Thursday, October 14, 2010

Homework = Chutzpah?

We've been talking a lot about education in our house too, Teflon (see Teflon's rant... enthusiastic discussion here).  Actually, that seems to be all we talk about.  Maybe it's me.  I'm like a kid in a candy shop as I homeschool.  My favorite things to talk with the kids about are the topics I didn't get in school.  Homeschooling is an opportunity for me to learn and I'm really excited about it.

A couple days go, a friend with a 6 year old daughter called to share her consternation at the homework she just received to do with her daughter.  Now, this homework cannot possibly be done by the 6 year old on her own.  It must include massive parental involvement.  She commented to me that studies suggest doing homework before grade four does not increase students grades or reading level.  In fact, the same studies show that doing homework after grade four increases grades by 30%.  She wanted to know my views on homework.  Now, I'm careful who I share these views with, but I'll just out myself here.  I have a problem with parents and kids sitting up until all hours of the night dragging themselves through homework, instead of resting up and preparing for another vibrant day of learning.

I'm against most forms of homework and assessments that are not created by the learner.  So let's say I'm learning how to make daal, and I decide to become curious about the exact names of the spices in the powdered mixture I used in my first attempt because I want to use whole seeds/grains the next time.  So I give myself homework. I assess with taste.  Or, I want to figure out how to use a particular programming language to do a specific thing and I buy 5 books on the language (like Tef does for the math).  I'm for homework like that.

Back to the conversation.  I told my friend my opinion with great enthusiasm.  Isaiah thought he would weigh in on the conversation and took the phone.  He commented that he doesn't really care whether to do or not to do homework (he didn't do much homework himself in school).  He did, however, remember something about me in our final year as undergrads.  We had a group that hung out, studied together, etc, an assorted bunch, but two of us were Computer Science majors.  My friend C. was industry to the letter.  He had very neat notes for every lecture, which were re-written for clarity within 24 hours.  He tutored everyone, including me.  At that time in our college, most assignments were for 'enrichment' and did not contribute to the final grade.  I didn't do those. C. could explain the questions and answers to me.  In most cases, the final examination was 80% or 90% of the final grade.  Isaiah remembers a specific exam that I was sure would be my downfall: Comparative Study of Programming Languages.  I sat C. down, had him explain the highlights, quizzed him on the things I wanted clarification on and went to the exam.  I got an 'A'.  I was elated that the system was so flawed... until I heard C. had gotten a 'B+'.  How can the system be so flawed?

What if I was studying dentistry or becoming a pilot or something like that?  Perhaps those assessments are better reflections of the actual skills needed to to the task well.  C. was and continues to be a great programmer. Isaiah commented how heartbroken we all were for him because if anyone deserved to be on the Dean's list, it was C.

Back to the conversation: Isaiah said that he hasn't really seen me do 'homework' or 'study' (I did too study, honey!) but he sees me constantly learning things just because I find them interesting, and he is seeing that happen with our kids.  So today, I announced that we would be drawing the map from Portugal to the Bahamas and marking Columbus' trip across the Atlantic.  Simonne said 'Yeah!' I know, it sounds nerdy, but Simonne and Zachary really enjoy drawing, and they enjoy the globe, maps, where in the world  things, places are, so actually drawing the map is a real treat.  I told her in a couple years we will draw the whole world map, and she was irritated.  Why a couple years, she asked.

The tension between 'age appropriate standards' and learning what feels good and right is always there.  Yet, just the idea that 'everybody' is embracing a particular philosophy has me being cautious.  What's really the point of education and systems of learning?  Is it to have us all knowing, and believing the same things?  It really isn't about teaching learning, since humans learn naturally.  It's like breathing.  Methods of learning vary, so the things that we want to be common knowledge will need a variety of methods for exploration so that a wide variety of people will 'get' it (Let's not even start talking about who decided what is 'common knowledge').  Still, the idea of making a difference in the world begs the argument that such individuals can't think and act 'like everyone else'.  Commonality is useful in many ways, but too much of it can feel like the herd careening off the cliff.  Who gets to say 'Let's think about this!'?  A friend recently commented to me that doing something others aren't doing requires a fair amount of arrogance.

I decided to do the history of the Americas for a bit in the Clarke Homeschool.  We started talking about Columbus.  You see, all I knew about him was something about 1492.  Whatever your views on whether he discovered anything (it's said that even to his death,  he thought he thought he had landed on islands off the coast of eastern India), his journey to the point of actually being considered by the king and queen in Spain took quite some inner stuff.  One book said the children on the street in Spain saw him and laughed, pointed and talking about the crazy man.  At the time, much of the Atlantic was uncharted, people still thought the earth was flat, that they would fall off at the end of the ocean, and that the ocean had monsters and was boiling at some points.  Even when he did get the go ahead to do the trip, he  had difficulty forcing a crew to go with him.  They reluctantly went, leaving weeping mothers and wives behind who were sure they were going to their death. On the journey, he alternately threatened them with treason (since they thought to throw the madman overboard and return to Spain) and entreated them with the promise of treasure.  It took ...well... balls to do what Chris did.  Him and everyone else in history who pursued an idea, who had a contrary thought and researched it, who gave themselves more and more homework because the drive to learn and understand and do whatever it was consumed them.

I think about my own preoccupation with what  people think, a preoccupation that can consume the very ideas that want to consume me.  Maybe I've had too much school.  As a homeschooler, I started out unschooling, and I've gradually shifted to a more structured program, in response to this tension, this need to be teaching the right thing to the right people at the right age.  While the structure is keeping me sane, the idea behind my unschooling was getting out of the man-made square peg or round hole and allowing everyone to explore, and so get into their own grove, find their own place.  I'm starting with myself.  As I relearn comfort with my own thoughts, in the absence of majority opinion, I grow me, and maybe, I can share my growing self with these little Clarkes and model what I so earnestly want to teach.

A scene from Secretariat:
Richest man about - "You're guaranteeing that this horse is going to win the triple crown? ... That hasn't been done in 25 years.  You're that stubborn?"
House wife horse owner - "I'm that right".

What value is all our learning if we don't allow ourselves to explore and pursue our ideas with chutzpah?

1 comment:

  1. This discussion is very interesting; thanks to both you and Tef for sparking it. Looking back at my life, I think I basically sleepwalked through all of school and college. I did very well, but never questioned the learning process itself, and took a lot of things for granted because they were easy for me. Now, with two decades in the 'real world' under my belt and two kids at opposite ends of the learning spectrum, I see our teaching methods in a very different light, and am able to consider alternate models. Tef, I'm intrigued by your idea of postponing college till one achieves more clarity on one's purpose, and would love to hear more. What could a high-school graduate do to help achieve that increased clarity? I have one niece applying for college right now, and a nephew in his junior year, and I wish I could have been more of help in clarifying their paths.

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