With a child just starting kindergarten, I’ve been engaging in that popular pastime of parents and old fogeys: sitting around with other parents and old fogeys and saying, “Well, in my day, we didn’t have all this new-fangled educational stuff, and we liked that way.”
Having a kid actually ought to make you more humble about just how reliable your memories of early childhood really are, I suppose. I’m pretty sure that my kindergarten wasn’t anywhere nearly as ambitious as my daughter’s public school kindergarten appears to be. It’s only a half-day session, but they have what seem to me to be some pretty ambitious pedagogical goals. Moreover, they’re not particularly subtle about the way they’re trying to condition parents and kids to what’s coming next, particularly in terms of trying to habituate us to a shared responsibility for homework.
So I’ve been reading a bit about homework, and comparing notes with parents. There is a lot of variation across districts, not just in the amount of homework that kids are being asked to do, but in the kind of homework. Some districts give kids a lot of time-consuming busywork, other districts try to concentrate on having homework assignments be substantive work that is best accomplished independently. Some give a lot from a very early point in K-12 education, some give relatively little. As both a professional educator and an individual with personal convictions, I’d tend to argue against excessive amounts of homework and against assigning busywork. But what has ultimately interested me more about reading various discussions of homework is how intense the feelings are swirling around the topic, and how much that intensity strikes me as a problem in and of itself. Not just as a symptom of a kind of civic illness, an inability to collectively and democratically work through complex issues, but also in some cases as evidence of an educational failure in its own right.
I don’t recall how I found them, but look at these two sets of responses to coverage of two books about homework from Seattle. One has had some editorial selectivity applied to it, the other is basically a raw set of online responses. The edited debate is more balanced, mutually respectfully and factually coherent. The raw debate, though, is far more typical of the kinds of filters and passions that apply to K-12 education in general across the country, or at least so it seems to me.
What strikes me about some of the most passionate responses is how much they are statements about the moral, political and emotional worlds different individuals inhabit rather than considered empirical statements about education, economic growth, or the general welfare of the nation. Take the people who have a perception that “out there” somewhere, there are national populations intensively drilled in mathematics and science who are for that reason already or imminently about to snatch away American economic preeminence, as if something like outsourcing (or the hiring of foreign nationals in some American businesses within the United States) is a consequence of the superior rigor and intensity of education in South Asia, China, Western Europe or elsewhere. Look at Somini Sengupta’s article in Tuesday’s New York Times for some perspective on that assumption. Particularly look at where the meaningful skills gaps are appearing as the demand for employees in tech-oriented businesses booms: “technical skills”, yes, but also in the ability to make oral presentations, work in teams and in language ability. In other contexts, including within American businesses, I suspect you’d hear about gaps in employees’ ability to interpret information, to respond flexibly to changing circumstances and adapt to innovation, to operate shrewdly within organizational politics, to understand complex data. And sure, I think you’d hear about innumeracy or technological illiteracy as well.
What we need from education, and how we get it, strike me as interesting, important problems. Everyone has a stake in those questions, whether or not they have children. But as I work through this debate I find myself less concerned with any given orthodoxy about K-12 education, and the place of homework within it, than with the dogmatism of many stakeholders. If you want an example of how the culture wars ill-serve all of us, this is a good case. People rise to the dangling bait of a discussion about homework because they see as a chance to score points against their cultural enemies, or because of a particular dogmatic view of economic competition and international relations, or some other fixed perspective that really doesn’t have much to do with the questions at hand. You’d think in a way that all Americans would have learned a lesson from the last round of frantic overreaction to the perceived advantages of the rigors of a national educational system, in the case of overwrought claims about the relationship between Japanese economic strength and its primary school curriculum. At the very least, whatever made Japan’s economy strong, and then after that, quite weak and vulnerable, didn’t have much to do with schools; arguably, the relative rigidity and misplaced intensity of its approach to education was actually a contributing factor to the structural problems that Japan has faced since the ending of its boom.
Lately, I’ve found myself at the peak of a periodic cycle of frustration with blogging and online discussion. I think it’s partly because I get told periodically by friends and readers that I expect too much of it, that I just need to filter out all the noise and hubbub, all the people engaged in culture war, all the dialogic illiteracy. What’s the point if you have to filter all that? Because I really do think that there is both practical and abstract peril in that kind of “skills gap”, in some ways far more so than with simple weakness in mathematics or competency in writing. In a way, what I think Americans might need most from their educational system is to better learn the arts and science of public reason, about how to form arguments and opinions and respect evidence. That’s not just about the health of the body politic or about how we sustain community. It’s also an economically valuable skill set, both for its social and its intellectual strengths. If I could assign homework to the people who care about homework, it would be to rethink how they approach the art and science of debating with others. Strong opinions require strong evidence, not just passionate intensity. Scientific literacy requires scientific thought, not just rote knowledge, which means an ability to engage in exploratory learning and a healthy dose of general skepticism. Good analytic writing requires the ability to see an issue from several sides at once, to think through the consequences and roots of an argument.