“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” —C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man.
As the Head of a new independent school with an active learning model, I have had the privilege of meeting with many parents as they explore educational options for their children. After we visit our learning environments and chat about what makes our school distinctive, I almost always receive the same question. It’s usually asked pensively, and runs something like, “Can you tell me about your homework policy?” It’s asked as though they are anticipating an answer they can tolerate, but still won’t really like. They are probably expecting to hear about our nightly time-limits per class, how grade levels coordinate large weekly assignments to spread them out evenly, or perhaps how we use new and innovative software programs to flip our instructional model. Those are the answers they usually receive, and many good schools with strong reputations subscribe to those approaches, but, as you might have guessed from the title, it’s not what I say.
My answer is almost always a surprise: “I don’t like homework.” It’s an unusual thing to hear from a Head of School, but it’s not a gimmick. I don’t like homework. I have yet to see a study that convinces me that homework in large amounts is necessary for elementary students, that the time it takes away from kids’ freedom to be kids is a worthwhile trade-off, or that it creates meaningful learning experiences outside of the classroom. What I do believe is that in place of a worksheet or a “we didn’t finish this in class so it is now homework” kind of assignment, the time away from school should be used for outdoor adventures, time with siblings, parents and friends, time to develop social skills and curiosity, and most importantly, time to play.
To adapt the Lewis quotation above, I have rarely seen traditional homework used as an irrigator, but rather a mechanism to clear as much of the jungle, or grade-level content, as possible. For an educator, irrigating the desert is great, hard work that yields new growth and opportunities, and it transforms in the best way. Conversely, cutting down the jungle is tiresome, repetitive, and yields nothing new. It’s slogging ahead, with no clear vision of what’s before you. Especially with our youngest learners, learning should always be headed somewhere known, significant, and meaningful. Irrigating the desert is done with creative lessons, collaboration, hands-on learning, and I would argue, without incessant worksheets, unnecessary repetition, and homework for the sake of content coverage.
As educators, we all want learning to be joyful, to be engaging, and to be meaningful. When learning is joyful — when it feels like play — that’s when learning gets to be efficient too, with greater cognitive benefits, retention, and executive functioning development.
A specific example of this comes to mind. When I was in college, I ran track for a coach who believed in building strength and endurance over the course of the whole season so that we’d be ready for our peak performance at the district meet. Our main rival was coached under a very different philosophy, namely that the harder you work, the faster you will run. It was a philosophy that worked for a few, but almost always resulted in injury and burnout for many athletes on the team, and it certainly removed a lot of joy from the season for all of their runners. In other words, everyone on my team improved, enjoyed, and learned over the course of the season, while for our rivals, only those who made it through the grind of the season were able to reap the benefits that should have been available to all.
As educators, we have an opportunity to accelerate childhood or to protect it. What if in the classroom we focused on building skills rather than covering content? What if we removed technology, asked students to collaborate face-to-face, and didn’t expect them to have the correct answer ready on a tablet? What if we celebrated childhood and gave our students opportunities for deep learning, rather than fast learning? As teachers and administrators, coaches and advisors, we have the privilege of modeling student-centered decision-making, policies, and lifestyles for parents, our communities at large, and our peers. Kids only get to be kids once. We don’t need to rush it. We want to build effective habits and strategies for learning, preserve students’ joy and wonder, and build important skills in the classroom, while allowing for time and opportunities to grow outside of it. It may be countercultural, but I’ll wager that if you try it, you won’t find it to be counterintuitive.