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Good Homework, Bad Homework

What should children do after school?

My nephew Charlie just finished his second week of third grade. When I called the other night to find out how he liked his new classroom, he couldn’t speak on the phone. He was too busy doing his homework. I asked his mom, my sister, how often he had homework. “Are you kidding?” she answered. “Every night. He’s pretty angry about it.” I asked her how much homework he had each night, and she said, “Somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours.” All I could say was, “No wonder he’s angry”.

I was truly surprised that his school would allow that amount of homework for an eight year old. The research has been pretty unequivocal that homework for children that age has little benefit. The reasons are fairly clear. At eight, most children are still learning to subsume their own spontaneous interests in order to reach some long-term goal. The more externally derived the goal the harder it is for them to put aside what they want to do, in order to do what someone else has told them to do. In other words, it’s hard to practice writing skills, or do addition, when everything in you is saying, “build a tower out of blocks”, “take apart this defunct telephone and see what’s inside” or “dress up in all of these old clothes and pretend to be a pirate”. However, when the goal is important (help set the table for family dinner, feed the animals, clean the car, practice throwing a ball so I can make it onto the baseball team”, eight year olds may be able to put aside the most immediately appealing activity. But asking them to suppress their own impulses and put aside their own interests in order to do something that is tedious and difficult in order to reach an abstract and meaningless goal (get good grades so you can get into college, be a better mathematician so you can do algebra) is particularly misguided. And yet that’s what Charlie’s school is asking him to do. The ability to persevere at tedious tasks in order to reach an abstract or faraway goal doesn’t come overnight, nor does it come simply through training. It is a developmental process.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not worried that Charlie might have to do things he doesn’t like, and it’s fine for him to feel angry or frustrated sometimes. Children aren’t happy all the time no matter what the adults around them do, and it’s fine to make children do things they don’t want to do (go to bed, speak quietly, refrain from hitting others, clear the table, and so forth). But by requiring Charlie to do two hours of homework a day, his teachers are working against development and they are subverting some of the healthiest parts of his intellectual and personal proclivities.

At age eight, healthy typically developing children are inclined towards industry. They want to be active, to acquire new skills, make things, and to understand new ideas and information. They want to learn. But they learn best when they are genuinely interested in what they are learning. Ann Renninger has shown that babies examine objects more extensively when they are given things in which they have shown a prior interest. Suzanne Hidi has shown that school age children remember more from a story when they have expressed interest in reading the story. Study after study demonstrates that children’s interest is linked to effective mastery of skills and content. But more generally, Charlie is learning, at an awfully early age that school spells drudgery. This is a shame, since he would no doubt spend a good part of those two hours doing things that would be equally valuable, in the long run, for his intellectual development. Of course, there is a big caveat here. If the alternative to that homework is watching television, and NOT talking about what he has viewed with adults, then the homework might be a good idea. But even then, why not give him homework he would find absorbing, for example: writing a story, making a contraption, collecting bugs, or measuring the furniture and people in his home.

A lot is being made these days about the value of self-control, grit, and persistence. Researchers like Angela Duckworth have shown that these characteristics predict academic success at least as well, if not better than ability. However, the research has not yet shown us what the best way is to instill these qualities in children who don’t come by them naturally.

More on that in a forthcoming blog.

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