Homework on Mars

In the 20 years that I have been working with children, adolescents and their families, I have seen no end of grief caused by homework.  In fact, I sometimes wonder what families would do with all the time they saved if they weren’t doing homework, fighting about doing homework, looking for lost homework, trying to understand homework, or reading notes from teachers about incomplete homework.

And having worked in several school systems across communities of varying socioeconomic status, I can tell you that bad and boring homework knows no barrier of class or poverty.  I’ve seen my fair share of photocopied worksheets and looked at “problems 1,2, 4-8 on pages 125-129″ enough to empathize with my patients over the years.  Sometimes I manage to answer the question, how is this going to help me in life?”  But more often I’m of the opinion that I’d glaze over looking at some of the homework assignments too if I were them.

If you are someone who believes in the idea that we’ve always had homework, and that kids and young adults have just got to shut up and do it, don’t waste anymore time reading this post.  Because I think in general that homework is more over-prescribed than any psychiatric medication, and that it reinforces some pretty distorted views about education and work.  Unfortunately, they are also pretty prevalent views of education and work, but they definitely aren’t the only ones.

I’m not alone in my critique of homework.  Educator John T. Spencer wrote a great blog post about it a year ago, which points out that among other things, homework has been shown to not improve academic achievement and may even decrease it.  This research came from Cooper’s metaanalysis of over 180 studies of homework conducted between 1987 and 2006, and you can find it here.  Nor is this a recent critique:  As Gill and Schlossman point out in their work many learned and progressive people spent the earlier part of the 20th century trying to abolish homework.  Most of us parenting today however, were taught in such a way that we think of homework as a fundamental and inevitable “given” when it comes to school.

From the point of view of social emotional development and creativity at least, kids have a lot more important things to do when they aren’t in school.  Homework takes time away from developing peer relationships, engaging in extracurricular activities, and, well, being a kid.  And most assignments come in the form of worksheets and packets, which encourage dry research rather than lived experience or creativity.

I have a colleague whose son was given a list of “historic places” to research, which did not include one location in our Metro Boston area.  No Old North Church, no African Meetinghouse, no Lexington Battle Green, nothing.  No one place that encouraged parent/child time to take a trip or have a fun experience.  This is one way that schools inadvertently teach kids to “phone it in.”  And that’s not the only problematic habit homework instills:  If a child comes home from a day of work and does more work, that is being a good student; if an adult comes home from a day of work and works more we call them a workaholic.

The other thing about homework is that it inherently demeans teachers.  Although we are seeing some exciting developments with MITx, Udacity, the Khan Academy and other attempts to make education more scalable, we are being reminded that direct instruction by teachers is in many ways irreplaceable.  Even if homework reinforces what is done during the day, which it may or may not, it doesn’t replace it.

Worksheets in particular become just another metric for grading, and a metric that doesn’t say much about how varied in support and context each of the homes it is occurring in can be.  It can be argued that truly egalitarian public education happens in the school setting, as that is the one place that is a level playing field in terms of race and class.

But I don’t doubt that homework is not going away, if for nothing else than because it is “the way we do things.”  But given the wonderful new technologies out there, I don’t see any reason why it has to be so rote and dismal as it often is.  Originally I was going to write about using Netvibes as a virtual “Trapper Keeper” for homework, but then I began exploring and gardening on Mars.

Waking Mars is a game from Tiger Style, which I recently sampled for the iPad (it also is available for iPhone.)  You play the game as Liang, an astronaut who finds himself exploring subterranean caverns on Mars.  There he discovers various species of creatures called Zoa, who may be plants, animals, or something else entirely.  In order to solve the mysteries of the cavern, Liang must experiment and learn how to interact with the different Zoa.  This includes planting seeds, changing the pH of ground, helping mobile Zoa reproduce or herding them into predatory Zoa to create compost.  As one progresses, the player must gather data on each Zoa in terms of their reproduction, vulnerabilities, ideal environment and interactions in order to help replenish the biomass of each cavern.

I could envision a range of educational uses for this game.  It could be used to illustrate the concept of phyla and Linnaean taxonomy in general.  It demonstrates both symbiotic and autonomous relationships in biology.  It requires one to observe behavior and learn to predict it.  It shows how and why understanding the environment and life cycles of a biosystem may have applied value.  It requires problem-solving and critical thinking to advance, and the ability to compare and contrast types as well.

Waking Mars is an example of what could be begun in a connected classroom, and then continued at home.  Achievements are recorded and available for later assessment.  There is also social media capabilities to help kids collaborate on learning by tweeting things they’ve learned, and help teachers assess where the class as a whole is in terms of content.  Best of all it is fun, and more intrinsically rewarding than a worksheet.  I suspect parents would find it enjoyable too, and engage with their kids in a much more fun and playful way than the traditional role of parent as homework monitor.

These games are out there, and gamification is already being used in many educational settings.  And if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense.  What would you rather do, fill out a form or complete a quest?  Both require literacy and other skills, but the added benefit of playing video games and using social media is that it begins to let kids integrate learning about digital literacy as well.  One example of digital literacy that Howard Rheingold discusses is “crap detection,” where the individual doesn’t just Google something, but also questions whether the source is reputable, and fact checks it.  So to return to Waking Mars, an instructor could pose the question, “should we consider the game and its’ website factual evidence to support the hypothesis that Mars has caves?”  Why or why not?  And if not, what or where might we search online to get more valid information?

Sometimes we need to allow for the possibility that youth might know better than us about something.  If they are demonstrating that they want to spend time on iPads or computers, let’s ditch the pencils.  If they enjoy video games and technology, let’s throw away the weekly worksheets.  Do we want them to have the same disempowering and puritanical experience of education that many of us had?  Or do we want them to enjoy learning and become lifelong learners? It would be great if we could get rid of homework entirely, but if we insist on having it let’s make it fun and engaging.  Enough with the worksheets and problems 1,2, 4-8 on pages 125-129.  Let’s jet-pack through caverns and garden on Mars.


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