Tuesday, May 26, 2015

No More Dirty Looks

This article makes for interesting reading, and I love the introductory comic. But despite making some insightful points, this open letter tends to put up a barrier to progress—a barrier that could be resolved with a more conciliatory approach, I believe.

Some of the problems are minor:
  • The letter is repetitive. Homework creates a burden for parents. It also takes away time. It also causes conflict for families. All placed in separate bullets that can't help but overwhelm the reader into thinking the conclusion is right along so many different directions.
  • He also believes that a single anecdotal piece of evidence (the educational background of his daughter) is compelling.  I'm sure it is to him, because she's his daughter, but that's an advantage that her teachers don't have.  They are beholden to many more people than that.
  • The letter places any objection in a belittling light.  This is a "(hopefully minor) conflict."  The implication is that it's minor, unless the teacher makes it major.  (That won't happen, so long as the teacher simply acquiesces, perhaps.)
But some of the other flaws run deeper. In an attempt to bring the teacher on board, the writer also commiserates about the burden that assigning homework places on them. Well, homework may well create a burden for teachers. Sometimes they may complain about it. Nonetheless, it was a burden they knew was there when they decided to become teachers.  That burden is still there, and is now accompanied by the burdens of coming up with new ways to ensure that Johnny is figuring out what he needs to figure out now that he's a homework Conscientious Objector. Oh, not to mention the letters and phone calls from parents who (quite rightly) wonder why their kids should have to do homework when Johnny doesn't. Or worrying about keeping their job under administrators who aren't particularly sympathetic.

This letter doesn't much recognize these additional pressures that its unilateral declaration imposes on the teacher. (One of the problems with such an open letter is that it biases the discussion—the open letter becomes the presumed position, from which opponents must come to dislodge the writer, rather than the position arising out of a balanced dialogue.)  That might be because the writer is also writing school administrators, city council members, legislators, etc., in a broad campaign aimed at reforming the way homework is assigned and managed in the school curriculum.  Or it might be because the writer recognizes that any such acknowledgement will weaken support for this position and therefore chooses to omit it.  Without further elaboration, one simply can't tell.

As a reader, and as a parent, I think that the conclusion (that homework should mostly be done away with) is appealing, and should therefore be viewed with the greatest suspicion.  The notion that homework is an outmoded relic is enticing on so many different levels that we are predisposed to accept it.  But one of the lessons of science is that one can so easily convince oneself to accept imperfect arguments and insufficient evidence on behalf of a position one is inclined to believe in the first place.  We sometimes hear that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  Attractive claims should be added to that maxim.

To be sure, some of the observations do occasionally fit the bill.  Sometimes, homework is just busy work.  It's excessive.  It's misguided.  It's boring.  Does that mean that the inevitable solution is to jettison practically everything with the bathwater, except (here are the writer's two exceptions) reading and other homework that the kids find engaging?  Instead of getting rid of homework because it's broken (if indeed it is), why not figure out what's broken about it, and how to fix it?  And while there'll be no objection from me about requiring reading, who's to say what kids find engaging?  The kids themselves?  The writer?  As human beings, we often find grass-roots approaches like this engaging because they feel organic, natural, unforced, and while there may be something to that, it's one thing for an approach to work at a family or even a single-school level, quite another for it to scale to the district level, let alone the state.

Despite a perfunctory invitation to discussion at the end of this letter, its tone brooks no debate, and therefore runs the risk of setting the interaction on an oppositional edge practically before it begins.  It seems to me that whatever change the writer hopes to make could be achieved less confrontationally (if less social-networkily) by making a series of observations to educators about what he finds flawed about homework.  That could progress to a discussion of what the aim of homework (whatever form it might take) should be, and at what levels change should take place in order to benefit children most pervasively.  Interested parents and teachers could support each other.  Instead, the writer chooses a direct and public we-will-not-actively-support-you-on-any-homework-we-don't-approve-of line.  An interesting approach to public consensus, but I can think of better.

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