Homework: The Argument Clinic Edition

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.

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16 Responses to Homework: The Argument Clinic Edition

  1. joeo says:

    I think you overemphasise the importance of dialogic literacy to a democracy. Everybody gets a vote and this means stupid and ill formed opinions matter. People get to persuade other people, but that takes persuasive language not adherence to some neutral evaluative framework.

    Homework is something people should be able to get angry about. Pages 186-195 of Annette Lareau’s book “Unequal Childhoods” describes a family made completely miserable by homework. The mom and the child have 2-3 hours of conflict over homework each night. If most of this homework is useless busywork, these peoples’ lives are being damaged for no reason.

  2. Laura says:

    I hate homework, in part because I do know some of the research behind its effectiveness or lack thereof. Much of the homework my kids bring home is busywork. It’s homework for the sake of doing homework. I wouldn’t mind longer term projects that require 1/2 hour or so each evening to work on. Homework is especially hard to manage when both parents work full time. When you don’t get home until 6 p.m., there’s not much time to do anything but homework and dinner.

    I agree with you about where I think education should be going. My experience for the last 7 years of public school doesn’t give me a huge amount of hope, but occasionaly we get a teacher who’s more interested in letting kids explore problems and think than in neatness and memorization (which seems to be far too prevalent).

  3. sjt says:

    “What’s the point if you have to filter all that?”

    I feel your pain, but, well, I wonder. Surely you have encountered such problems in other contexts than online discussion. Does similar behaviour in, say, your students, or your colleagues, or people you meet in the supermarket checkout line, not provoke the same despair? Do you have filtering methods that work in those contexts but not in online contexts?

  4. Alan Jacobs says:

    To sjt (and Tim): It’s actually pretty hard to think of a “real-life” situation that’s truly analogous to the world of blogs. Most of my serious conversations are with friends and family, and happen privately. When they happen in public space, typically others are occupied with their own conversations, which creates enough noise that we have at least some protection from eavesdropping; and even when people can overhear us, they rarely feel free to step in and participate. When we give public lectures the accepted protocols (except at places like Columbia University) offer limited and controlled opportunities for response. When we write articles and books, ditto — especially since the people who read what we have written are widely separated in space and time. Those are all situations in which there are far more filters than there are on online conversation.

    The closest live-and-in-person analogue that I can think of to blogging is street-corner speechifying, in the London Hyde Park Corner tradition. You find a very public place where anybody who happens to pass by can hear you and can respond. You put your ideas out there in the hope that among those who pass by there will be someone who really understands and profits from what you’re saying, or someone who can make a significant contribution to the conversation.

    It’s worth meditating on the fact that almost the only people who actually stand on the soapbox and make speeches at Hyde Park Corner are loonies. No sensible people do this, because they know that (a) almost no one really listens to such speeches and (b) those who do listen will probably respond with mockery. And yet again and again we get into conversations in the blogosphere hoping — hoping against hope? — for some truly productive conversation to take place. So the question arises: why do thoughtful and intelligent people like Tim Burke, who would never perch on a soapbox in Hyde Park, blog?

    I think B. F. Skinner had the answer: intermittent reinforcement. Even on a blog like this one, where the complexity and unpredictability of Tim’s posts would lead one to expect a lot of self-selection — where the far-more-intelligent-than-average commentary should discourage people who have no substantive and constructive contribution to make — there are still a disturbing number of commentators who haven’t really read the post, or are just reactionary, or who use other people’s blogs as places to ride their own hobby-horses regardless of the blogger’s concerns, or are just trolls.

    So why should Tim keep writing? (Or at least, keep enabling comments.) Because — tell me if I’m wrong here, Tim — there are just enough intelligent commentators, just enough thoughtful responses, to keep hope from dying. Just enough golden nuggets among the piles of shit. what Skinner discovered is that behavior that is rewarded intermittently is actually more difficult to alter than behavior that is rewarded consistently positively.

    And you know, I’m subject to the same Skinnerian laws. At one time there were probably a dozen blogs that I commented on regularly; now I’m down to two or three. This is one of them, which suggests that the gold-to-shit ratio is way above average here, for which Tim should be commended. By contrast, the overall condition of the blogosphere, even on the so-called “intellectual” blogs, is deeply discouraging; but even s, intermittent reinforcement will probably keep many of us coming back for more.

    I was going to go on and say something in response to Tim’s very interesting comments about training children in public discourse, but this comment is already too long. . . .

  5. virologista says:

    The “shared responsibility” idea of homework is a touch odd to me (old fogey sort of statement at age 26!). I don’t recall my parents helping me with homework consistently, or keeping track of what I was supposed to do–homework was just something I did (and my brother did not do). And this isn’t to say they weren’t engaged, there were certainly expectations that I take care of it, but I recall homework as being my responsibility.

    Also, I fear that “scientific thought” gets pigeon-holed as something to apply during hard science classes, instead of students learning to generate and test hypotheses in other subject areas.

  6. Ralph says:

    Alan, Your comments remind me, somehow, of the naive enthusiasm with which I left graduate school and looked forward to being a participating member of a faculty community. Surely, I thought a community of reasonably intelligent human beings with diverse interests would replicate, in small, the great conversations, the contending of minds with minds, that I’d only sensed at a distance up to that point. Hello! Haven’t we all been to faculty meetings and watched our colleagues and ourselves descend into the petty, the trivial, the banal, the mean-spirited, and the preening? Rarely, in less formal settings, I’ve experienced what I’d hoped to find over coffee, a drink, or a meal. And, despite my disappointment, I have a sense of humility from the realization that my presence in those and in the more formal gatherings was not transformative. We are too often drawn into the ethos that presents itself to us. That’s one of the reasons that I appreciate the level of conversation that goes on at Easily Distracted. Tim sets the tone with his posts and some good people do respond to that.

  7. David Chudzicki says:

    To the bit about skill gaps:

    Maybe it’s just too easy to pinpoint a specific area like math, and talk about our deficits in that. People acknowledge the job-related value of math and science, but it may not bother them “deep down” if we’re no good at them. The more important deficits may be more difficult to acknowledge. Getting on the soap box with “Our kids are bad at thinking and communicating” makes you a lot less popular than “our kids are bad at math.”

  8. Dan Miller says:

    You write that, “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.”

    And then close your post with “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.”

    If we emphasize the role of skepticism and critical thought in education, isn’t that in itself a shot fired in the culture wars? After all, there are significant strains of our culture who see skepticism as a pernicious influence. Isn’t this post just doing the same thing as parents who complain that their kids aren’t being prepared to deal with (potentially mythical) hyper-competent Chinese kids? That is, you’re pushing for education to address what you see as the dangers of society. You see the danger as dogmatic fundamentalism, rather than scary foreigners, but the solution is the same for you and for those other parents–you both want to use education to achieve your ideal society, or move closer to it.

    In retrospect, that came out a little harsher than intended–rest assured, no offense meant.

  9. Alan Jacobs says:

    Dan Miller raises some interesting issues. Tim’s “general skepticism” — which I take it is something less than philosophical skepticism, something closer to a disciplined demand for evidence in support of claims — is rarely invoked by anyone on any side of our culture wars. However, people can make it happen without meaning to. The very “dogmatic fundamentalists” who, in the Richard Dawkins/Sam Harris account of the world, train their children in abject credulity, actually devote a lot of energy training their children to be corrosively skeptical of pronouncements by secular authorities — AND, it should be noted, in the process inadvertently train those children to extend that skepticism to other matters, which is one of the reasons such fundamentalists groups have exceptionally high rates of defection.

    Once, when I was in college, I went to hear a lecture by the famous creationist Duane Gish, and it was a very effective lecture. He wouldn’t have known the term, but what he was doing was “ideology critique.” He showed lots of slides from science textbooks that revealed the ways that those books relied on subtle manipulation of data, mere assertions of “the assured results of science,” and tendentious illustrations — e.g., an artist’s rendering of one of our hominid ancestors who, as Gish triumphantly pointed out, had “the eyes of a philosopher.” When I got to graduate school and studied literary theory I thought, hey, haven’t I seen this kind of thing before? But I also learned to apply the method of interrogation shared by Gish and Foucault — yes, Duane Gish and Michel Foucault! — to the teachings and practices of the church. (Which, by the way, did not destroy my then-recent Christian faith, though that’s another story.)

    So, the various participants in the culture wars try to teach young people to be selectively skeptical. But skepticism is a habit that tends to generalize itself. Maybe that’s good news.

  10. jpool says:

    On Virologista’s point, I think that this shared responsibility framework come out of research in recent years that parental involvement in homework or school work more generally is one of the things that correlates most strongly with academic success for children. This reminds me of one of my favorite non-hegemony related passages in the Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks in which he argues that the big advantage that the children of intellectuals have is that they are become accustomed from an early age to both the mental and physical rigors of intellectual work. This seems a fairly obvious point at first, until you reflect on the fact that, rather than inherited smarts or even direct instruction in knowledge, he’s pointing to the fact that it takes practice to get used to sitting in a chair and reading, writing or thinking about something for hours at a time. This probably also relates to Alan’s very good point about the practice of skepticism/critical thinking and in turn to Tim’s point about the practice of reasoned debate. Gramsci had some interesting things to say on that as well.

  11. Did my Numbers comment get not-accepted, or lost? I don’t know, new here.

    Most ideas, like the PC “women are equal to men”, have certain consequences relevant to policy. They also are subject to certain objective tests: like the number of men vs. women who get 800 scores on the SAT (math or verbal).
    I’m certain that more men get 800 math scores than women — in this particular top-end math problem solving ability, women are NOT equal to men in a reasonably objective, fact based result.

    Yet Larry Summers was driven out of Harvard by, not claiming this truth as true, but suggesting it might be true.

    As a Myers-Briggs personality proponent, I’m pretty sure that some personality types hate homework more than others, and I’m certain that lots of difficult to do busy work is negative. But I’m pretty sure that some required homework is more good for more students than essentially none.

    And thus to the culture war issue of one-size-fits all gov’t central planning for schools — I’m against this. There should be more choices for parents to make in finding a school with a homework policy that they, as parents, support for their own, specific child.

    The reason so many on-line arguments degenerate into culture war positions is because those of us fighting a culture war have usually thought of lots aspects of our position, and have prepared arguments/ ideas (ammunition) to use in relevant context (targets of opportunity).

    The distressing thing is when a comment mocks your own ideas with no alternative — purely negative. If it includes offensive obscenities (thanks to PC & Lenny Bruce?), it’s even worse. I try to disagree based on proposing an alternative policy.

  12. joeo says:

    >I think that this shared responsibility framework come out of research in recent years that parental involvement in homework or school work more generally is one of the things that correlates most strongly with academic success for children.

    The nuture assumption is a unanswered challenge to those types of studies. Conscientious parents have conscientious kids. This means interventions that require parents to follow any new guidelines will have spurious positive effects.

  13. Ivory says:

    The idea that parental involvement is important for student’s academic success seems silly to me. If the students don’t learn to do their work on their own a great deal of the value of homework is lost. My personal opinion is that the parental role around homework should be limited to: checking for correctness, following up on a failure to complete homework (read here imposing dire consequences for a failure to get things done) and creating an environment where homework can be done without distraction. Sitting next to the kid while they do their math worksheet undermines the whole activity.

    How much work is busy work is also one that I think is difficult to measure – certain skills like reading and math demand repetition, but different kids will need different amounts of that. If teachers assign the “average amount” of repetition needed by the “average child”, those who fall on either side of the bell curve will either be underserved by the lack of sufficient practice or bored by the overkill. There isn’t a way around this.

    That said, what Tim also is alluding to here (I think) is a frustration about the types of evidence people use to construct opinions, theories and arguments. I would argue that it would be difficult (if not impossible) for most people to spend the time and resources it would take to form truly informed opinions about everything. This is why most people fall back on the ideology of the group with which they most identify. In fact, the “disciplined demand for evidence to support claims” is a cultural position – the idea that people’s feelings are less important than objective evidence is sometimes true, but sometimes not true and in things like education, where personal preference is sometimes as important as evidenced based practice, people sometimes have to go with their gut.

    There is an inherent weakness in using studies which are general to apply a treatment or practice to a particular child (or patient – in medicine). Even the best, well-controlled studies do not have 100% results. Parents have to take their own knowledge and experience with their child into account when deciding whether or not to raise them a particular way. What works for one kid, may or may not work for another. This explains why there will always be people who are dissatisfied with the public schools – the best practice for the group or the average student, even if perfectly applied and executed, will not be the best practice for every child. Parents will see this and become disillusioned, especially if their child is marginalized in the process.

    Tim – very few people are as smart as you and few will have the resources you have to construct good arguments – even with excellent education. If you blog or comment in a public forum, you will always have to deal with the full bell curve. I would urge you to approach this with curiosity rather than irritation as even the opinions of the relatively uninformed can form public debate. If nothing else, it tells you what people are thinking – interesting as much as horrifying – and certainly never dull.

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Ivory, I think that’s a fair set of observations, particularly on the nature of public argument. I think what I have in mind is not so much people who reason from their own feelings or experience, or even people who reason through affinities for larger social groups. It’s: 1) people who bluster evidentiary arguments that come from nowhere; 2) the general lack of humility and openness about issues where there is obviously more than one plausible position (say, the relationship between homework, curriculum, life options and national economies). Someone who says (as some of the people in those Seattle threads do) that homework was important to them, or that they have a gut feeling that homework is important, or that homework is too enormous a burden for their child–that’s all good. It’s when someone pops into such a discussion and says, “The yellow peril out of China will swallow us all, because the Chinese give MASSIVE amounts of MATH HOMEWORK to their kids”.

    I don’t think that this is the difference between smart people and dumb people, or nice people and mean people. I really do think on some level it’s a problem with the way people deploy reason. And I’m not sure that has much to do with education, perhaps–it may begin with a kind of moral vision of other people, or what folks sometimes call “emotional intelligence”. I do think education can hone and develop everyday reason, though.

  15. “I really do think on some level it’s a problem with the way people deploy reason. ”
    Isn’t it a problem that “reason” usually degenerates into utilitarianism, and mere cost-benefit analysis, where some faith in some (possibly not fully reasoned) absolutes result in an analysis of right or wrong action regardless of the costs and benefits.

    In your Lancet 600 000 issue, along with a dispute about the accuracy of the number itself (I like Iraq Body Count far more, and even double that up to 150 000 seems a more accurate number), there is a dispute about what the number means.

    When something is “right” or not, the costs don’t matter (so much). If the costs DO matter, than the “rightness” is clearly not absolute.

    How many Americans would George Clooney be willing have die to stop the genocide in Darfur? I don’t think he offers a number.

    On Drug legalization: how many drug related murders before you favor legalization? Were drugs legal, like gambling sort of is: how many drug addicts must there be before you favor making it illegal?

    In order to avoid coming up with actual “turning point” numbers, most arguments are actually driven by the assumption of correctness, and numbers are used qualitatively to buttress that initial assumption.

    In budgeting, a similar process is called ‘back calculation’, and seems to be endemic in financial analysis. Fix the final desired number, change the ‘input assumptions’ until the Excel/1-2-3 model comes up with the desired/ required conclusion and one is comfy enough with the ‘assumptions’.
    It’s intellectually dishonest, but widespread.

    I’m pretty sure most Global Warming models include such input adjustments — I haven’t heard of any that, by going backwards, successfully predicts the drop in temp of the “Little Ice Age” which we may now be coming out of. I support gas taxes for other reasons.

    [Iraq / Lancet note not quite inserted]

  16. Ivory says:

    Tim – I read the Seattle thread and I think I know where you’re coming from – I lifted this quote:

    No wonder jobs are being shipped overseas, America has allowed itself to be dumbed down by the commie left, one world pc maggots hoping everyone is secretly bi-sexual or whatever.

    I voted for Clinton so I think this person is referring to me as the commie left – although I have to admit, it never occurred to me to hope everyone was secretly bisexual. I have a lot of people in my family who say things like this so I think I’ve grown accustomed to filtering it out.

    Think of yourself as a good example. Model the evenhanded politeness you want to see. I would hate for someone as informed as you are to drop out of the sphere of public comment because of the bad behavior of others. The best thing to do with people who are that far out there is to ignore them and then completely demolish their position with your own well structured argument.

    You are right that “education can hone and develop everyday reason.” But it’s also true that while you can lead a horse to water, you can’t make him drink. Some people are impervious to reason – suspicious of it even. There’s nothing you can do about that.

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