Sunday, March 8, 2015

Who Needs Homework or Education, Anyway?

Take yourself back to your beginning school years and what one feature of your schooling stands out? I'll bet it's all that homework that you were given and which your parents insisted you complete before you could go out to play or even go to bed at night. Homework was seen as the golden standard for succeeding in school and in life. Didn't do your homework? Well, that called for some sort of punishment or denial of privileges or whatever your cultural imperatives demanded for the surly child who would surely end up in the gutter if not for homework completion.

Ah, yes, homework provided the key to success in life and, like any medication you would take for an ailment, homework was the answer to all of life's future troubles and ills. It could, in the long run, help you pay for your medical bills. Imagine that.

Now, much to the chagrin of those of us who toiled through countless, numbing hours of saying our times tables aloud or persistently memorizing innumerable stanzas of impossible poems, the golden standard is being called into question. Wasn't memorizing "Oh, Captain, My Captain" worth all that time and effort at home and in class? How could that be? How could homework, all that we held as dear and sacred, be questioned and seen as inessential?

Surely, it must be some kind of a pseudo-intellectual plot to keep our kids in underpaid, temporary jobs for the rest of their existence. Would the lack of homework lead to barely a subsistence lifestyle, no chicken in every pot, car in the garage of our American-dream home, dismal weeks in sweltering heat with no AC and no vacation? OMG, we are on the verge of something terrible--a world without homework. No, no, say it's not so.

For me, I think we really have to do what some researchers are now doing--study the research that has been done on homework  and everything else and see how it relates to success in school. Don't depend on the media to provide it because it will be watered down to something only akin to the original results. Actually, this little bit of ferreting out the truth in research is quite worthwhile.

For one thing, we make an assumption that doing homework actually does have a salutary effect on school performance, test scores and success in college. Not so fast. Just asking how much time a kid spends on doing homework and how well they do in school may be too inadequate to show anything. It's the other factors that you need to consider and one, I would think, is the quality of the homework and what it's actually supposed to do for the child and the test itself.

Do national tests really do anything more than make everyone feel good that we're finally addressing our educational needs in this country? Or that we're concerned about the quality of our teachers? I don't think so.  They may just be another way of booting out teachers so that they can't be granted tenure (and what a boondoggle that one is) or a pension or benefits or some other fillip that equates to how much money we spend on education. And we do want to educate our kids, don't we?

But what type of "education" we provide is a wholly different thing. Is education brainwashing or intellectual development? Do we want to raise a generation of thinkers and those who will question in the service of advancing knowledge or obedient pencil-pushers who will follow orders and be happy with their sorry lot in life? We go from the inspired to the nefarious. Who sets this national mindset, anyway? Is it the product of true educators or those in the service of subservient mediocrity?

The key, of course, lies in who funds education and who promotes an agenda for the future. Eloquence in the service of either always has to be carefully considered because, like the commercial, words do hurt. The ones who will be hurt the most are the kids and the future generations that will come after them. Hark back to the 30s and listen to Orson Welles' voice of Lamont Cranston, "What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."

Obviously, dear old Lamont was a seeker of truth and goodness and boy could we use him now. Goodness and truth seem to be attached to a political donation or a school board appointment by a well-placed political friend. The school board, after all, is the stepping stone to higher political office as we all know, so it's not necessarily a hot bed of people with a strong pedagogic bent. It's building a power base for the comers.

What do they say about good intentions? Yes, the road to Hell is paved with them, but I'm not that cynical. I do, however, believe that everything that seems like a good intention isn't necessarily infused with that bit of fine morality. Words, my friend, remember that words are the powerful factor here and can be used for a multitude of purposes. So, listen but do not necessarily swallow all of it whole. Doing that can result in intellectual death.

One of the reasons I think national tests are thinly disguised measures of something other than supposed good intentions is that the kids have been taught to train for the tests. This flies in the face of true education. Training for tests isn't the same as training for an athletic competition. When you train for the physical test, you build muscle, reaction time, short-term goal planning and you have a very definite set of skills you need to develop. Training to take a specific test does nothing but hammer in rote memory without any consideration to questioning concepts.  You swallow it whole and that's all there is to it. No questioning allowed. The true test of an education isn't just how well you can do a math problem, but how you can conceptualize how to address a problem that doesn't fit into a specific test-prep scheme your teachers have been doggedly running you through.

If tests were such good predictors of success in school and if even grades were such good predictors, why are more and more universities giving less weight to them on admissions criteria? Well, it seems because the SAT, GRE, MAT or any other test really isn't a very good measure of anything other than this kid knows how to take a test. Being good at test taking doesn't mean you are good at anything else and may indicate a rather rigid approach to education in general.

Visions of lock stepping kids are now dancing through my head as I see virtual and real teachers forcing compliance on kids who are becoming numb to the whole educational experience. Where's the joy, the adventure of learning, the questions that seem to have no answers and are the latter okay to ask? Please, save the kids from this educational ghetto we're creating in the name of "standards." Is this the reason that we're seeing increasing of kids being home schooled? True, this has problems, too, but it can nurture that budding intellect that will benefit everyone on this planet.

The entire area of education and how best to provide it for everyone (not just kids at this point) would seem to mitigate for a non-profit think tank where the pursuit of excellence would be the goal. Remember, we have many more people in this country who would benefit from an education outside the school setting, but this need appears to be the prime target of those who seek to fatten their bottom line, not the neuronal circuits of "learners." Don't you find that word a bit off-putting?

Okay, don't call them students or consumers but is "learners" code for the newest entities on the block who want to gobble up all the educational funding (student loans included) without providing quality education at little to no cost? For me, I'm all for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) but I'm concerned about those people who don't have access to computers or Internet access in their homes. These are the students I want all of us to reach and to help them pull themselves up but will the biased allow us to do this work of charity toward others? Where are the free or inexpensive computers for older adults and seniors including kids from low-income homes? There are sites.

Unfortunately, One Laptop per Child is aimed at the "developing world" but does that include the United States? Two sites were mentioned in the Wiki article.  But we do have a very real and very glaring need for free or extremely cheap computers for kids in this country and they should be including our poor kids and struggling adults. Laptops and superior educational programs need to become available free of charge and local libraries can help with a loaner program of inexpensive laptops. But what about Internet access? A local broadband needs to be established to service communities free of charge, too. Who benefits? All of us and labeling it a social welfare program is just too dumb to even debate. If the NFL (National Football League) that earns billions each year can get listed as a non-taxable entity, what about our citizens in needs who live on something near subsistence?

Yes, it's charity because I believe we should all be giving in this effort to help others, especially the middle to older individuals who seek help and can't find it and have no tools to help them.  Abe Lincoln may have made it in a log cabin with an oil lamp and books, but in today's world we shouldn't be looking back but forward in terms of technology and how we can help. How much of the US is deprived of Internet access? And in what parts of the country is this and what is the job outlook in those area like for anyone trying to get a living wage there? Do a little searching.

There are reasons people are denied this access just as certain communities are denied bus routes. It's all part of a plan that doesn't fit in with caring for others. We should do things because it's the right thing but where is that right thing now in terms of education for all? And not just some watered-down version of education, but true education for everyone no matter who they are or where they live?

I think of the words of Hillel, "...if I am but for myself, And if I am only for myself, then what am I..."