accept this choice? My own approach would be to tell such a student, “You make your decisions, and I will make mine. You cannot magically think yourself into a day that includes both solid learning and lots of leisure.”

What should the homework itself consist of? The homework lady’s recommendations are a combination of good sense and dogmatic silliness.  An example of the latter is her pronouncement that homework requiring the student to ask for help is bad homework. Now, if the student is so lost that he or she has to get Mom, Dad, or a friend to walk her through the whole thing, something is wrong; but it may not necessarily be the assignment. I say nothing of tasks that a student just copies off without actually learning anything. But what about a sensibly set task of investigation leading the student possibly to discover something that he or she doesn’t already know? If the point is not just to copy down “sources” that confirm a student in his (possibly bad) ideas, then “asking the source for help” might be very productive indeed. Such an assignment combined with a teacher conference to go over what was learned would be even more productive.

As we move toward a model of education in which learning is a “mechanized deliverable,” maybe the object of this dictate and others like it is to smooth the way for an on-line instruction requiring no subtle interventions of the kind that a teacher, but not a machine, can make. What doesn’t fit isn’t allowed.

One more example of misguided advice about homework will show another problem. The homework lady says that “Read two chapters in the novel” is a poor assignment and gives alternatives. Well, a student who is accomplished enough in reading to manage two chapters in an assignment should also have been taught what to do with those chapters and not need spoon-fed suggestions for analysis. An example of the kind of training one should be able to count on is the method of reading prescribed by the Introduction to the Great Books in its program of “Shared Inquiry.” If a student has already become accustomed to write down questions about 1) what he doesn’t understand, 2) what seems important, and 3) what he agrees or disagrees with, and if these questions end up forming the basis of a discussion that helps secure understanding, then the kind of specification recommended by the homework lady becomes unnecessary—which it should be, for such tips encourage the student to expect intellectual hand-holding. Remember: I am a high-school teacher, and of course the lower grades and probably 9th grade might need more structure at first, but a teacher’s object should be to remove these structures as soon as possible, even if it causes students some discomfort at first. If they can react to discomfort by rallying their forces, they have taken a step forward.

I don’t want to suggest that the homework lady has nothing good to say. I think she is exactly right to despise make-work and to frown on imbecile work sheets and problem sets that don’t have a productive goal.  But a lot is at stake in the debate over homework, and we must be prepared to bring to that debate a subtlety akin to what we bring to the understanding of our students. One size never, ever fits all.

[1] Regrettably, I cannot give the details because I don’t remember them and can’t locate the piece in The Economist’s index. Sorry.


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