When I picked my younger son up from school at the end of his first day of first grade, he skipped all the way to the car, swinging his lunchbox and singing “I love school! School loves me!” to the tune of the “I Love You” song made famous by Barney, the big, purple dinosaur.
Shortly after we arrived home, he pulled out his “Homework Folder” and settled down to do his homework. His first assignment was to write his ten spelling words five times each. He quickly finished this, and then began to work on his math homework, which consisted of completing twenty simple addition problems. Homework completed, he disappeared out the front door to play tag with the neighborhood children.
Tuesday, he pulled out the same homework to complete again. And Wednesday. And Thursday. Write the spelling words five times each. Complete the twenty addition problems. By Thursday evening, he was no longer enjoying his assignments. In fact, doing homework had become an unbearable chore. “I already know how to do this! Why do I have to do this again?” I became concerned, and made a mental note to speak to his teacher the next day to see if some sort of mistake had been made. Surely she didn’t mean for the children to complete the same homework night after night, with no variation.
But she did. Very patiently, she explained to me that homework was necessary to reinforce skills. She continued on to say that children learn through repetition. As a psychotherapist and doctoral student in Special Education Administration, I was well aware of this fact. My issue, however, was that the skill had already been learned. Learned, memorized, repeated, and now abhorred.
Since that time, I have come to believe that many educators have forgotten the purpose of homework. My son’s teacher was correct in her explanation that homework is a means of reinforcing what the student learns in class. But if the skill is, in fact, learned, then homework becomes a tedious and pointless exercise.
I asked my son’s teacher if I could spice up his homework a bit. I suggested crossword puzzles, seek-a-words, and story writing as examples of ways he could continue to do homework, but also learn from it. She answered that it would be unfair for his homework to be different from the rest of the students. This was only one of many conferences we had that year, but it was certainly one of the most frustrating.
If a child is not learning from the homework he or she is assigned, the homework is pointless. If a child already knows the skill that is being taught, to have him or her endlessly repeat it is at best a waste of time, and at worst a guaranteed way to stifle the child’s desire to learn. Too often, teachers assign homework because it’s a part of the curriculum, without giving thought to what goal they’re actually trying to accomplish by the assigning of homework.
For homework to truly be effective, it should not only reinforce but also enhance the skills the child is learning in class. It should spark interest, encourage creativity, and invite family involvement. Homework should be reserved for those times when children need extra help in mastering a topic. If the topic has already been mastered, giving homework serves no purpose at all, and can actually be detrimental to the education of the child. When we insist that our children participate in pointless, rote, repeated assignments, we stifle our child’s natural creativity and inclination to learn.