My fifth grade self stepped into my neighbor’s house eagerly, ideas for all the fun we were about to have popping into my brain like a steady stream of iMessages. We could play with the dog, we could ride bikes, we could make something, use her swing set, or lose ourselves in a computer game. I shared some ideas with my friend, who nodded, but quickly said, “okay, but I have to do my homework first, those are the rules.” Though my only real knowledge of this homework concept came from Lizzie McGuire and Even Stevens, I was never a rule breaker, so I shrugged and sat down next to her while she pulled out her assignment. After a few minutes of watching her and surmising that she really was simply coloring, I asked her what she was working on. “Oh,” she said, “we just have to color this plate of food.” I did a slight double-take and asked her why. She had no idea, but it was the assignment, so she was doing it (very well, in fact). As many of you may be able to relate, this introduction to homework was fairly representative of the next seven years of my schooling.
This story came rushing back to me over lunch with a student about to work for a summer program for highly-motivated, underserved middle and high school students. For the last few days, stories like these have been surfacing often, whether over lunch, while working on my About page, or in a one-on-one meeting with a colleague. Homework is not my only struggle with my public school experience, but I appreciate having an alternative experience to provide a corollary.
So what’s the alternative in this situation?
Go ahead: gasp, grumble, roll your eyes. Though it’s hard to believe, this is a thing. For the entirety of my elementary school years, the most homework I had was to read or memorize lines for the upcoming school production. A book I read recently (and subsequently started recommending to everyone I know) sums up my experience perfectly with a quote from a former Montessori student. The child had recently transferred to a public school and someone asked him about his transition; he responded: “It’s good, the only real difference is that at Montessori we did work at school, and now we do work at home.” Don’t get me wrong, I have come to appreciate that homework can have great value when used well (much like our friend PowerPoint, but that’s another post), and have even been known to assign some. But I also strongly believe that by continuously dumping (usually worthless and highly time consuming) homework on our kids at a younger and younger age, we are inhibiting their ability to find joy in learning, contributing to childhood obesity, and more (check out this page for a variety of opinions).
As I looked for opinions that challenged my no (or reasonable) homework ideal, the one that stuck out as most viable is the connection that homework provides between school and home, particularly for parents. And while I agree that this is a powerful benefit, it also strikes me that this is likely a large contributing factor to the continued inequity we see in so many schools. Consider: if the main purpose of homework is to engage the parent and encourage them to work with their child, what happens to the children whose parents are at work when they get home? To the children whose parents don’t know how to help them with their assignments due to a language barrier?
The great homework debate gives us much to consider, especially given the number of approaches that can be taken. Not all Montessori schools ascribe to the no homework model, especially as students get older, and not all traditional schools give pointless assignments, in fact, I’m certain the opposite happens in some situations. But I find we often fail to question things that are familiar to us and homework may be on of those that needs a bit more questioning.