I love serendipity. In several places recently, I’ve seen references to Seymour Sarason’s seminal book And What Do You Mean by Learning? (I haven’t read it, although I should have. So many books, so little time…) In particular, while looking at a presentation by education reformer Will Richardson, I saw this quotation from the book: “Productive learning is the learning process which engenders and reinforces wanting to learn more. Absent wanting to learn, the learning context is unproductive or counterproductive.” The passage encapsulates many of the thoughts swirling through my mind since our evening on Race to Nowhere.
It also links well to many of the points made that night. To help us gauge the overall tenor of reaction, we gave the audience two index cards. One was for them to make note of something they could change in their own lives. This card went home. On the other card we asked for something directly related to school. As we read through the comments, we saw four general categories emerge:
· Teaching Children How to Learn—Most said there is too much focus on grades and competition, with some references to all-around perfectionism.
· Support System for Children—People want more conversation and awareness regarding the stress students may feel.
· Whole Child—This category was a bit of a catch-all, with topics ranging from play to creativity to individual passion.
· Outside Work—Most the responses simply called for less, and even no, homework.
These are all so complicated and intertwined that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Indeed, the key first step may be parsing exactly what questions need to be asked—ones that cut at the issue. Also, the same human elements that have plotted the sort of course depicted in the film drive our current concern about it: love for our children and worry about their future.
The Sarason quotation above provides a solid benchmark by which we can ponder some of the issues captured in the four categories. Let’s take the issue of homework. First, it’s difficult to assess homework load because it’s very individualized. I’ve talked to students in the same classes and heard widely varying answers about how long their homework took. It depends on their grasp of the material, work habits, efficiency, perfectionism, drive, et cetera. Second, I know some schools have tried to ease the stress by incorporating plans such as no-homework days or weekends. Students at those schools reported this simply increased the load on other days. Some of this occurs because over the past twenty-five years or so, schools have responded to familial calls for schools to include more and more in their programs without removing anything, all in a more competitive culture.
I’m not opposed to homework. But we need to reconsider it in terms of the quotation and the issues raised by the film. Here are just some of the questions we need to explore:
· At what age should homework begin?
· What is an appropriate/reasonable amount at each age?
· Is the homework being given simply for the sake of giving homework?
· How does this homework extend student learning?
The answers to these questions intersect with thoughts on the other categories. The right sort of homework, for instance, will help children learn how to learn. That’s part of their overall development in many ways. Humans are learning creatures, and the better we are at it, the more we will thrive in any area. I often say that most of what serves me well now came from my soccer experience rather than school. Speaking of which, rethinking homework also can allow room for out-of-school activities. Of course, families must do their part in not over-scheduling kids with too many demanding commitments. All together, perhaps kids then won’t be so tired—one of the main impediments to effective, joyful learning.
Untangling this knot will be a long, hard process requiring two things. One, conversation. Two, courage. Both are growing.