October 13, 2003

We Learned More From A

We Learned More From A Three-Minute Record... - Joanne Jacobs thinks kids should be doing more homework, and fewer extracurriculars.

She's partly right, at least in the stereotyped world of the SUV-mounted, "Achievement"-oriented caricature of the 'burbs:

Compared to the past, children spend much more time in scheduled, supervised, after-school sports, lessons and other activities. Few middle-class kids are allowed to do what we used to do after school. Nothing. With no adults hovering over us...Working parents have to make sure their kids get from soccer to Scouts; SUV-driving moms spend their afternoons driving back and forth to recreational sites. By the time they get home to microwave dinner, they're in no mood to help their kids build a molecule out of styrofoam or fake a Pilgrim's journal about The First Thanksgiving.
Well, there's a point there. Kids - especially in the caricature society Jacobs describes - don't have a lot of "free" time. Kids in that world rarely get to plan for themselves, very rarely seem to have to learn those most valuable of all skills - managing your own time and entertaining yourself, rather than depending on others for both.

But Jacobs then goes on to ask:

So. Is soccer really more important than studying? Should teachers eliminate math homework so kids can spend more time practicing karate kicks?
Allow me to answer an absurdly-phrased question with an absurd answer? Yes. Yes, teachers should give less homework.

I can hear my conservative friends' jaws dropping. Bear with me.

Jacobs says, by way of showing her motivations:

Homework is must-do only for a small minority of hyper-motivated students [emphasis added].

American teen-agers average no more than five hours a week on homework, according to a new report, which summarizes four earlier studies, by the Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. A RAND report, "A Nation at Rest: The American Way of Homework," agrees: Middle and high school students aren't working any harder now than in the past.

Note Jacobs' use of the term "hyper-motivated"; ask yourself - hyper-motivated for what?

Why, to play the academic paper chase, of course:

Both Paly and Lynbrook educate high-achievers who take multiple Advanced Placement classes, and stress out if they get an A- instead of an A. But, usually, it's not the academics that overwhelms them. Based on my daughter and her friends, three hours a night is typical for top students. What wears them out is the imperative to be well-rounded. It's doing the homework and editing the newspaper, competing on the Mock Trial team, singing in the choir, running track and volunteering for a cause that will impress a college admissions official.
So is that the object of having children? To impress admissions officials?

Jacobs concludes:

Middle and high school students learn more, especially in math, when they study more. They also prepare to learn independently -- if Mom and Dad back off and let them do their own work.

Limit after-school activities. Turn off the TV. There's plenty of time for homework -- if it's the top priority.
I have to confess; it's not.

The "top priority" for me is raising kids who will have not only the ability, but the desire and the knowledge, to decide where they want to go in life, and who have the intellectual, social, moral and physical tools to do go there when they know where "there" is.

Jacobs is focused on the academic paper chase; get good grades, get into a good school, and then...

...what? When they get into college, and they're on their own, and have genuine free will for the first time in their lives, what do they do? They may or may not have good, homework-bred work habits (or they may have just learned how to provide the kind of paperwork that teachers like to see), but will they have learned to think, to communicate, not just in the form of term papers, but in the real world of interacting with other people? In the rush of finishing up the avalanche of homework the likes of Jacobs demand (she seems to think three hours a night is acceptable), will they have learned to think about what the purpose of it all is?

That's not idle pseudo-intellectual noodling. Learning to play the academic game is vital for those who aspire to academic careers - medicine, the law, academia. And Jacobs is right about TV - it's a waste of time, valuable only in the mental vacation it gives a kid, in moderation.

But do you honestly think the kid who spends two hours a day honing her soccer kick or his curve-ball or her skills on the saxophone or the debate team isn't "learning good work skills?" Do you think that people aren't smart enough to apply "work skills" learned editing the school paper to work later in life?

I'll go as far as to say this: For many, if not most, kids, once they get past learning to read, write and do basic math fluently, they learn more of use to their lives, no matter what they go into, outside of traditional classroom work than in it.

Personal, anecdotal examples: As a child, I excelled at math, history, writing, foreign languages and music. I excelled at four of them, not because I did an hour of each for homework every night, but because I intrinsically loved them, and did what I had to do to learn them.

Math, on the other hand? As the homework piled up, without any commensurate reason to become and remain interested in the subject, I drifted away from the subject. I do fine, not only at math, but at the logical skills at which endless math homework is supposed to train kids (and which foreign languages and music may be better training!). Between the homework and a series of teachers who seemed dedicated to making math onerous and irrelevant, I lost interest. The best the schools can claim for my continuing love of and success at music, languages and history is that no teachers screwed any of them up for me. I have great "work habits" - and they come from teaching myself eight musical instruments, not from any homework I did.

The "More Homework" movement - and it's attendant "Just Teach the Three R's" bleat that you hear endlessly on Garage Logic, are lousy ideas, that accentuate one of the greatest failings of our school system - that they glorify the academic, "paper chase" path to the detriment of all other life paths. In schools today, if you're not on the college track, you're regarded as something of an embarassment. Yet there are scads of kids for whom kicking a soccer ball or repairing a car or learning German or the Bass Guitar is not only more fun than traditional academic work - it's better academic preparation, too, because it better teaches how to work, manage ones' own time and expectations, and just plain how to think!. The kid who trains her mind to solve problems by learning the piano will learn the logical tools needed to become a doctor just as effectively as the child who's drawn to math (as indeed happened with a high school friend of mine).

The best thing education can do for kids is give them the tools they need to exercise their natural curiosity - and then let them exercise it.

Posted by Mitch at October 13, 2003 08:43 AM