Progressive thinkers on education, around the world, have never believed in homework. In fact, in his The Homework Myth, Alfie Kohn argues compellingly about the damage that homework does to children. He says that a mistrust of children, misconceptions about learning and parents’ focus on competitiveness are the reasons the education system embraces homework and this has resulted in more conflict within families.
I think the fault lies in the nature of homework. Traditionally, the idea of homework is that once a chapter has been taught, the student goes home and copies the answers to some questions based on that chapter from the textbook to the notebook. Naturally, this serves no purpose whatsoever.
Ultimately, homework is work; and if we examine the connotations of the word “work” and see the emotional response it evokes, work is clearly seen as a burden. However, if a child derives intrinsic joy from that work, engaging with head, heart and hands, then the negativity disappears.
Incidentally, in contemporary civil discourse, I find an increasing infatuation with work-life balance. To my mind, this is absurd. Work should be a stress-buster, not a source of stress. And this is true about homework also.
So any homework at all must be crafted as an activity that is meaningful and has relevance. It should create a context for children and parents to work together; more so in the formative years, thus leading to superior emotional bonding.
Our philosophy is that children are born with an innate capacity to comprehend this world and nothing can be taught. So, the role of a truly progressive school is simply to co-create an environment in which students go through an experience, reflect on it, understand it in the abstract and then conceptualize and learn. Dialogue and enquiry reinforces the process and the student evolves into a lifelong autonomous learner. Unfortunately, most schools are didactic, a one-way, autocratic instruction-led classroom engagement.
We often notice that quite a few parents are uncomfortable with our policy of not assigning too much homework. At times they come to us and ask us to assign more homework. This comes from their sense of insecurity as parents. They find it difficult to engage children at home and think that there should be something to keep them busy. Parents also want some time for themselves and they would rather see the child doing some work than, say, watching TV.
Meaningless repetitive tasks turn children into mindless conformers or active rebels. This can be just as damaging as watching too much TV. The most important kinds of homework I recommend are the ones that involve parents spending time with children—reading a story, finding answers to questions, exploring, experiencing and then talking about it.
The only exception to the foregoing views is for subjects where a high degree of practice is required. Practice has its own benefits. So in subjects such as mathematics and languages, for example, teachers can assign a maximum of 30 or 40 minutes of homework in aggregate to students in higher classes.
Our problem, as parents who have been raised in the traditional system of education, is that competition has been drilled into us. So we assume that any additional effort will help us have an edge over others, that spending 3 hours a day after school, right from Day 1 in school, will ensure admission into an IIT. But this method ends up creating robots out of us. It kills the natural curiosity and creativity of children and force-fits them into highly structured compartments. That’s why we now have engineers who have studied in the best engineering college, but don’t know how to screw a light bulb on.
Mahesh Prasad is the principal of The Heritage School, Gurgaon.
As told to Veena Venugopal.
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