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Just a little homework rant - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Just a little homework rant
I've been out of school, even grad school, for almost five years now. I am not just seething because I resent my own time being wasted. But I still find that I just plain hate homework.

Orson Scott Card did a bit of a rant on the subject three years ago, which I've always rather appreciated (though he's perhaps a bit harsh on teachers who really are left with no choice in the matter). His basic position is that most of the homework that eats up his kids' time is pointless and has little educational value, and for this he's giving up spending time with them? (He particularly cites his son being assigned to make a three-dimensional model of the periodic table. Bwah?)

I'm not saying that no homework at all is useful. There are things that aren't learned in class and can't be learned in class, like how to do independent research and put a paper together. And some drilling on basic principles may be useful, though I think twenty questions a night with the same mathematical theme is excessive--if you haven't got it after five, repeating it fifteen more times isn't going to do the trick, and may just prompt bad habits; if you have got it after five, then there's no particular point to the repetition. And so many of these basic principles are things that should be attainable in class. If a student is having trouble with algebra, wouldn't it be better if he or she were to have that problem in the presence of a teacher, who could help with it, than at home?

The reasoning behind piling on the homework has never seemed particularly convincing to me. Often, it seems to boil down to, "American students do many fewer hours of homework than students in [insert competitive entity here, usually Japan or Europe]! Make them do more homework!" This strikes me as missing a pretty big point. The issue that they're trying to address is the education gap based on standard knowledge, and they're trying to do so without pointing out one clear and obvious difference: The countries to which we're comparing ourselves generally have some kind of set national curriculum and a mechanism for making sure it's mastered.

To give some perspective to non-Americans on this, having read up a bit on the GCSEs in England for the sake of Shifts, I note that they're more or less literally a do-or-die exam. This is reflected in the O.W.L.s in Harry Potter, which are viewed as an enthusiastic positive--a chance to be judged by someone not under Umbridge's thumb. Yay, rah. My home state of Massachusetts recently instituted the MCAS (here are some practice questions), which students must pass in order to graduate. They get three opportunities to take it in tenth grade, three more in eleventh, and three more in twelfth. I'm not sure, but I think if they remain in school, they can keep taking it indefinitely. The teacher's union ran an ad about how we needed to teach our children and not put everything on some high pressure test, like the "do or die" MCAS.

Now, I'm not actually arguing in favor of standards at the moment (though I do, in fact, agree with the principle), only pointing out that this is much more obvious culprit in the infamous education gap than homework. The counter-argument is that it's quite possible that local schools and parents have decided that there are more important things to learn about, and if the international tests happened to measure those matters instead of the ones it does, the education gap would go the other way. In neither case is "more homework" a particularly intuitive solution, since for homework to bridge the gap, it would have to be geared toward the subjects in which we aren't as strong, which brings us right back to the issue of standards and universal requirements.

Okay, so homework isn't helpful and I think it wastes kids' time (which is preciously short already)... but you know what? I also think it fosters a couple of opposite harmful attitudes, because so much of it is self-evidently useless.

The first attitude is that no assignment really needs to be taken seriously. The kid who gets a principle but is then relentlessly flogged with it could at some point say, "Oh, please--give me a break! I'm not doing this." Even when it really is something that needs to be done. (In theory, of course, I don't know anyone to whom this might apply, particularly anyone who lives at my address and owns all of my belongings). That may get such a kid through high school, but it's going to end up causing a lot of problems in study and work habits.

The second bad attitude--and I know there are people who will argue that this isn't bad--is that one's day job is inherently more important than anything else in life, that taking work home is more important than spending time with the family, participating in hobbies, or relaxing with friends. I think this is an unhealthy thing. A little bit here and there is one thing, but when homework is to take precedence over everything, it becomes problematic.

Anyway, just ranting.
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lauraevans From: lauraevans Date: January 7th, 2005 12:21 am (UTC) (Link)


True, true, all true! Homework...bleh. For example: it's supposed to be Christmas holidays here (until Monday, anyway). Holidays - it's supposed to be time when people can REST. Ha! I've got two A4 pages of maths assignment, a 500+ pages long book to read, a Powerpoint presentation of 30 slides in History AND a 2000-word essay in Estonian (my first language). I mean...huh? Holidays? RESTING? What happened to them?
lauraevans From: lauraevans Date: January 7th, 2005 12:23 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Agreed!

Oh, and completely OT: *where* did you get this icon of yours? It's driving me nuts. :P
From: nothing_gold Date: January 7th, 2005 12:53 am (UTC) (Link)
I couldn't agree with you more. I have a good five hours of homework ahead of me, which means I'll end up getting five hours of sleep. The thing that drives me absolutely insane about homework is that the teachers pile on the work, but we're all still expected to participate in extracurriculars. I only just got home from stage crew, and I have no time to relax, because I have to start my homework. It's absolutely ridiculous.
victorialupin From: victorialupin Date: January 7th, 2005 12:55 am (UTC) (Link)

I agree.

His basic position is that most of the homework that eats up his kids' time is pointless and has little educational value, . . . (He particularly cites his son being assigned to make a three-dimensional model of the periodic table. Bwah?)

The sad thing is that he's completely right; the large majority of homework is pointless, especially in grades 1 through 8. The problem is that the work is often so far from the material that actual needs to be studied that it tends to mess-up children's marks. Personally, I've been assigned tons of things that have had nothing to do with with the subject, just like the three-dimensional model that was cited in the article. The problem with things like this is that they are not being marked on understaning a topic; those assignments are marked on neatness and effort. They don't show anything about a child's understanding of the periodic table, so children with little-no understanding are still given passing marks if they are artistic. Likewise, children who are not artistic and not exceptionally neat are often given lower marks despite the fact that they may have a large understanding of the topic. It's sad because it creates the false hope in some children that they are doing well in a subject, then later on in life (high school, university or at a job,) they are surprised when they can't succeed and grasp a certain concept.

Anyways, I agree with the two attitudes that you pointed out, but I think another common attitude that comes up is that school is completely dull and awful. I think this actually comes up more often for people who understand the material, because they get easily bored with it. I'm one of the people who tends to grasp things fairly quickly in school, so it's aggravating for me when I'm given two or three pages on a topic I already understand. This attitude towards homework has carried over into school in general, and I can honestly say that I hate going to school 99% of the time because of this. It's true that I enjoy hanging out with my friends, and my teachers are actually pretty cool, but the work just makes it unbearable.

(Note to self: must stop rambling on about school...)
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: January 7th, 2005 03:19 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: I agree.

I think another common attitude that comes up is that school is completely dull and awful. I think this actually comes up more often for people who understand the material, because they get easily bored with it.

This is a good point, and in these kids leads to another bad habit: coasting on their talent instead of working at a subject. This is terrible, because these kids get used to things coming easily, and when they leave school they won't be able to handle competition from the hard workers. This is why I'm in favor of advanced classes for kids who learn things more quickly, so they stay interested and challenged.

I do see some need for homework, though. Everything can't be covered in a 40-minute period. If a history teacher should tell her students everything they need to know instead of making them read it, every class will be a lecture, and that allows the students no time to discuss the things they're learning. Our system will become even more about regurgitation than it already is.

I always found lecture classes boring, and I don't think I retained very much from them, whereas classes that allow student discussion have stayed with me. They allowed me to learn from other students as well as from the teacher. The thing is, all the students have to come in prepared to discuss the subject, and that means homework is necessary.

I must say, though, I've never been so stressed in my working life as I was during my final exam weeks during my last two years of college. The big tests and papers for different classes are always due around the same time. I just don't see how we could change this at the high school level, and certainly not in college. The grammar school work may be less about the subjects themselves, and more about preparing kids for the need to do homework later in their school careers.

chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: January 7th, 2005 12:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Testify, sister!

My brother gets extremely worked up about his homework- endless math problems and rewriting sentences from his social studies textbook. It's pointless, and could be obviated easily by simply doing actual learning in class, as opposed to busy work.

The way most homework is... well, everything you said... has definitely hurt a lot of the AP students I know, because for the upper end students homework becomes something where one actually has to think and take notes and such.

What you said.
From: anatomiste Date: January 7th, 2005 01:17 am (UTC) (Link)
Good one...

There are precisely two subjects in which homework (beyond reading, normal studying and essay-writing) has ever helped me learn: mathematics and foreign language.

This is one of the main reasons I am going to home-school my children.
likeafox From: likeafox Date: January 7th, 2005 01:33 am (UTC) (Link)
Agreed! I have so much pointless homework, it's disgusting. And even worse are the classes where we do very little relevant during the period and have upwards of an hour and a half worth of homework every night! My Euro class this year is like that. I'm constantly spending between one and two hours on reading and other stuff for the class, all of which does need to be done, but couldn't we do it... oh, I don't know... IN CLASS. Instead he just rambles on about things that never come up again, be it on the test or just in future discussions. Oy.

The only thing for me is that in math I find it helpful to do a lot of problems on the same concept, because when it gets really complicated it's not just understanding the concept it's being able to do the problems consistently without making stupid mistakes. Stupid mistakes always kill me on tests, so I like the extra practice.

In conclusion: Homework = blah. It also equals what I should be doing now. :P
epsilon_delta From: epsilon_delta Date: January 7th, 2005 01:53 am (UTC) (Link)
I totally agree with you on the math thing. Understanding a concept has nothing to do with being able to apply it. One of our most difficult classes in first year used nothing more than Newton's three laws and relatively basic high school math concepts. Yet, it was the class with the highest failure rate because it's knowing when and how to use the principles/concepts that was the key to all the questions.

I'm currently in Engineering, and all my classes are variations of math/physics. So, the attitude that homework is redundant is one I haven't had in a loong time. *g* Most people I know who end up as honours students always do more homework than are actually assigned.

For me, doing 20 similar problems is mostly a matter of increasing the speed with which I do the problems. On any given test, there's always a problem or two that takes an insane amount of time just to set up a proper equations to solve it, and you really don't want to spend too much time on the mechanics of solving it, since that's the easy part. That's where repetitive practice helps a lot. I want integration and differential equations to be so boring and old-hat to me that I can do it in my sleep.

Well, enough rambling. *goes off to do homework* :D
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 7th, 2005 01:44 am (UTC) (Link)
If you'll permit a non-LJer to comment...

You've made a lot of good points, and I certainly agree that a great deal of homework is, if not pointless, at least very silly. (The endless dioramas of third grade come to mind.) However, I suspect that the point of homework not to educate, in the strictest sense of the word, but to teach responsibility.

Let's see if I can explain this a little better. I was fortunate enough to receive a college prep education from my local public school system. We were assigned what felt like an absurd amount of homework. I struggled the first year, not because I couldn't understand the material, but because I wasn't doing the homework. When I wasn't sitting in class with no other choice, I'd be off reading a book or playing a computer game. After some personal reflection (and a couple of excruciating parent-teacher conferences) I learned to keep up with my work.

I was a gifted student, and I learned a lot in school, but none of the classroom exercises taught me how to work. Everything came too easily for that. Now that I'm in college and have a job, I appreciate the responsibility I learned in high school. In the real world, you need to be able to work even when the boss isn't looking. Of course, children can learn responsibility in any number of places-- free throw drills, piano practice, household chores, etc. But not all kids get those opportunities, so I'm afraid we're stuck with homework as a necessary evil.
From: nothing_gold Date: January 7th, 2005 02:26 am (UTC) (Link)
I attend a college prep school, and all homework seems to done for most of my classmates is taught them how to get around actually doing the work. Most of the responsibility we learn is at home and in extracurricular activities. I'm more conscientious about not procrastinating on speech competitions than I am about not procrastinating on english essays.
scionofgrace From: scionofgrace Date: January 7th, 2005 01:49 am (UTC) (Link)
As a future educator, I've decided that there's good homework and bad homework.

Good homework focuses on reinforcement. To us smart folks, doing twenty math problems in a row may seem totally unecessary, but I know that when it's something I didn't get right away, repetition remains an incredibly reliable learning method. A good teacher also plans homework to encourage students to do their own research and to figure things out for themselves.

But good homework can quickly become bad homework when it becomes too long, or pointless, or when it introduces new concepts that no one's around to explain. I've heard of grade schoolers getting stuck with more than an hour of homework a night -- in fact, I had a third-grade teacher who used to do that. All that does is frustrate the student and take away from normal kid activity, like harassing one's siblings. :-)

If there's one bad attitude bad homework instills, it's that authority figures are prone to give you busywork to reach a quota. Of course, that NEVER happens in REAL life...
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 7th, 2005 08:52 am (UTC) (Link)
To us smart folks, doing twenty math problems in a row may seem totally unecessary

So, the people who don't get it can keep doing the problems--why punish the ones who already did by making them go through the tedium unnecessarily? Doesn't seem fair.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: January 7th, 2005 02:00 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, no!

All my kids do is homework.

(But I homeschool, so what do I expect?)
mrs_who From: mrs_who Date: January 7th, 2005 04:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
I knew I liked you, Kismet. ;-) All three of mine (14, 10 & 6) have never been to school, either.
siegeofangels From: siegeofangels Date: January 7th, 2005 02:20 am (UTC) (Link)
This is a very interesting subject to think about right now; while I've been home during my holiday break, I've been attempting to clear out all of my old (yeah, pretty much ALL) homework/notebooks/papers from my schooling. I'm in the backstretch of my M.A. now.

I have noticed some interesting things: stupid assignments, like the TWO "writing samples" that were required for each class in high school, even chemistry and band; a note that I probably should have handed in to my Geometry teacher, explaining that the reason I didn't hand in my homework was because I had a dentist appointment and band practice, and didn't have time; an incredible amount of doodling on all of my notes and papers. Stuff like this makes me agree with you about the general pointlessness of homework.

I think that the skill I learned from high school was how to play the high-school game--doing the pointless busywork even though we all knew it was pointless.

In college I learned how to do passable work (research/essays) in very little time, and feel somewhat vindicated as I recently saw a job description that was basically "researching and writing essays in a small amount of time."

Um, topic. Right. In retrospect, having lots of homework was probably a good thing as far as my grades went; grades based on class participation are not kind to shy people. But I'm not sure how well it did as far as teaching me anything (save math and mathlike stuff, like chemistry and Latin). I usually picked up things in class, so homework was easy to do, save the Big Nasty Time-Wasting Assignments, which I got round by writing the most banal stuff on the face of the earth.
awaywithpixie From: awaywithpixie Date: January 7th, 2005 02:53 am (UTC) (Link)

In defence of homework.

Being a teacher on the other side of the fence, I see all sides of homework. Why is there so much? Lay the blame in two unlikely places - the curriculum and extra curricular activities. Homework is a necessary evil only because we are trying to meet bureaucratic requirement that are set by some Percy Weasley type in the government. It is also frustrating when the school decides to place more emphasis on the extra curricular timetable.

After nearly 17 years in a classroom, I find that face to face time with high school students is eroded away by other activities, yet the curriculum requirements continue to grow. We barely get enough time to explain the concept and start on guided practice before it is time for the student to go to the next class. Homework is the only way we can meet those requirements.

The state & the school both approve a curriculum & syllabus, which states what MUST be covered. It is then up to the teacher to somehow massage that ridiculous timeframe into 200 minutes of class time (that's in a good week).

Of course, you'll find at least 40 minutes a week have been somehow taken away for your sporting talented students, who must attend zone finals or whatever. Apparently these activities take precedence over classes, and just when you need to teach new concepts, you find half a class missing. When you are trying to teach towards a single make or break exam at the end of the year, then yes, it's frustrating as hell.

I am not saying that there is no place for sport in school. That is what Phys Ed is for. Practical subjects like accounting are a double edged sword. Not only are you having to set homework because of the lack of class time, but each exercise takes 45 minutes to 2 hours to complete. If the student doesn't understand it, then they need to continue to practice until they can get it down. Pile that on top of the five or six other subjects of homework needed, and it is ridiculous.

I agree that doing 20 sums for the sake of it is ridiculous. One colleague sets 20 sums, but the student stops when they get 5 correct. If you did all 20 and didn't get five right, then you really had problems understanding.

Some teachers will claim homework builds character and gets them into practice for university. As far as I know, every university student looks to the bare minimum requirements, then works just enough to get there. Do these teachers bother to see what percentage of their students actually end up going on to further study? Did anyone consider that perhaps this is outdated thinking?

Of course, as a teacher, I loathe homework because of the fact it has to be corrected. I can either make them hand it in, and I spend a good 2 hours per day marking, or I can make it a peer group exercise in class, which cuts further into my schedule.

But I'm going to propose something else. I'm proposing that perhaps the expectation on extra curricular activities have exceeded all proportions - moreso than homework. Okay, so I'm personally a little bah humbug when it comes to sport, but the expectation that a student must be involved in other activities just makes me frustrated.

When I went to school (back in the dim and dark 70's - 80's), there were no expectations after school let out at 3pm. In high school we did 15 minutes of calisthenics every morning at assembly (we must, we must, we must increase our bust. Failed miserably there too!) then we started classes. No impact on class time. Homework got increasingly more each year, but until I was 16, it was never more than two hours a night in high school.

The solution? The whole issue reverts back to what the government expect the students to know by the end of a school year, and what time you are given with the students in a year. The two never marry up, and it is left up to the frazzled teacher to do the only thing they can, which usually ends up being excessive amounts of homework just so that the teacher can say 'yes, we covered that topic & provided ample practice material'.

Make the curriculum meet the needs of society & make it feasible to teach within a school year. Don't let extra curricular activities encroach on academic time. Resolve that problem, and homework will trickle back to what becomes necessary practice & practical application.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 7th, 2005 08:56 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: In defence of homework.

I'm not sure the problem is so much with extracurricular activities as it is with a lot of stuff shoved into the curriculum that gets in the way of academic pursuits. I think all kids should have a grounding in music and art history, as well as literature, mathematics, and the sciences... but instead... social issues.


Call me old fashioned, but I'd like to see a solid education in the sciences, arts, and humanities, and think that some of the other stuff foisted on schools in the past few decades is decidedly non-academic.
kizmet_42 From: kizmet_42 Date: January 7th, 2005 04:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Dare I suggest this?

A longer school year?
divabat From: divabat Date: January 7th, 2005 04:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Only if there was a point to the longer school year and the time isn't filled with more mindless drivel.
divabat From: divabat Date: January 7th, 2005 04:16 am (UTC) (Link)
I live in a country where just about every major exam is do-or-die. There's the UPSR at Standard 6 (6th grade; age 12), PMR at Form 3 (9th grade; age 15), SPM at Form 5 (11th grade, age 17, equivalent to O-Levels), and the STPM at Upper 6 (second year of 12th grade, age 19, equivalent to A-Levels). The first 3 are compulsory, but you can do a A-Levels or Foundation course in a uni instead of STPM if you want.

With those exams comes the homework - the pointless ones, like scrapbooks where the marks go more into the design of the cover rather than the actual CONTENT, and the repetitive ones, and all those in between. Every effort is done to make sure the information is memorized, and regurgitated later.

Problem is, no one actually LEARNS anything. it's just rote memorization. Even "creativity" is memorized - if you intepretation of something differs from what is set in the exam answers, you don't get any points. (I suspect that the reason I got As in Islamic Studies in the government exams, while I'll get Cs in the school exams, is because the examiners got fed up of my arguing and just gave me something for effort ;P) We get constant seminars on "How To Answer Such-And-Such A Question" which sounds like "How To Trick The Examiner Into Thinking You're Smarter Than You Actually Are So That You Will Get Straight As And Increase The Prestige Of The School While Remaining As Cattle Even Though It Wouldn't Work Anyway", but suggest a seminar on how to live your life after school and you get laughed at. (That actually did happen to me.)

Learning outside the school system isn't particularly encouraged - everything has to be what the book says, even if it's outdated (our textbooks were dated 1991) or inaccurate (one of the cases in our History textbook was recently proven as an urban legend; I pointed that out in class and I was told to shut up by my classmates). You're not even allowed to question anything without getting snide looks or glares. I didn't take Physics in school, but before the Physics exam in SPM, I had people in the Physics classes come up to ME and ask me for help.

The homework doesn't help them learn; it's just a matter of memorizing key phrases and parroting them back for that Almighty Exam Paper. Which, in the end, is worth ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. No one's needed my SPM results, or my PMR results, or even my UPSR results (completely useless exam!); my other activities and skills are what brought me to where I am. Not my grades, not how much homework I did.

It would be something if the homework was actually interesting, served a purpose, and helped us LEARN something. But the homework I was subjected to was none of those things. I stopped doing homework regularly aroung Form 3, they made such a big fuss over not doing homework, but it never harmed me...hell, it didn't matter.

(Sorry for the rantage; I'm really passionate about issues like these.)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: January 7th, 2005 04:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Learning outside the school system isn't particularly encouraged - everything has to be what the book says, even if it's outdate

See, this is where I get frustrated with the such-and-such country is way better than the U.S. educationally. The one thing our system is absolutely designed to do is ask questions and challenge. Not every teacher is particularly good at teaching this, but it's kind of the point--there is rote memorization involved, but it's mostly so that you know the things you're meant to be asking questions about. And it's more important in most localities to have "critical thinking skills" than specific points of information. (That I think we need both skills makes me a fusty educational conservative!)
lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: January 7th, 2005 04:49 am (UTC) (Link)
God, I hate homework. I was in school 9 hours a day, had at least 6 hours of homework. In high school, I got the least sleep I ever had, and did the most work. And almost all of it was pointless. And the busywork. Oy. It seemed like most things were busywork. And now in college, I only do what is actually necessary for the course, and it's amazing.
mozartopia From: mozartopia Date: January 7th, 2005 05:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I tried a combination of homeschooling, public school, and university for my high school education. In each setting, I learned something unique--from homeschooling, how to teach myself, from public school, how to work with other people and through pointless classes and, naturally, boring homework. In university I combined these two lessons and came to actually love what I was doing.

The problem with high school assignments are their arbitrariness. The teachers (at the school I attended) were not experts in subjects--they received a general certification that focused on classroom management and group psychology--and could not, therefore, create interesting or relevant homework that students were inspired to finish. (I found this fact out when my mother student-taught at the school. Apparently only the history and mathematics professors had ever specialised in a subject.) The trouble of boring homework has been well discussed above, so I won't cover old ground. But it seems to me that another part of the problem is that American teachers, at least in some places, are not held to standards.

I would have liked a GSCE or A-levels equivalent, I think. But there is a certain beauty to an American education in it does not channel one into a profession right away. Its very questionableness gives one time to explore many things in university (although this seems to lead to droves of unfocused undergraduates, there is a certain creativity about them). On the other hand, I lament to this day the haphazard nature of my pre-college education and wish that I'd grown up in Europe, where the history is strictly taught and fourteen year olds are learning calculus.
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: January 7th, 2005 04:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
I would have liked a GSCE or A-levels equivalent, I think. But there is a certain beauty to an American education in it does not channel one into a profession right away.

Hear hear. I recently read Penelope Fitzgerald's Book Shop, and the most memorable scene for me was the day when the students learned what secondary school they'd be going to. The results were sitting on each student's desk, with the uni-track school in a white envelope, and the technical school in a tan one. And this girl who worked in the book shop walked in to find a tan envelope. She acted like it was no big deal, but it was. Her future was in large part laid out for her, and she was only eleven.

The book was set in the fifties, so I don't know how much the British system is like that now. And I can see some advantages to such a system. Nevertheless, I wouldn't want it for my kids.
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