Chris Shute – What’s the use of homework?

 What’s the use of Homework?2 

Chris may be less mobile than he used to be but nothing has stopped the flow of his thoughts and ideas. Here he tackles that controversial schooling issue – homework.

What is the educational rationale behind giving children who have already spent the best part of five hours in the classroom up to another three hours of what the French call ‘devoir’ – duty – by way of homework? It certainly doesn’t add to the absolute quality of the learning experience, since homework is, in vast majority of cases, compulsory, leaving the learners no space in which to think about whether they need to do the task set to them. 

The traditional answer to the question which forms the title of the present article is probably that it is good for school students to develop study skills of a kind which would be useful to them in later academic life, and that homework allows them to reinforce learning done more sketchily in the classroom during the school day. I wouldn’t challenge the truth of those assertions, but I would add that they are only valid in the measure  to which the subject of the homework is interesting to the individual learner and he or she is committed to it. Otherwise it is otiose, a thorough-going waste of time which does infinitely more harm than good to the student’s mental hygiene.

Many educational rigorists point out in defence of homework that it acts as a preparation for a time in the child’s life when he or she will have unavoidable, adult  obligations to fulfil. It is probably true that most people find moments in their lives when they face trials and problems, but it is impossible to know what they will be and therefore the steps that that we decide to take to prepare our youngsters for them, and therefore the preparation can only be generic. That is surely to insult every serious student of any subject by saying that we impose homework on children not to give them an opportunity to more deeply appreciate some aspect of their culture, but simply and solely as a sort of  ‘boot camp’ to prepare them for life’s hardships.

This kind of  reasoning is of a piece with so much else which goes on in school. The origins of homework are found in the Public Schools. There the only subjects taught there in the 19th Century were Latin and Greek. The main  teaching method was calling upon a student to ‘construe’ – translate – the next part of the work they happened be studying. Since no pupil could know for certain that he – it was usually a boy – would not be called  on to translate they all had to prepare the next passage from the book they studying, often with the aid of a ‘crib’, a pre-prepared translation. Because the Public Schools had prestige their methods became a major influence on the technology of what passed for education at the time. Of course, the immediate rationale for the various aspects of daily life in schools changed from time to time in harmony with social mores, but one element remained constant: the idea that schools should respond actively to the needs and interests of the children who attended them was beyond the pale. Apart from the handful of experimental schools, like Summerhill, the prevailing purpose of schools was not to pander to the individual child but rather to bring the individual under the sway of the abstract but intuitively shared complex of ideas and social mores masquerading as ‘common sense’.

What are the global effects of such rigorism? One of the most prominent, it seems to me, is to surround education, a process which should be a joyful voyage of discovery, with a miasma of conflict, frustration, anger and parental strife. Because homework has become so universal a part of at least secondary education, and because for most adolescents a proportion, in some cases a large proportion, of their homework is a chore rather than a pleasure, they tend to look around for ways of avoiding it either by ‘forgetting’ to do it, copying the correct answers from some more enthusiastic student or even claiming that ‘the dog ate it’. This leads to conflict, either between the parents and the school, if the parents side with their offspring, or with the youngster if they take the part of the Authorities, as many of them are inclined to do. This conflict has no educational value at all. It serves only to provide work for the disciplinary authorities at school and anguish for the parents, not to mention sowing the seeds of a lifelong aversion to learning in the youngsters, who grow up thinking that learning is first and foremost a boring, stressful activity.  I have seen the truth of that assertion more times than I care to recall. It is all of a piece with the general culture to which are wedded in this country which only approves of children to the extent that they share our adult enthusiasms and adopt our standards as their own.

The most educationally valuable reform in homework would be simply to make it voluntary, and to allow the students to design their own tasks, according to their needs and wishes. Under those conditions if the class happened to be studying social conditions during the industrial revolution, say, one student, an enthusiast for maps could draw a map of the canal system, while another, who liked listing things, could find out how wages and prices varied from year to year. Yet another a scientist in embryo, might like to find out how a steam engine worked, and make a drawing sufficiently detailed to enable others in the class to understand the machine and how it worked. The sharing of information by the students would be useful in developing skills such as articulacy and presentation, and certainly more useful than a range of tasks suitable to be set to a whole class.

The chief defect of the present school system is not only that it is compulsory but also that it makes a virtue of a number of what ought to recognised as educational vices. Among them are compelling children to do tasks which they find otiose and uninteresting, and punishing them when they decide they have better things to do. This would tend to provoke resistance if it were done to adults, especially if they were not paid for it: how much more should we expect children, without the advantage of maturity, to have the reaction, but more intensely? It is clear, to me at least, that philistinism, resistance to higher forms of culture, and delinquent behaviour are born in the classroom, where children are not respected as to their human right to be recognised as unique human individuals.

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