In my last class of the school year with the 5th grade public school students with whom I've been doing philosophy this year, we held a "Philosophy Cafe" with juice, cookies and conversation. I'm going to miss this class.
The students had requested last time that we spend some time discussing whether homework is a good thing. We started the discussion more broadly by reading a chapter of Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery that raises questions about the purposes of education generally. I asked the students why they believed they were expected to go to school, and they responded that they thought it was "to learn," "so that we can have a better life," "so that we learn what we need to know in life" and "to get a job." They also mentioned that they want to be in school to spend time with their friends.
I asked the students what a school that they could create would be like.
One student replied, "I think this school is as good as it gets. If you made it any more fun, we wouldn't learn as much. But if it was less fun, we wouldn't want to be here. It's actually perfect because we have fun and it's interesting and we learn a lot."
"Yeah, we're actually really lucky because school is much more interesting than it used to be when my parents went to school. We have time to read and do projects and teachers really try to make it interesting."
"School isn't meant to be joyous and fun. It's meant to teach us what we need to know for life."
"I disagree with that. I think that school does have to be fun, because if kids aren't having fun they don't pay attention and don't learn as much."
We talked for a little while about the connections between having fun and learning, and then the discussion moved into the purpose of homework, about which the students felt quite strongly.
"The purpose of homework is to keep us thinking about what we've learned so that the teachers doesn't have to teach it over and over."
"I agree. It kind of gets everyone to be on the same level, so if you didn't understand something so well in class, the homework helps you learn it better. If one person doesn't do the homework they get behind and it wastes everyone else's time."
"I don't agree with that. I don't think we'd forget what we've learned in one day. I think homework makes learning harder, because you never want to do the homework and you start not wanting to learn at all."
"Homework should be done at school. We have 7½ hours of school every day. We come home and we don't want any more school for the day."
"You know, we actually have a lot less homework than many kids in schools in other countries."
"But it does get in the way. After school you want to do fun stuff with your friends or at home, or play sports, and then you think, 'Oh yeah, I still have to do my homework.' "
"And you're distracted because you want to do fun things. So you sit there and look at the homework and think about what else you could be doing, and so it takes a long time to do the homework, and you have even less time for what you want to do."
"Learning in school is fun because we all do it together. At home it isn't any fun to do work by yourself."
"But I think you learn things in school and then homework is so you can practice what you've learned over and over."
"I don't think that really works. I mean, we don't forget what we've learned in a day. And having to practice it after a long day in school just makes us less interested in learning."
"Well, I think that homework does get in the way of other things you want to do after school, but the idea is that you do sometimes forget what you've learned or you haven't learned it totally, and you look at the homework and you figure out how to do it and then you really learn it. No one likes it every day, and when you're doing it sometimes you hate it, but you know there's a good reason for it."
"Maybe if we didn't have it every day it would be better."
This nice exchange among a dozen students (which involved me almost not at all) then led to an exploration of some practical solutions. Should there be time at the end of the school day (say, the last 20 minutes) for the students to do their homework if they chose? Should it be every other night instead of every night? Should it be handed out in advance for the week so that the students could manage when to do it?
One student noted that he would like to do his homework at recess (if the homework isn't done the class rule is that the students must stay in at recess to do it), but his mom wouldn't let him. Another student responded that he was allowed to do homework whenever he wanted and to figure out how to make it work for himself. The school day was about to end, but we did have a brief interesting discussion about the responsibilities of parents to let their children figure things out for themselves, and how to make good judgments as a parent about when and how to do that.
As I was leaving several girls told me that they wanted to be philosophers when they grew up. A side-benefit of this work, perhaps? More women in philosophy? That would be a great thing!
This will be my last blog post until the fall, to allow me to work on some other writing projects over the summer. Happy summer!