The local paper ran a piece today on how American kids are not spending as much time on homework as their peers in other countries. The article didn’t take much of a position, but did wonder if this was related to poorer scores American students get on standardized tests. It also pointed out that the pedagogical winds in this country are citing little relationship between homework and academic success. But I think they are missing the point.
The article briefly interviews an immigrant student who says he has less homework than he cousins in India. He notes that if they are assigned 3 math problems, they will do 10 more just to be sure they have the concept down. And that, my friends, is the point. It is not about the amount of work assigned. It is about the amount of work the student is motivated to do. Forcing a student through hours of work each evening accomplishes nothing. And I think this is why educators are citing a lack of connection between homework and academic success.
I would venture that most American students, faced with 3 math problems, would do them and then call it a night. Regardless of whether or not they had mastered the concept, they had completed the minimal assignment. They had not achieved the larger goal of the homework. So why is there a difference? I think most cultures still indoctrinate their children with a healthy fear of failure. Children do not want to be unprepared in class as their teacher might embarrass them in front of their friends. They certainly don’t want to come home to Mom or Dad with sub-par grades and have to explain them. But in the U.S., in a well intentioned but misguided attempt to make everyone feel safe, comfortable, and included, we have removed the stigma from failure. Granted, some children are still self-motivated to succeed, but most kids (and most adults too) will lower their effort considerably once any consequences for inaction are removed.
Consider for a moment what the state of the nation would be if tomorrow everyone won the lottery. Suddenly, no one has to work in order to provide for their family or even themselves. The cruel reality is that the majority of people would opt for a life of leisure. Their productive contribution to society would be zero. Students are no different. There are times for carrots; there are times for sticks. Real life is full of both of them. We need to make our children aware of that from an early age. Removing all consequences (or even opportunities) for failure and knocking out obstacles to success is not doing our kids a favor. Go ahead and protect them from the extreme consequences and obstacles, but as Wesley observes in “The Princess Bride”, “Life is pain. Anyone who tells you different is trying to sell you something.”