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Homework: Time Management or Time-Manglement?

In the BBC News article Homework causes family arguments a debate is taking place about the effects of homework on family life. The issue being talked about (i.e. - the effects of homework) is, to my thinking, a symptom of a much larger problem that is pervasive in society...

In its present form, homework is an unhelpful and sometimes distressing extension of the school system into the home.

1) What is the proven value of homework? No one can answer what the true value of homework is. There is no conclusive evidence to prove that doing homework will improve a student's education (and life). There is a fundamental failure to challenge the underlying assumptions upon which the education system is built.

2) What is the underlying strategy for assigning homework?Homework is not a coordinated strategy in education - it is a hodgepodge of assigned work that originates in an uncoordinated manner from a theoretical abstraction we call curriculum. The teacher is as much a victim of this as is the student. No one in the school, except perhaps teachers at the younger levels, know precisely how much work is being assigned to the students on a daily basis. Worse, homework is sometimes an excuse for having students "learn" things that the teacher doesn't have time to teach.

3) How much time in school is enough?If five hours per day (assuming this average is close) of "educational" time for our youth isn't enough in one day, then very simply the education system is a failure. Even for older students, how many hours in one day should they be "educated?" For adults? I can recall being in "training" sessions in which few if any adults could sit through more than an hour without getting itchy (including myself) - yet we expect this of our youth.

4) Are school making excuses? Addressing the need through a "homework club" is illustrative of the education system's inability to question itself and admit a mistake.

5) Are extensions of technology into the home useful? Suggesting that e-Learning has a role to play illustrates a complete lack of understanding of the nature of the problem.

6) Are we obsessed with compressing time? The problem is not limited to schools and children but extends directly into the workplace and adults.

7) When is more of the same better? There is a false assumption that the more time we spend doing something, the better we get at it.

8) Is control of time a key strategy for opression? Our socio-economic system is both excessive and oppressive in terms of the demands it places on our time from childhood through to retirement.

Homework is a symptom of a much more pervasive problem in modern society. We have gone quite mad with respect the self-imposed demands we collectively place on our use of time. Time management often means shoving more and more into less and less. When time management becomes a form of oppression it will naturally have adverse psychological effects and we should not be surprised that a link has correctly been made between homework and anxiety, emotional exhaustion and general unhappiness. And when this happens people are victims within a system that places thoughtless demands on their time. And very often this feeling of anxiety and emotional exhaustion is for work that is dull, unmotivating and often irrelevant.

A very important comment was made to the article that eloquently captures the very essence of the problem, "It seems to me that the education system is stealing our children's childhood and very few are prepared to stand up and question this." The only thing that I would add is that this phenomenon is not limited to children and is just as pervasive in adult life as well. We might consider the notion that not only are we robbing our children of their childhood, but we are also robbing adults of their adulthood and families of their "family-hood."

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Hi again Pearl,

Devil's advocate is an important role to play, especially when presented in the way you have.

After reading Frankl's experiences in a concentration camp, I can only agree with your comment that our time in life and what we choose to do with it is ultimately an individual choice. So having admitted that, let me see how I might try to disagree with our agreement.

Your idea of "personhood" is quite interesting and I like the way you have blended the ideas of "childhood" and "adulthood." (BTW - I know that Neil Postman's favourite book that he authored was "The Disappearance of Childhood" - it's a good read as are all of his books).

I guess I would ask, "How many people know they have this choice?" or "If people know they have this choice, how many can actually do something about it?" Ideally everyone knows they have the choice and they all take action on it - but it seems to me that this is not the case.

With respect to homework, children do not have a choice in how much they are required to do, and often they have little to no choice in what the nature of that homework is. If they do not comply they risk discipline in the form of lost recesses (recess is one of the most productive learning expriences at school), detnetions, phone calls or notes home to parents, or bad marks. The "system" if allow that word here, imposes a regiment that the child, and frankly older students as well, either must conform to or they risk "failure" by the way of bad marks - upset parents - no diploma - limited career opportunities. If they do not comply enough to meet the demands of the system they effectively marginalize themselves in society. To place this much importance on education is possibly a mistake (this is not to say that education is unimportant). If employees do not comply to the demands of their occupation - even if it means a 60 hours+ work week, they risk unemployment and lose of lifestyle.

Now there are those brilliant individuals that go ahead and consciously marginalize themselves and build exceptional careers and lives. But I also would imagine (I have no statistics) that there are also a lot of other people that are marginalized and experience some degree of suffering and feel like there is little they can do about it.

So the "them" or the "systematic forces" are not a direct reference to people, but the imposition of power and control structures that place clear demands on people (teachers, students, parents). If the power and control structures have negative consequences (anxiety, increased drop-out rates, increasing school violence, angry parents, etc.) then to some extent victims are created. And it is not only students that feel this, but teachers and parents as well. There are references out there to the intense stress and anxiety that some teachers develop over time - the infamous phrase "burn-out" is quite real. It's a difficult job.

"Priorities are up to moment by moment choices of individuals" - ideally and optimistically I hope this is true. At the same time, there are very significant social forces that work against this.

"If family time is uncompromisable, hell or high water can stop it, not even homework." I think this should be a maxim.

Hi Pearl,

First of all, let me thank-you again for taking the time to offer valuable insights and perspectives. I appreciate them very much.

I really like your phrase "another series of taps on the neural path" with respect to fluency. From what I understand, and I am not an expert in this area, neural pathways are fostered through repetition. Edward de Bono, Candice Pert, Richard Restak and David Suzuki offer some penetrating views on this. I continue to try and learn more about this.

I have been in discussion with a colleague at work about her two children's experiences with homework. Her daughter is in grade five and routinely does at least an hour per night of homework and has had frequent occassion of doing three hours a night due to lack of coordination at the school. My colleague recently spent a couple of hours on a homework assignment with her daughter that ended up with a very poor grade - I saw the description of the homework assignment and it was poorly constructed and frankly I couldn't even see the need for it. Worse, what resulted was intense frustration and her daugther was clearly starting to dislike school. So while homework might reinforce positive neural paths (in the sense of reinforcing a knowledge or skill) it can also backfire and reinforce neural pathways of anxiety.

Her son is in grade one and does homework each evening as well. This I see absolutely no purpose for. A six-year old needs time to play and do other things like getting some fresh air.

Another consideration is that "homework" is often oriented toward more reading and more writing. Of course, we all need to learn to read and write. But if we over-emphasize this manner of perception we may build neural pathways that equate learning with reading and writing. Not only do we limit our perception of learning, we limit the ways we perceive our experience.

For me to make this into a generalization of all homework would definitely put me on thin ice - and it would probably crack pretty quickly. However, I do believe there is a fundamental problem here that may not be generalized but is common.

Parents should of course be involved in their children's education. But that involvement shouldn't be a downloading of responsibility from the school to them. More importantly, parents should of course be involved in their children's learning - something that extends well beyond the educational experience.

In my own twelve years of teaching experience in public schools, I saw this problem over and over again. More and more of the students' time was being taken up by homework and it would vary from reasonable to extremely and unreasonably intense. Even with young children. And often the homework was imposed and students did it (or tried to) for fear of not making the grade.

I think your comment is right. Homework can promote fluency with knowledge and skill. But it can also promote fluency with anxiety, lack of motivation, and a generalized feeling of stress. Some stress is good for all of us; too much stress can be debilitating - and each of us has a different threshold.

From an educational perspective, if students are in school on average of five hours per day for 180 days per year - that's 900 hours. If after grade six let's say, or 5400 hours (that's 225 twenty-four hour days) they still struggle with literacy (barring learning problems or disabilities) then something is amiss. Worse, if students grow increasingly anxious or unmotivated toward schooling then the problem is far more serious than literacy acquisition. While increasing violence at schools is not the majority experience - it is on the rise.

No one to my knowledge can definitively prove the need for homework. Similarly, no one can definitively prove that processing students through a system in which they are sorted by age, and sometimes ability, and then judged on a narrow set of competencies is the right thing to do.

If we can, as you have nicely said, "work [learn, be educated, etc.] smarter with focus and do fewer hours and look at long-term plans and worker health" then we have discovered something very important. My guess is it may not be a modification of existing systems, but the development of new ones.

I guess so far as time mangle-ment that comes down to individual choice. The institution may impose whatever rules it likes but the individual will take on as crucial only what the individual decides will advantage himself/herself. The child makes decisions on how much to comply, what to internalize and not. True, we've got some pretty young children now getting "adult" diseases like heart disease, ulcers, diabetes along with adult information such as how to resist media, questionable adults, environmental disaster. Children's plasticity has the potential to set younger which I'd guess would be "a loss of childhood". But this idea of childhood and adulthood as separate points loses the continuity and how much personhood there is at any age and shortchanges how much plasticity and "childhood" we have at any age. If we push the envelop into unfamiliar areas as adults we can be as naive and bold as we were as a child and can re-form ourselves as we were changing as a child. I guess what I'm getting at is resisting the ideas of "them", "victim" and "systemic forces" and playing devil's advocate. Priorities are up to moment by moment choices of individuals in concerts. If family time is uncompromisable, hell or high water can stop it, not even homework.

Interesting premise that I never thought about. I find learners request HW but few do it.

Your 1-3 and 6 I can more or less agree with readily. 7 can be true but if the homework is reinforcing the ideas not introducing new ones, mustn't a slight amount more of fluency with the ideas be built up even as another series of taps on the neural path? 8 seems to depend on the immediate work peers. Some enlightened groups seem to come to a concensus that you can work smarter with focus and do fewer hours and look at long-term plans and worker health.

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