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An Education Meltdown?

Last Updated: Mar 29, 2012 12:00:00 AM

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?

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


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