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The Homework Debate Continues


March 25, 2008—Is homework necessary for young children, or is it burdensome? This debate is not new, it returns like a comet, at least once every generation. News sources from PBS to The Washington Post have discussed the issue, searching for the balance: how to educate children at all socio-economic levels without overloading some or boring others. Some innovative schools have even begun to work at eliminating the kind of monotonous busy-work that kills a child's incentive to learn and keeps them from their families for extended periods in the evenings.

But is all homework bad for children? Homework proponents insist that some subjects can't be mastered without repetitive rote memorization. Even homework critics allow for the fact that well-thought-out assignments can certainly contribute to a child's love of learning, especially when it requires the full engagement of an inquiring mind. However, many educators believe that the over-application of monotonous rote learning often has the opposite effect, and even assignments that are meant to be creative can sometimes hit parents as nothing more than “mommy homework.”

In addition, say teachers, when children are left on their own to complete homework, misunderstandings about certain tasks can become entrenched. Unfortunately, today's parents often find themselves working longer hours with less time and energy to spend helping children complete assignments. Even if they do find time to help children through their homework, that may be the only time parents and children share between the end of the workday and bedtime.

So, homework or no homework? How do children learn best, and what is the best way for parents and educators to help them?

John Holt, educator and author of two profound classics How Children Fail and How Children Learn, made some perceptive observations as early as the mid-sixties. "It is before they get to school that children are likely to do their best learning," he noted, reasoning that this is because children begin life wanting to learn. Because they have an innate excitement for exploration and discovery, the way they learn before school may be the most effective method by which they will be ever be taught.

"Vivid, vital, pleasurable experiences are the easiest to remember," Holt points out, adding that "memory works best when unforced." In contrast, we think and learn badly when we're afraid or anxious. Unfortunately, Holt insisted, most schools are less concerned with excitement, exploration or discovery—which are pleasurable experiences to a child—and more concerned with fragmentary and industrialized forms of learning. As a result, he says, "[children] are bored because the things they are given and told to do in school are so trivial, so dull, and make such limited and narrow demands on the wide spectrum of their intelligence, capabilities and talents."

This accusation could be made against some kinds of homework as well, which might suggest that parents could be better off spending their meager time with their children in more productive ways. In fact, if parents were able to consistently spend positive social time with their children at home, perhaps some of the behavioral problems that interfere with classroom learning would begin to dissipate. And teachers might find themselves with more time to teach, and under less pressure to meet testing standards.

Homework or no homework, of course, parents are the most important part of the equation when it comes to nurturing a child's love of learning and their role begins long before the school years.

In agreement with Holt's observations, researchers from the University of Rochester confirm that the most impressive learning feats are accomplished early in life. They found that infants learn to make predictions about events and based on these predictions, "infants avoid spending time examining stimuli that are either too simple (highly predictable) or too complex (highly unexpected). Rather," say the researchers, "infants allocate their greatest amount of attention to events of intermediate surprisingness–events that are likely to have just enough complexity so that they are interesting, but not so much that they cannot be understood."

This suggests one way to help children learn is for parents to be present and attuned enough with them that they can accurately identify what holds their interest most. Following a child's lead and responding by sharing the focus of their curiosity may seem like a no-brainer, but how easy is it to answer more of a question than was asked, or unthinkingly redirect the child's attention to what holds our interest rather than theirs?

Holt insisted that the learner is the best judge of what to learn, and when to learn it. "I would be against trying to cram knowledge into the heads of children even if we could agree on what knowldge to cram," he wrote. "What we want to know, we want to know for a reason. The reason is that there is a hole, a gap, an empty place in our understanding of things." Holt believed children—and adults for that matter—have a natural need to fill those gaps, and we feel a sense of satisfaction when we succeed in filling them. "When we learn this way, for these reasons," he argued, "we learn both rapidly and permanently. The person who really needs to know something does not need to be told many times, drilled, tested. Once is enough. The new piece of knowledge fits into the gap ready for it, like a missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Once in place, it is held in, it can't fall out."

The real challenge then, must be to keep the fire alive: to feed the burning need to learn that children have innate.

Holt ended his 1967 book with palpable disappointment that his research with children had failed to revolutionize educational approaches. Almost half a century later, his cry still resonates: little has changed despite the fact that research using new technologies continues to reinforce his conclusions.

"Gears, twigs, leaves," wrote Holt in his concluding paragraph. "little children love the world. That is why they are so good at learning about it. For it is love, not tricks and techniques of thought, that lies at the heart of all true learning. Can we bring ourselves to let children learn and grow through that love?"

If this is to be the goal, then debate will need to cover a great deal more than simply homework.




How Important Is Homework?


TLC for Education: Tribal Learning in the Classroom

An Interview with Louis Cozolino



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