Friday, September 20, 2013

Home/Work Balance

If this article even somewhat reflects the state of schools today, then something is seriously out of whack.

The eighth grader here has between three and five hours of homework every night. I didn't have that much in the final year of high school.

I don't have kids, or I would be considerably better informed about the changes our school system has undergone since the '80s. As it is, I get sporadic reports from friends on Facebook who are parents, and invariably I have to pick my jaw up off the floor: the constant fundraising, the completely different schoolyard ethos, and most notably the homework...

Things were so different when I was in school (he wheezed), Fundraising--there was the occasional bake sell even as far back as first grade, and I think it was grade six before I was enlisted as a door-to-door orange salesman. Nowadays the money grab never ends. Either school has gotten considerably more expensive over the years or the funding for it has been cut dramatically. If the latter, I really have to question who decided something was more important than the education of the coming generation...not to mention just what that something might be.

The schoolyard is something I've touched on before. From the idiotic (and thankfully short-lived) ban on balls in one Toronto schoolyard ("somebody could get hurt!") to the asinine rule in place in my local school board (don't throw a snowball: you'll be suspended even if it doesn't hit anyone), I wouldn't last a week in school today without being suspended, expelled and probably charged.

But the homework is what I really want to talk about here. I'm actually offended at the amount of homework inflicted on children today--again, if the article linked above is at all representative.
Again, I'm not sure what has happened here.

I'm an ardent defender of the trodden-upon: it comes from being trodden upon myself over years, mostly at school. I will step into the breach to defend the integrity of police officers, who should be among the most admired people and (online, at least) are instead among the most despised. I will even defend telemarketers and door-to-door salespeople, while privately believing with all my heart that both occupations should be made illegal. It goes without saying that I won't think twice to defend teachers, who are tasked with arguably the most important job there is and paid, many of them, like office drones. I don't think the problem here is that teachers have abdicated teaching and left the kids to themselves.
The curriculum has obviously expanded, as more and more things that used to be left up to parents are now the responsibility of teachers. I actually don't have a problem with this: I have seen entirely too many parents all too content to let the teachers raise their little darlings...and at least teachers are trained to the task. But that doesn't explain the homework.

I didn't get *any* homework until grade four, and even then the homework was of the school project variety, with  deadlines weeks away instead of hours. I can't speak for grades seven and eight--I spent those two years in a "gifted" program where no homework was assigned at all and we students were by and large left to our own devices--but even through much of high school my homework load wasn't too onerous. I had one class, a grade thirteen geography course taught by one Mr. Shaw, that loaded on homework like nobody's business--the very first night we were instructed to freehand a map of Canada, "as detailed as possible", and subsequent nights involved intensive study of the seigneurial system of New France, the concessions of southern Ontario, and the colonization patterns of Northern Ontario and the Canadian West. Mr. Shaw told us that first day that since we were all heading to university, he was going to treat his course like a university course...and he did. Actually, I found his class considerably more interesting and challenging than anything I encountered years later. Mr. Shaw didn't read textbooks to us. We were expected to read the textbooks ourselves...but first we had to find them. He worked us like mules...but at the end of the year--and I'll never forget this--he paid out of his own pocket for the class to attend SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) to see the third Blue Jay game ever played there. It was the first time they closed the roof halfway through. The roof leaked. Badly.

That one course is the only time I can ever remember being overwhelmed with homework. And even though I was a keener/brown-noser, I'm not saying that because I particularly enjoyed doing it. I just didn't get it.
Now we have kids in grade eight being told to read 79 pages of Angela's Ashes in a single night.  For one class!
I've read Angela's Ashes. It's a wonderful (albeit incredibly depressing) book. But to most eighth graders I'm pretty sure the relentless poverty described in that novel would come off as tedious. And algebra equations! I don't recall running into algebra before grade ten, and I know this because it was like hitting a brick wall for me.
If the curriculum is being accelerated--and it sure seems to be--what's at the top end of it now? Because I know for a fact that universities are still finding their first-year students are woefully deficient in written communication and basic math skills. I was horrible at math and I can easily out-arithmetic people half my age.

Put me firmly in the homework is unnecessary camp. With a properly designed curriculum, kids will be inspired to learn on their own time, but they won't (and don't) do it chained to a desk.

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