June 19, 2001

Oliver's Homework

Lately I've begun thinking in terms of a payoff from educational assignments or work. To trace the history of this thought, Ms. Thunberg assigned as homework a page which requires the student to write a list of twenty "things that are sold in pairs." It occurred to me that if the child's words were used in a sort of Mad Libs fashion, there would be an emotional payoff at the end of the assignment. That is, the sentences would be read using the child's words as fill-ins, with incongruous and occasionally amusing results, in a fashion that I first became aware of probably in the '60s through little booklets called Mad Libs. So the task, instead of having the minimal payoff of just getting the job done or getting approval from the teacher, has an additional or greater payoff of an amusing product that the child can feel he participated in creating. Surely this concept of educational or emotional payoff can be extended to other tasks which occurs all too seldom in homework and other assignments.

I think even more important is the practice of giving the students some choice or control over the kind of work they're doing. The assignment to write a list of twenty "things that are sold in pairs" I thought was a particularly uninteresting assignment and the main purpose seemed to be to provide exercise in writing, that is, penmanship. I gave Oliver the choice of instead writing a letter to his Aunt Debby, which he previously had expressed a desire to do. He took to this immediately and worked on this letter without further prompting on my part. It was something he wanted to do, and wanted to do well, as opposed to this other task which undoubtedly seemed to him meaningless and unrelated to his own life. This, in microcosm, is what's wrong with too much of school work--it's completely dissociated from the child's personal life and interests, and also it's imposed on him by the authority of the teacher without any choice being exercised by the student.

Oliver is provided five pages of homework per week. If he were instead provided ten pages and were allowed to choose five to do and five to skip, I think he would do more work with less arm twisting by the parents than is presently the case. It often happens that Oliver is willing to do most of the homework without too much distress or resistance, but he balks at one page or another because it seems, I guess, to difficult or too boring. If he were permitted to skip certain pages, he would feel more ownership about the work he did, I believe, and certainly I think would feel less negative in general about homework.

Naturally, to provide twice as many assignments would require additional work by the teacher, but as it is, I think the work that goes into these assignments is minimal anyway. These assignments consist of worksheets photocopied from other sources and none of it is actually teacher created. Worse yet, none of it is student created. It can be seen, with a little thought, that the motivation is all wrong for most homework. When Oliver writes to Aunt Debby, he wants to do well because he wants her to like what he produces, he wants to be able to feel proud of what he produces. When he's doing teacher-assigned homework, the only thing positive he seems to get out of it is a star or a star-plus from the teacher. When he writes to Aunt Debby he doesn't receive a grade, but he knows whether he's done a good job or not. He knows, because he has looked and he has passed judgment himself on his own work. This is the sort of motivation that produces good work, and while it may be more difficult to generate in a school setting, certainly more could be done than is presently done. The idea of payoff is readily apparent, although not expressed in those terms, in the works of, say, Ken Macrorie, Herbert Kohl, and John Holt, where the idea of writing is that the student should be provided an audience for whom he can produce his efforts. This audience must not be just the teacher, obviously, that is not an audience, that is just the teacher giving assignments. An audience of peers is what is needed. The point is that there is a payoff that he appreciates. He can impress, or at least interest, others, his peers, in what he has produced, providing him some payoff that he considers meaningful. No doubt impressing the teacher or receiving encouragement from the teacher is a kind of payoff, but I think that wears thin throughout the years.