Education – The Work of Who? Part 2: The Issue of Homework

This is part of a series. Part One here.

In my last post, I started out by discussing how New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier and UnCollege founder Dale J. Stephens differed in their views of education. In short, I wrote that Stephens believed in self-ownership, while Wieseltier clearly believes that there is some claim by others on the individual. I put forward that Wieseltier must describe how strong that claim is, and what material the individual will be taught (and what he will be kept from learning).

For example, take the issue of homework. An entire debate has arisen over the issue of homework alone. France has outlawed it. Why all this noise over the tradition of homework?

Let’s start with The Case Against Homework, written by Nancy Kalish and Sara Bennett. As Kalish and Bennett point out in this interview, homework has gotten out of hand:

Let’s re-state the views in the men’s own words:

“. . . You don’t need to be a genius or especially motivated to succeed outside school. The real requirements are much simpler: curiosity, confidence, and grit.” – Dale J. Stephens (see here)

“WHEN I LOOK BACK at my education, I am struck not by how much I learned but by how much I was taught. . Even what I learned on my own I owed to them, because they guided me in my sense of what is significant. The only form of knowledge that can be adequately acquired without the help of a teacher, and without the humility of a student, is information, which is the lowest form of knowledge. . . ” – Leon Wieseltier (article here)

Stephens’ philosophy is based on individual volition, while Wieseltier’s connects individual action as necessarily caused by others.

Let us return to the issue of homework. When teachers say that students must do schoolwork outside of the academic environment, they are putting a claim on the student’s time that recent evidence does not support. This goes back to the first question – how strong is the claim one has on another’s life? It’s obviously weaker than what teachers thought it was before.

Lisa VanDamme, founder of the VanDamme Academy, is one person who has realized this danger. This is why her teachers don’t have homework:

“At VanDamme Academy, the only daily, on-going responsibility given the children outside school hours is to read. Reading is an activity best done alone, in the quiet of the child’s own bedroom. It is a very independent and personal task, and—if it is the right book and taught properly—a very pleasurable one, too.

Math practice is done in math class. We give students ample time to learn, practice, and master new concepts under the close supervision of the teacher. Essays are written in writing class. Writing, which is one of the most challenging and comprehensive skills a student must learn, demands the constant monitoring and assistance of the teacher.

That such disciplines are neglected during the day—and then sent home in a mad-dash effort to get the kids up to speed for standardized testing—is criminal.” (emphasis mine)

Nevertheless, if one accepts Wieseltier’s philosophy that teachers are responsible for one is taught, then teachers may teach as they like.

According to Stephens’ philosophy, “.. Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.” (John Holt, accessed from here) If that is true, then learning is the responsibility of the learner, not the teacher. Therefore, the homework myth is rejected on the grounds of how one learns.

Lastly, a few thoughts. In K12, I had some teachers who emphasized the “home” in “homework”. However, it seemed that “home” meant “anywhere but my classroom”. Also, many of these authors note the incredible amount of homework students are given, especially in high school. Wieseltier’s view is “the “hackademic,”.. is a new sort of drop-out”. Stephens has repeated the common sentiment that students “are paying too much for university and learning too little”. Within the realm of K12, I would say that students are doing too much and learning too little.

To be continued. . .

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