But You Have to do Your Homework!

“You’ll love it!” my rising 1st-grader enthused as he prepared his baby brother for preschool. “You get to play all day. There’s play dough and dress-up and puzzles. And they always take you outside — even if it’s snowing!” Then a shadow fell across his face. “In my school, I don’t get to play that much anymore.”

And from my observation, that’s true. There was plenty of singing and movement taking place in his kindergarten class, but save for his 20 minutes of recess on dry and warm days, very little that allowed him and his classmates to interact on their own terms and engage in imaginative play.

I spoke with Jennifer Walker, an elementary school teacher in the Providence public school system about this issue. “When No Child Left Behind came along, instructional minutes for literacy started to be mandated, with no lengthening of the school day. To make literacy fit, recess got sucked out. In short, the urgency to work harder and harder to get students to perform better sadly pushed play and physical activity to the back burner.

“So when you’re in the classroom, feeling the pressure of teaching a whole room full of children, the majority of whom have skill gaps you feel pressured to fill, and there’s no particularly fun place to play [Walker once worked in a school built without a playground], it falls aside as a priority.”

I asked Walker if she thought kids’ social and emotional growth is being stunted by not allowing for unstructured play at school and she responded affirmatively. “It’s as if we forgot that young children learn through play. Social/emotional learning was pushed to the side, something that also comes through play.”

I recently took my kids to meet a friend and her kids at a local park. She chose radical unschooling for her family after visiting her son’s kindergarten and leaving with the sense that the kids were being turned into automatons. Since pulling her son out, their whole life looks like play, and she says she’s seen the confidence in her eldest soar now that he gets to choose how to spend his days. “But how do you teach them that life isn’t always fun?” I asked. “I mean, I don’t want to tell my 6-year-old that life can be a drag, but he eventually has to figure that out.”

“No he doesn’t,” she said. “It’s about attitude.” Doing laundry can be fun because once it’s done, you get to wear your favorite shirt. If I instill that attitude in my kids, she told me, their lives will be full of play. Her comments made me re-think my pat answer when the kids ask me why they have to pick up their toys: “Well, I don’t want to do it, either!”

Our family tries to make up for the lack of play in school by keeping our after-school time fairly unstructured, and we’re privileged to have that flexibility. But even in kindergarten, homework forced our son’s mind to his schoolwork when he wasn’t in school. I can’t help but wonder why he can’t be allowed to just play after school since he can’t do it in school. Maybe we should do away with homework altogether.

“Homework is complicated,” Walker said. Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and Program of Education director at Duke University led a research synthesis in 2006. One of the conclusions he reached was that elementary school students shouldn’t receive more than 10 minutes of work per grade level each night. For these young students, Cooper said, homework should “lead to success without much struggle, occasionally involve parents and, when possible, use out-of-school activities that kids enjoy.”

“Some teachers just flat-out disagree with the research and are committed to homework,” said Walker. “Other teachers have more of an internal struggle about it. If the child were going home and reading on her/his own, playing outside, doing puzzles, playing board games, learning to cook, having deep conversations with family members, or otherwise doing any of the myriad of activities that we know support learning, I think many teachers would be happy to drop it. However, in the case of a child who goes home to hours of TV or online/video games, or is otherwise not engaged in thinking activities, then the teacher thinks, ‘Why not have them do this for a while at least?’ Or, when talking about children … who need more exposure to reading (or other skills practice, etc), teachers think, ‘It’s good for them to do some practicing at home.'”

The father of one of my son’s classmates is a teacher and he once told me while we watched our kids dash around the playground after school that he thinks homework supports income inequality. Kids whose parents arrive home from work at the dinner hour or who have one parent at home have homework support, while kids whose parents cobble together an income by working several minimum wage jobs and arrive home after bedtime don’t have that parental support. And the better supported kids often do better in the classroom.

David Hayes, director of the Academic Enhancement Center at URI, raises concerns with the one-size-fits-all approach to education. “In a class of 30 people with different backgrounds, knowledge gaps and brain functioning, it’s difficult to create activities for all those people to learn from [in the classroom],” he said. “But when you send those activities home, you have no guarantee of what support they’ll have for doing it. There isn’t a way to manage the learning outcomes of the homework.” To be effective, Hayes said, homework has to tie in to what happens in the classroom. “Some students can engage productively with homework and others won’t. So you can assign homework knowing that this ultimately is going to divide students and the gap will grow if you rely on homework as a driver of the group’s learning.”

Walker agrees. “The one size fits all approach doesn’t work for children or adults. More flexible grouping is more aligned to learning differences. I don’t know many teachers who would disagree with that. But there are serious logistical and financial concerns in adopting this approach. There are well-intentioned educators all over the country trying to find the thing that works. Unfortunately, there is no one right answer to these issues.”

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