I’m going to go ahead and disappoint my teenage self, and not for the reasons I usually do. I’ve heard a lot of students and a lot of people totally unaffiliated with teaching criticize homework. I’ve heard my students whine when I assign them reading to be done outside the 200 minutes I see them every week. I’ve read remarkable emails explaining why finishing an assignment at home is just unreasonable. I’ve seen the eyes of my high school students gleam with malice when I steal a little of the meager time they have for life outside my classroom. And I’m not about to stop because I know something that every single person with a skill they’ve learned knows: it takes practice to be good at something. That shouldn’t be a revelation, but then again, we also shouldn’t need warnings on irons that say things like “DO NOT IRON CLOTHES WHILE WEARING THEM” so maybe some obvious things require directions.
I’ve also read articles about the flaws with homework. They often state that students are overloaded with work, or they don’t retain the knowledge outside an academic environment, or the ratio of time to learning is so left-heavy that it’s not worth assigning work that’ll take 5 hours and teach one thing. However, despite what we might learn from toddlers in charge of American healthcare, a flaw in a system does not necessitate getting rid of the system itself. Instead of doing away with homework and putting the work of teaching massive topics onto the shoulders of a single hour a day, maybe the homework given should just be better.
I took an art class during the last semester of my undergrad, and I learned how to draw a pumpkin using bits of charcoal, and I learned that crayons have a pretentious cousin called pastels. My pumpkin-drawing skills have not improved since that class, and they honestly never even approached adequate based on how far the teacher had to reach to find something nice to say about them. “Good effort” is the participation trophy of the grading world. Unlike my dismal charcoal gourds, my crayon-ing improved, and the only reason it did was because we had several homework assignments that required me to take my crayons home with me so I could try to draw something. There wasn’t time in the class for all of us to continue practicing coloring in the lines, so we did that work at home, and miraculously, because I had the chance to fuck up enough that I stopped fucking up as much, my crayon skills developed. A situation almost identical to me and my crayons is Slash, the legendary guitarist for Guns ‘N Roses. Me and Slash both practice the tools of our trade, we both work to get better, we have exactly the same fashion sense, and–though I can’t necessarily speak directly for Slash–we both probably didn’t assume we’d become the experts we grew to be after a few hour-long sessions learning something for the first time.
I’ve also heard about the schools in mystical places with names like Slaboodia where they don’t have homework and the classrooms all have trampoline floors and every child can speak nine languages and the teachers are paid in lost pirate treasure and the country is in the top 5 best educated in the galaxy, but Slaboodia also has 4 children in the whole country, and it’s a lot easier teaching 4 kids than it is taking on 25.
The problem I see isn’t so much the amount of work students are asked to do, though that definitely is a real issue. The problem is that the work students have to do at home doesn’t seem worth doing to them, either they aren’t learning or the work isn’t fun–yes, work can and often should be fun. My defense of homework is that the work should be useful, it should help students practice a skill because that’s how we learn. And I think the work should be fun because school is hard, being young really sucks, and work is so much easier to do when you actually want to do it.