August 2018

New Year and the Homework Battles

As I am writing my last blog post this summer, I have noticed a number of new posts online on the “stop-homework-before-it-stops-us” movement. The movement, or at least the way I understood it, aims to abolish homework in our schools as it has very low value (if not a negative value) in the eyes of many parents and obviously students. In the view of the people behind this petition, the homework is boring, not-interesting and after all useless. The movement organizers cite a number of reasons why the culture of homework should be abolished, as you can see in their petition.

I am not going to argue about the strengths and weaknesses of the petition, as I think anybody who reads it carefully can see that the organizers probably didn’t have the time to do their homework in carefully checking the validity of their arguments. They also keep citing the same few papers not even paying attention to the research that produces the results they do not want to hear about. I also would say that they conflate three very different arguments: (a) we need to abolish homework because it is often useless, (b) teachers do not know how to assign meaningful homework that will be useful for the students; (c) students’ homework grades do not represent their ability to do well in the course.

In my previous post, I brought an example of a very different approach of an Israeli physics teacher – Dr. Ilya Mazin.┬áIt is of course not surprising that my views on education resonate much more with his approach to education. Notice how he assigns homework and what his students think about it:

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What I would like to talk about here is how the abolition of homework argument is going against what I have learned over this summer and what I am observing during the US Open Tennis 2018 Championship that is going on right now in NYC (I am a tennis fan, so it is a big gift for me to be able to watch this amazing tennis).

This summer I was very lucky to participate in a German course in Freiburg, Germany. I took it because I wanted to speak German to be able to travel in Germany and communicate with friends and colleagues. I took the course as a student – as a beginner, which was also a great experience for me as a teacher. In the course, we were all adults and we were given lots of homework, even though we had daily classes (6 hours a day). The homework was checked the following day and our difficulties were discussed and explained by peers and the teachers. I think for us homework was a crucial part of the course. We were able to practice concepts and ideas and to see for ourselves what we understood and where we had difficulties. So I was grateful we had that homework and I can attest that for me the course would have been much less powerful if not for that. I would have been very surprised if they didn’t assign homework. I have to admit that the homework was useful not because it as homework, but because it was a well-thought-out homework. It allowed us to practice new skills, reinforce them and check what we understood and what we still had to learn. It also gave us a chance to feel proud about our small accomplishment. As we all know, self-efficacy (a belief in your own ability) is built on small successes.

The second example I would like to discuss is a US Open Championship that is happening right now. I was lucky to watch amazing matches by Federer, Nadal, Sharapova, Muchova, Raonic, Williams sisters and others. I cannot even imagine how hard these people had to work to achieve this level of the game. What if their parents many years ago asked their coaches not to assign homework to their children. After all homework is boring. And having some tennis playing experience myself, I can say that learning to play tennis means working for hours on small technical aspects of the game. Sometimes it can be boring. But there is no other way – it has to be meaningful to you, you have to know what you are practicing and why you are doing it, but it is not always fun. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote some time ago – there is no escaping 10,000 hour rule.

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And if you are wondering what is the glorious aria (in the background of the Ilya Mazin’s interview) that you have heard so many times but you cannot pinpoint where it came from, it is the famous Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) aria from La Traviata: The toast to love!

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By the way, Verdi is an example of a genius who was not accepted to the Conservatory in Milan, but who was lucky to find a person who supported his education nevertheless. Just read the Wikipedia entry about him and see how much work was put into making Verdi into one of the most prolific opera composers. Talent was not enough! Verdi would not have turned into Verdi if not for his tremendous dedication and hard work. And this is what we need to teach the students – hard work is as important (if not more important) than talent.

So in summary, I would like to ask the parents who are pushing for no homework schools – how would you like to teach your students the discipline, the value of hard work and to acquire complex skills that do require practice? If the students are not going to have any homework, where will this work be done? Or maybe in the world of google and the ubiquity of information, we can google up all the skills?

Meanwhile, I have to stop, as I have to go and do my German homework and I have to prepare for my first week of school. After all, teachers have to do lots of homework to prepare for school… Or maybe I should start a petition to abolish “homework” for teachers and university professors?

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