Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dispelling common notions about homework

Today’s comments follow two items I just read. One is from a teacher, who wrote a letter to the editor entitled, “Hold students accountable for work.” In it, the teacher states “I have had it with non-educators telling me how to run my classroom.” This comment is made in response to an article in that paper, “Your assignment: Get ready for homework,” by columnist Anne Michaud. I did not read that article, but I read another one by Anne Michaud, “Less is more when it comes to homework.” I support Ms. Michaud strongly in what she says.

The other item is a comment written on a Wall Street Journal homework discussion group I set up a while ago.  The writer appears to lament the fact that he did not take his homework seriously when he was a child and that that prevented him from accomplishing certain things in his life. He obviously disagrees with my point of view.
To start, I want to be perfectly clear that I respect everyone’s experience for what it is. The teacher who is frustrated with non-educators telling her how to run her classroom has my full support. I have no doubt that we are in a time when teachers are under huge pressure from influences that emanate from outside their field. They are being judged and held accountable by politicians, not by the natural supervisors in their fields. I’m a psychologist and I have always been responsible to my state licensing board, to my supervisors when I worked in salaried positions, and to my clients for their patronage. I have been trained in my field and I expect that developments in professional practice will come from other professionals, not non-psychologists telling me what to do.

But, I also practice within a specific space. I see people in my office. Sometimes, I see them off site at locations where I’ve been asked to appear. But I never assume that I control spaces that don’t belong to me. I make recommendations. I don’t enforce behaviors.
The teacher, who wants freedom to run her classroom, should have freedom to run her classroom following reasonable standards established by her field. I would not quibble with that. In fact, I offer that notion my full and active support.

But what does she mean when she says non-educators are telling her how to run her classroom?  We homework critics are not talking about classroom practice. We’re talking about expectations, enforced by grading policy, regarding behaviors that take place in the home.  Just as this teacher feels strongly about non-educators telling teachers how to run their classrooms, I feel concerned that teachers are telling parents how to run their homes.
My second comment is in reference to the man who laments that he did not study harder when he was in school. I understand his experience and recognize that it is valid. In my work, I have met many adults who feel the way he does. They regret the decisions they made when they were young.

When I talk with these people, I find that they are quite bright but that there were reasons they did not do their work.  Typically, they had problems with working memory and processing speed and it took them too long to get the work done.  I often pose the question, what do you think would have happened if you had been asked to work for a limited period of time, whether or not the assignment got done? The answers differ, but most get wide-eyed and tell me they probably would have done more. For them, the endlessness of homework was the primary reason they eventually turned off to education. And, of course, they become adults and regret the result.
Again, I respect everyone’s experience. I feel for the teacher who faces a chorus of critics telling her what to do. I feel for the man who laments the fact that he did not work harder when he was a child. But there are underlying issues that can get missed when one fails to challenge established beliefs.

The teacher should have power in her classroom. Parents need power in their homes. Children should have options for a satisfying future whether they like to read or hit baseballs when they are home. The foundations for future success come from self-esteem, as much as they come from the specific things we learn. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with giving children some assignments to do at home. There is something wrong when coercion is used, through unduly negative grades, that throws parents into a tizzy and cause children to then rebel.


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