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The Scourge of Busywork

Consider a classic scene, repeated countless times every night:  A student has lugged home a backpack loaded with five or six heavy textbooks.  She opens one up - her assignment is to read fifteen pages and answer a set of questions at the end of the chapter.  Maybe she skims through the pages, or perhaps she turns directly to the questions.  She reads the first one, turns back to the chapter to find the answer, and dutifully writes it down.  She repeats this for the rest of the questions, closes the book with relief, and turns to the next subject’s homework.  Tomorrow she will turn the homework in, the teacher will acknowledge that she did it - possibly by rewarding her with some points - the class will go over the answers together, and tomorrow night she will repeat the process.

Perhaps this student learned something in the process, but that wasn’t really the point for her.  Completing the homework is an essential part of earning good grades.  She is successfully doing school.  Unfortunately, what she has completed is a simulation of learning - it only looks like the real thing.

This discouraging and highly ineffective process is a mainstay in the lives of many students.  And those are the successful ones.  As every teacher knows, the unsuccessful students often lack the motivation to do even that much work.  For many teachers, the fact that a student completes all her homework is evidence that she is learning the material, and of course, that does sometimes happen.  But when homework is experienced as busywork - an extremely common experience for many students - learning is a fringe benefit.  Doing hours of homework every night does not ensure that any significant learning has taken place.

When students perceive homework as meaningful and useful, it becomes a powerful tool in the learning process.  Being much more effective, even small doses have a large impact on mastery.  It’s worth noting that in Finland - whose educational system is consistently ranked the most successful- students average less than a half hour of homework per night.

The good news is that rethinking the purpose of homework and grounding it in a culture of learning, can transform it into the powerful tool it should be.  For more on how this can be done, see “Reframing Student Work”.


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Compliance Is Not Responsibility

A lot of harsh behavior on the part of teachers and administrators is done in the name of teaching students to be responsible.  Overly punitive responses to infractions like tardiness or not turning in homework on time are rationalized as helpful in training students in the value of making deadlines.  Unfortunately, what they are often really learning is that they will be punished if they don’t do as they are told.

There is another way.  Assuming we truly want our students to become responsible for their own behavior, they must internalize the desire to do the right thing, and that requires our treating them with respect and trust.

If a student misses a deadline, for example, instead of giving her no credit for the assignment, it would be more productive to help her see the cost of her actions, such as not being prepared to have a conversation with her study group, and therefore letting her group mates down as well as losing an opportunity for genuine learning.  If this is handled non-judgmentally, the student might actually begin the process of critiquing her own behavior.  Perhaps she procrastinates, or she is working a side job for too many hours each week.  Giving her a zero is unlikely to cause her to challenge those problems nearly as effectively as a compassionate conversation about how she might deal with them.  Allowing her a choice in how to get the work done, and setting a realistic deadline helps her learn to take charge of her actions.  This is how she will learn to be truly responsible.

One further and all-too-frequent excuse for punitive behavioris that it prepares students for “the real world”.  This assumes that what we are doing in school is somehow not real, and it projects a bleak image of the world outside of school.  Surely, if a person has an abusive boss later in life, there are more responsible ways to deal with it — working to change the situation, or, in the worst case, finding another job — than simply submitting to oppressive conditions.

Our job is not to train our students to comply with the worst aspects of “the real world”.  If education works well, they will deal with that world responsibly, and perhaps even work to make it better.