Opinion on Elementary School Homework Policy

The following is a letter I wrote to the principal of my daughter’s elementary school, in support of a plan to limit the amount of homework given to our kids. It is a supplement to my blog entry, “The Data/Human Goal Gap“.

I heard you mention at Open House on Wednesday that you are considering a policy that would limit the amount of homework our kids are given. I am writing to give my strong support for that idea.

You mentioned that we should take a step back and think about what we are trying to accomplish with homework. What is the actual purpose of homework?

I have one child in college now, and one in high school, in addition to the one in elementary school. And here is what I keep hearing educators *say* the purpose is: to prepare you for the next level. In elementary school, they tell you it’s to prepare you for the amount of homework you get in middle school. In middle school, they tell you it’s to prepare you for the amount of homework you get in high school. In high school, they tell you it’s to prepare you for the amount of homework you get in college.

So ultimately, under this argument, the purpose of giving homework to a kindergartener is so that the kid won’t get shocked at a workload that might come 13 years later.

This is absurd. It does not take 13 years to adjust to the amount of homework you get in college. If you had never had homework, and you get to college, how long would it take you to adjust to this new level of homework? I think it’s maybe three or four weeks. It’s certainly not 13 years.

Of course, the *stated* reasons are not always the *actual* reasons. I think the actual reason educators at all levels give out so much homework is one they do not want to admit out loud: if we don’t give out homework, we’re afraid our test scores won’t be as high as they could be, and then the school administration will put a lot of pressure on us, and pressure is unpleasant.

The awful thing about that reason is that it’s a reason that is not for the benefit of the kids. It’s for the benefit of people who have to survive in a competitive environment that the emphasis on test scores creates.

I understand that reason, and why it’s not a reason anyone wants to admit out loud. I get it. Educators have to live in that test-score environment, like it or not. It’s not something an individual educator has much power to unilaterally change.

I don’t know what to do about the test score culture, either. But I would like to take an even bigger step back, and ask some bigger questions, beyond what the purpose of homework is, or what test scores are good for.

What is the purpose of education? And here’s an even bigger question still: what is the purpose of childhood?

The answer to what we think childhood is for trickles down to the answer to what we think education is for. The answer to what we think education is for trickles down to what we think test scores are for, which then trickles down to what we think homework is for.

What is the purpose of childhood?

That is not a question that I hear many people asking, or answering. It’s a deep philosophical question. But the problem is, if you do not try to ask and answer questions like this explicitly, they get answered implicitly. Which means all the other answers are have an unstated, unexamined assumption at their foundation.

Having observed our education system for fourteen years now, here’s what I think our education system’s implicit, unstated answer to the top-level question is: the purpose of childhood is to prepare the child for adulthood.

I disagree with this answer.

Preparing for adulthood is *a* purpose of childhood. It is not *the* purpose of childhood. There’s a big difference.

When our forefathers gave the right to a pursuit of happiness as one of our core American values, they did not define happiness as something that only happens to you when you’re 50 years old and you’ve lived a life as successful citizen. They left happiness as something for individuals to define for themselves at any point in their lives.

Childhood is not merely a stepping stone on the path to a job and a mortgage and a retirement plan. Childhood is a destination in and of itself.

That means we should not only be preparing our kids for happiness thirty years into the future. We should be providing happiness right now. Today.

We should be providing happiness to a five year old as a five year old defines happiness. We should let a third grader pursue happiness as a third grader envisions it. A sophomore in high school should have access to a sophomore’s version of meaningful life.

And this means our children should have the time to climb a tree, slide down a slide, chase a bird, cover themselves in mud, scribble chalk all over a sidewalk, play tag, read a book, play a video game, watch a movie, pretend to be a prince or a princess or a pro athlete or a doctor or a teacher, build a sandcastle, destroy a sandcastle, play catch, do a cartwheel, do a somersault, just hang out with their friends and joke and gossip and goof around, or whatever happiness the child wants to pursue at any given moment.

And they should do those things not because those things somehow prepare them to become responsible adults in the future. They should do those things because those things have value by themselves, in this moment, right now. Their lives have value not just for the future, but for what they are today.

This moment, right now, matters just as much as a moment thirty years from now.

When you assume that the purpose of childhood is to prepare for adulthood, you think nothing of assigning a bunch of homework. It’s harmless at worst, and all in the service of the greater good, so on the whole, it can only be a net positive.

But if you assume a different purpose for childhood, homework is not harmless. Homework is taking something valuable away from the children. When I see my child spending a large chunk of her afternoon or evening or weekend or winter break or even summer break doing homework, it angers me. It’s disrespectful.

I am not asking for there to be no homework at all. I’m sure homework has some value, as a matter of making sure that good study habits and self-discipline can persist beyond the watchful eye of the teacher. But this value can be extracted with a minimal intrusion upon the time a child has to be a child.

The hours a child has as a child should not be treated as a resource that belongs to the education system to do with as they see fit. It should be looked at as a resource that belongs to the child, which the education system should only intrude upon reluctantly and respectfully.

This reluctance and respect for the value of a child’s time is the #1 thing I want to see in our homework policy. I was very happy to hear you are giving this idea serious consideration, and I want you to know you have my support. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help.


Ken Arneson

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