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THE TROLL MINIONS
Homework is evil. Truly, wickedly, horridly evil. Homework is a slimy, smelly, nasty troll which eats the souls of children. And these unfortunate souls are shoveled into homework’s gaping, slobbering maws by its devoted minions.
We call these unthinking, complicit minions ‘teachers’.
Or, if you prefer your prose less purple and more straight-forward: bad teachers are giving students bad homework for bad reasons. This is bad for learning and bad for children.
So why do they do it, these minions of madness, these perverse pedagogical practitioners? To evoke the words of troll-fighter Alfie Kohn:
Why do we do something where the cons (stress, frustration, family conflict, loss of time for other activities, a possible diminution of interest in learning) so clearly outweigh the pros? Possible reasons include a lack of respect for research, a lack of respect for children (implicit in a determination to keep them busy after school), a reluctance to question existing practices, and the top-down pressures to teach more stuff faster in order to pump up test scores so we can chant “We’re number one!”
All these explanations are plausible, but I think there’s also something else responsible for our continuing to feed children this latter-day cod-liver oil. Because many of us believe it’s just common sense that homework would provide academic benefits, we tend to shrug off the failure to find any such benefits. In turn, our belief that homework ought to help is based on some fundamental misunderstandings about learning.
To elaborate and embellish, homework is given by teachers because:
- Homework-giving teachers ignore the findings of educational researchers around the lack of any educational benefit associated with homework. Perhaps this is because they are arrogant enough to believe that their being in the classroom trumps anything academic or scientific researchers can possibly have to say. Or perhaps it is simply because they do not see the need to find and reflect on the latest in cognitive and pedagogical research. (Troll minions like dark, damp places.)
- They have an idea that it is their responsibility to keep kids ‘off the street’ by keeping them busy after school. You just know this is the kind of teacher who makes his kids sit in rows, lectures from the front of the room, loves standardized tests, constantly talks about discipline, and demands ‘rigor’ and ‘respect’. He’s also the guy who assigns meaningless ‘projects’ which are so dull and undemanding that they can be completely plagiarized from start to finish – and then wonders why he gets back so much plagiarized troll vomit.
- There’s a reluctance among these troll minions to reflect on what it is they do as teachers and to question their existing habits. (Troll feeders don’t like mirrors – or thinking.)
- They use the excuse of a stuffed syllabus to justify either having kids do a chunk of it at home, or by having them ‘practise’ (in heavily sarcastic inverted commas) at home.
- (Most tellingly) these pariahs think that assigning homework is just common sense. These teachers think, to use lightbringer Kohn’s example, that, like tennis or any other sport, ‘practice makes perfect’. What they forget, of course, is that any time a tennis player practices, their coach is on standby to steer and structure the session, as well as to guide and correct errors – if she isn’t, the player isn’t really practicing. (But more on this later.)
- Perhaps it is the fact that they themselves had a huge piece of their souls devoured when they were at school ten or twenty or thirty or forty years ago, and they either see it as only fair that they perpetuate this evil practice. Or else they simply don’t enough soul let in them to break the cycle of abuse.
- They are too lazy to think of a more meaningful and sound alternative to the homework they give.
- Some of these teachers feel like they haven’t taught a lesson well enough and use homework as a way of convincing themselves that their lessons will somehow be more complete if they tack on some homework.
So it’s either one or more of these, or it’s the intentional sociopathic desire (reiterating Kohn) to cause kids stress (which they see as a ‘motivating’ force), to build frustration, to engender family conflict because of the previous two effects, to take time away from other activities (and subjects), and even perhaps to diminish their students’ interest in learning. (I suspect that parts of this attitude are quite literally true of at least a dozen of the people I have worked with in my time.)
One final ugly truth is that some kids do well DESPITE being given soul-crushing homework. And the minions scamper about excitedly thinking that they did well BECAUSE of it. This manufactured correlation is nothing more than an instance of the kind of self-justification bias you see happening in alternative-medicine believers and people who believe that washing their cars brings the rain. I’ll say it again: Homework is evil. Pure and simple.
So does this mean that teachers should never give homework? Of course not. It just means that the homework they do give needs to be better thought out and more deliberate in focus. ‘Practising’ X minutes per day is pure troll minionery (are you still there Maths teachers?). But thinking and engaging and reflecting takes kids to new heights where the air is crisp and the nasty trolls dare not go.
Specifically, a few ‘un-homework’ strategies include*:
- Flipped teaching. Here kids get to do the content acquisition at home and the application in class (with the guidance of their learning coach). (A word of caution, though, the flipped model requires a whole school approach, otherwise the time involved per day in watching videos and reading through information can become overwhelming.)
- Issuing homework which requires students to think through a problem or reflect on the day’s learning.
- Personalizing or customizing assignments which target an individual student’s strengths – and at the same time providing resources for when they get stuck. Ideally, the teacher also needs to be on standby and be prepared to be contacted if there is an unassailable issue.
- Making homework collaborative. Teachers set up secure social media or chat groups and pose a problem they can work on together. (Teachers who would rather kids do their own work clearly drift into the staff parking lot one minute before the bell and have never seen how kids copy down the previous day’s homework before they arrive.)
- Understanding that quality outweighs quantity every time. Teachers should give fewer, better learning topics as homework if they wish to make that home learning meaningful.
- Getting kids to collaborate on designing the homework task so that it will be meaningful and useful to them.
- And how about setting a whole school policy on homework? Teachers, parents and students should know that homework must not simply be busywork, that it shouldn’t be about marks.
THE END (OF THE ‘VENDING MACHINE’ PHILOSOPHY)
Since so much of this post was a reworking of what troll-crusher Alfie Kohn has to say, I’ll give him the final word:
Supporters of homework rarely look at things from the student’s point of view;… instead, kids are regarded as inert objects to be acted on: Make them practice and they’ll get better. My argument isn’t just that this viewpoint is disrespectful, or that it’s a residue of an outdated stimulus-response psychology. I’m also suggesting it’s counterproductive. Children cannot be made to acquire skills. They aren’t vending machines such that we put in more homework and get out more learning.
But just such misconceptions are pervasive in all sorts of neighborhoods, and they’re held by parents, teachers, and researchers alike. It’s these beliefs that make it so hard even to question the policy of assigning regular homework. We can be shown the paucity of supporting evidence and it won’t have any impact if we’re wedded to folk wisdom (“practice makes perfect”; more time equals better results).
On the other hand, the more we learn about learning, the more willing we may be to challenge the idea that homework has to be part of schooling.
Like he says.
* Many of these are lifted straight from Alfie once again. See the original articles below…
Rethinking Homework. http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/rethinkinghomework.htm
The Truth about Homework. http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/homework.htm
You can also follow Alfie on Twitter at http://twitter.com/alfiekohn