In Defense of Childhood: Halt Homework, Let Them Play

I read an article recently about how not doing homework could actually be better for kids. This article quoted the findings of a psychologist and neuroscientist at Duke University, which stated: "180 research studies found that homework has no evidence of academic benefit for elementary school students."

This seems obvious to me: Why should kids spend an average of seven hours chained to a desk in school, only to repeat the same process--and often, the same work--when they finally make it home?

What was less obvious were some of the comments on that article, calling students "weak" and insinuating they wouldn't be able to handle college, nor the real world, if they were already struggling with their homework load.

Let's break this down: An average school day, as I mentioned, is close to seven hours. Meanwhile, the National Education Association reports that "first and second grade children had three times the homework load recommended by the NEA," despite "free reading" being the only homework shown to be significantly beneficial to elementary school students. Across the country, students and their parents are grappling with several hours of homework a night--on top of extra curricular activities and socializing we also expect them to excel at and thrive in.

Even if we give it a low-ball estimate--that students are doing two hours of homework every night--that comes out to about forty-five hours of schoolwork every week for elementary students. That's more than the hours spent at an average part-time job.

Needless to say, the do-it-all, power-through, homework-driven culture is killing our students...literally. Those "weak" elementary school students are turning into depressed college perfectionists, which explains why suicide rates in college students have increased.

We keep telling students something is wrong with them, that if they don't "get" the homework (and are thus able to do it quickly), they aren't smart; that if they don't get perfect grades, they aren't worthy; that if they are stressed or anxious, they are weak.

Collectively, the education system is what is wrong with students.

Somewhere along the line, we decided "creativity" was for lackluster underachievers and that joy in learning was a waste of time. We've created a race that nobody can win: Our cores are too common and there are certainly children left behind. We've told students they aren't good enough before they can even spell "not good enough."

Decades ago, kindergarten and the early years of elementary school were devoted to play: Things like building with blocks, playing "pretend," and drawing were all cornerstones of classroom time. Now, we've formalized education to the extent that it turns militant around four or five years old--you better get ready to achieve, little kid, because play time is a waste of time.

We want achievement. We want success, and we want these things to manifest themselves in our children academically early on. That's how we justify the homework, the time spent in school: We're preparing them! We're giving them tools to be the academic elite, the employed, the smart, and the successful. Well, then how do you explain the fact that countries like Finland, where formal education doesn't begin until students are around age seven, are ranked higher than the U.S. in reading and math?

Would starting school that late work in America? No, probably not. But what will work is creating a culture where the emphasis is on learning, not educational achievement, and where we give our kids space to learn as just that: Kids.

Meanwhile, we take away recess--as freedom is the ultimate leverage over prisoners--when a child forgets their homework or misbehaves in class. Pressure to adhere to great test scores and mandated academic requirements means anything unnecessary has to go. In this case, the thing that is deemed non-achievement-oriented, recess, or playtime, gets dropped.

Do we realize what we are taking from them? The opportunity to think creatively, at their own pace? The chance to experiment, engage, and solve problems on their own? And, maybe greatest of all, a moment just to be a kid?

There are numerous problems with our education system, far too many to list in any one article. But the biggest--and most all-encompassing--has to be that we're slowly turning our students into A+-getting, academic robots, and devaluing their humanity. Of course nothing is wrong with good grades! What is wrong is that we expect them at all costs, at the expense of everything else, and we forget that, sitting at a table in tears of frustration over math is a child, not just a future college student.

If we aren't going to value childhood, we may as well stick them on the conveyor belt with tiny briefcases now. But deep down, we know learning should be more than a sweating, striving race to any top. It should be part of the growth of a human being--which involves creativity, freedom, and compassion.

I don't know where those fit on our homework fill-in-the-blanks.