With Labor Day coming soon to a picnic near you, it will mark the arrival of a cruel trick that the "holiday-makers” play each year on kids and parents alike. We're supposed to celebrate work with a day off from it, and we're expected to buy into the belief appearing on the US Department of Labor website that Labor Day "is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers." For many of us, though, Labor Day is nothing more than a Day of Mourning as it really marks the end of summer. And the beginning of school. Of course, homework soon follows.
What does this all mean? Many parents meet the start of school with a warm embrace as it returns routine to their children's lives (and keeps the latter out of their parents' hair). But, for many of these same parents, the reality is that children are also expected to bring school home with them. It's called homework, and it's supposed to mean "work that students are assigned to do at home."
So now begins the annual debate about the actual need for homework. Some think that home-work is an oxymoron. It's kind of like the words "civil war". And this is precisely what happens in many households - a civil war erupts over homework as parents and their kids engage in constant combat over their inalienable rights to a stress-free household. Home is home and work is work - and never shall the two co-mingle. There should be a clearly delineated line of demarcation. Not coincidentally, this is generally where the battles are waged - by educators, students, and parents alike.
Think about it - who even likes homework? Most kids don't and for a variety of reasons (it's "dumb", or it's too hard, or it's useless, it's boring. OK, but is it less appealing than emptying the dishwasher?). Most parents don't like it because it encroaches upon family space and time (not to mention the aforementioned battles with their children that arise over its completion - after establishing that it was actually assigned). And the teachers who assign it don't particularly care for it either because, in a bizarre twist of circumstances, they end up lugging the stuff home to grade. That last point, by the way, is one of the many issues up for debate about homework - should it count as an element of a student's grade?
There are other issues about homework as well. Is it fair that some students get homework help from their parents and/or tutors while others have to fend for themselves? Should teachers grade homework? If they choose to (and some don't, which is the aforementioned issue above), how much should it count (in this case, it's like a sliding fee scale for teachers, with some weighing it much more than others)? If you subscribe to the position that homework has its rightful place at the "kitchen table", then how much should be assigned? Should kids in elementary school get a free pass? When is an appropriate time to start assigning it? And how much? Finally (although we could go on and on), what impact does homework even have on academic achievement?
Well, on this last question - what impact does homework have on academic achievement? - it seems like Finland is the boss these days when it comes to comparing school systems. What's its position on homework? Finland's schools don't assign it (is that reason enough to move there?). Just behind first-place Finland in the top ten poll of best schools in the world is South Korea. Surely, you must think, it's banned there as well. Hardly. Not only do South Korean schools assign homework, tutoring there makes Kaplan and Princeton Review look like your mom and pop convenience stores. It's become so out-of-control that the government in South Korea has forbidden "crammer" (tutoring) schools to remain open past 10 pm.
So, who's right? The top two educational systems in the world as measured by international benchmarks are the yin and yang of homework policy. And it doesn't help either side of this argument when the other can point to a country that supports its position. The problem for some, though, is that education is supposed to be an engine of economic growth for a country and hard work is a manifestation of the Horatio Alger "rags-to-riches" story. So, why wouldn't we want students to work harder? For homework abolishers, they argue that homework perpetuates an already unfair system, aside from the belief that it encroaches upon family time, interferes with after-school activities like ballet and gymnastics and music lessons and SAT prep classes - wait, forget that last one. In other words, those who benefit from additional out-of-class assignments, so claim members of the free-students-from-homework movement, are the same students already in an advantageous position. How fair is that?
After all is said and done, though, do we even know for sure what homework really is? There was a time, perhaps, when work assigned for home was actually completed there. Today is a different story...and time. Ask a kid where s/he completed homework, and the answer (assuming it's "yes") could be in the car on the way to/from soccer practice or music lessons, or on the bus to/from school, or in Starbucks on a smartphone, or - wait - in class (the teacher finished class early and gave time to do the homework). And what does homework look like? Is there a difference between an out-of-class paper or project to be completed anywhere but in the classroom vs. questions at the end of the chapter unit - just the even-numbered ones?
Regarding the latter, meaning the questions for practice, why don't we delete the word "homework" and call the assignment what it's intended to be - practice. After all, isn't that what you're doing when you go to soccer or music or the test prep cl...? Just call it practice. Teachers should assign practice designed to help students improve whatever the desired behavior is for the prescribed period. If the practice is designed properly and delivered in appropriate measure and the students commit to practice in an intentional and attentional manner, then they should improve. That’s how practice is supposed to work. Should they be graded on it? Do the best performers get graded on their practice effort?
Home and work just don't belong next to each other. End it - the label, that is. Home and work are the oil and water in the family chemistry. Instead, call it practice. Better yet - call it purposeful practice because the practice ought to have a purpose to it. If it doesn’t, then what’s the point?
What does purposeful practice look like for master musicians, athletes, artists, scientists, and the like in this world? It looks like this - what they choose to practice with purpose can be repeated often (think dribbling or scales), genuine feedback is available continuously (think immediately and often), the practice is highly demanding mentally (think mental energy and focus), and - here's where we lose people - it often isn't much fun. Regarding that last point, it's kind of like the athlete who may sometimes not like to work out but most always loves the feeling of having worked out. It’s the process of purposeful practice that should be the focus.
Think about it. Most anything worth pursuing in life requires purposeful effort. Does it always have to be "fun" in order to do it? Purposeful practice is hard work. It's hard work for all of us. But with a growth mindset that sees the link between persistent effort and results, faith in one's efforts keeps hope alive. And the process of achieving brings genuine satisfaction. Everyone plays a part in this process - the student/athlete/musician, the teacher/coach/tutor, and the parent/guardian. It's a labor of love we all share.
As we embark on another trip through the school year, we should all work on improving our ability to practice. And we need to remember that practice doesn't always make perfect, but perfect purposeful practice certainly helps a whole lot. Practice on purpose. Practice with purpose. And make your practice a labor of love. In this way, each day can become a labor day.