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Score at the Top Blog

An Education Meltdown?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

I was struck dumb. Jason had sent me an article about a recent Australian study whose data call into question the role of school homework assignments in developing student minds. Homework has little benefit, the study shows. How counterintuitive does that sound?

But suddenly, the image came to mind of today’s American bus stops where children bend beneath boulders of books they transport to and from school. With the usual tinge of vicarious pleasure, I considered the two or three hours of daily high school homework over which I labored at my Long Island “country day school,” and how it pales when compared with the mass of assignments kids seem to have today. Wistful? Nostalgic? Words too nice, given that today’s American schools are in deep trouble every which way you consider them. Our students, like our 21st century American society, are viewed with skepticism by other developed countries who students excel. What in the world is going on? What streams of events and attitudes have joined into a river of faltering education and learning competencies?

Textbooks are thick with theories, explanations, answers, and the like. Knowledge acquisition and its history have been revised so many times over the last half century. Textbook manufacturers have fallen over themselves to incorporate methodologies, pretty pictures, and relevance. Despite the rush to present the best we can print, despite the information glut, students don't seem to enrich themselves to the point where short-term memory (for tomorrow’s quiz) becomes long-term comprehension. Our students struggle to get from point A to point B without taking in the scenery–without developing deep understanding.

It’s not that my peers or I were somehow deeper thinkers than kids are today. But we had time to stretch the mind and body. There were moments to kick the can down the street. Life had a simple strain to it. Sure, teen problems were the same: acne, driving, friendship. What was missing back then, though, was today’s sense of work for work’s sake. If you do tons of homework, you’ll grow smart. Even if educators won’t accept that depiction of the status quo, the homework treadmill has become a catch-all for missing learning that should occur differently.

How many aphorisms in English are built around the notion that simplicity breeds understanding? A simplistic notion in itself, the idea of clarity and ease of understanding belies a deeper signal: that grammar and basic arithmetic, that love of reading have apparently fallen by the wayside. Textbooks get more complicated, thicker, heavier, because our culture associates heft with depth. And yet our education remains stuck.

We Americans love to systematize, quantify, codify, and test. We simply can’t do without our systems, and therein lies the rub: intellectual growth needs rigor, to be sure, but it also needs an extensive horizon with hills and peaks and oceans in full view—and a chance to explore without capitulating to schedules. Because it’s easy task to change—to go back—to simplicity as a learning tool, we capitulate. Channeling curiosity into some forms of homework assignments will continue to have just the opposite effect we yearn for when it comes to our children. Somehow, we’ve gotten mired in the model, and we’re sinking.