In Praise of Messing About, or Why I Hate Homework

Pedagogy / Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

I started hating homework long before I had kids.

When I think of the rawest form of torture I was ever subjected to as a child, short of the heartbreak that came when I learned that a boy had won a dollar for asking me out in the fourth grade (yes, ouch), I think of sitting at the glass-top dining room table the same year, staring through nearly transparent paper and seeing my legs swing beneath me, too far from the ground and dangling, feeling completely inadequate for the task.

I’d always been good enough at math for it to come to me easily, but long division was undoing me. By undoing me, I don’t mean making me whimper and whine and wiggle. By undoing me, I mean I thought I was going to die in that chair, like we were fusing together as one, Gilbert Grape’s mama-style. I was becoming a math problem. There would be no remainder. 

I don’t remember being forced to sit there, and I don’t remember not knowing the answers. I remember knowing the process and getting answers right-enough. But I remember that I thought it would never end. I remember looking at where I was on the page versus where I needed to be. Telling me I only needed to do the odds didn’t help—because everyone secretly knows that the odds are way freaking harder than the evens which had the answers in the back of the book.

On the whole, I was not an antsy kid. I remembered looking at the boys in class (the kind of boys who would make dollar bets and sell illegal Splasher gumballs at P.E. on the far side of the long track) and watching them get in trouble day after day from leaning back in their chairs. I never believed they’d actually fall until one did, right into the A/C unit and cut open his head deep enough to make him cry. I could have sworn I saw an “I told you so” smirk on the teacher’s face as she reached for the wooden hall pass.

I recall my child self being generally compliant. I recall being obsessive and nervous enough about rules and pleasing people to have made me compliant. I hope my teachers reaped the rewards of all those early morning stomach aches and other physical ailments associated with test anxiety. If not, what was the point?

I remember as early as second grade, practicing my handwriting and wishing it were as beautiful as Jennie Scott’s. She used to put circles over her I’s. She sat next to me during my first true academic failure when I received an F on a hot air balloon coloring sheet because I didn’t finish it in time. My perfectionism meant perfectly coloring some but not getting to all of the balloon. I was crushed in ways that made me realize, at the age of seven, that I was human and imperfect. It was a hard lesson—and it came, yes, at seven. Some people learn this by two, I know.

Homework was never difficult because of the problems themselves. The quiet sitter-type, I understood class lecture and the hard worker in me would persist with most things at home until I’d perfected them. I don’t remember a lot of trauma in the learning process, and I don’t remember enough failures early on to diminish the near-literal tragedy of an F on a coloring sheet. It still stings, honestly, next in line to an N I got for conduct instead of my ordinary S for satisfactory. I’d absorbed some attitude in the fifth grade, and that Needs Improvement was my wake-up call. I felt the difference between me and them once more when their U’s received rolled eyes and secretly raised fingers and my N left me hyperventilating in the hallway with too many tears to count.

It’s hard to raise kids when they’re different from yourself, and the trouble is they mostly always are. Sure, you see bits of yourself (usually the good parts you’ll admit to and shine about), and you’ll see bits of loved ones—some still here, some long gone. But you’ll see these slivers of unidentifiable parts, bits of the foreign. And the words sometimes won’t translate. Even the melody is changed. Suddenly, there’s no reception. You won’t have a single familiar map in the glove box.

If I had you here with me for coffee, I’d share with you Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and explain how I see this working in my house all the time as I’m teaching Daina. Look it up if you’re not familiar. It’s such a great analogy for education and the passing on of knowledge in general—even in unconventional settings. I’d point out the pain that’s associated with transition, but I’d go a step further and talk about how it can’t be undone—how it’s impossible to unsee the seen. Once you know that shadows are shadows, it’s incredibly difficult to suspend that belief. You just can’t go back.

Because the known cannot be authentically unknown, this complicates the notion of education. The longer we know something, the farther we’re getting away from that moment of not knowing it. That distance numbs us, I think, to the feeling of unfamiliarity.

Similarly, the longer we’ve known something, the simpler it seems. We understand it better, so our questions have become answers and as such, we file them away into the recesses of our mind, far away from our tongues, even farther from our lips.

Where asking once was, telling begins. And as many of us tell, we stop listening.

The better we know something, the quicker we can do it—and the quicker we expect it done. As we wait while homework happens, we see the problem and answer it once, twice, three times, double check it, triple check it, wait to make sure they’re still alive, and quadruple check it, then interrupt.

Learning takes time. Knowing doesn’t. We don’t remember that, so we push, push, push. We shove them towards walls disguised as practice problems. We want them to practice, practice, practice. We drill.

Too often we confuse the processes associated with learning with the product of knowing a thing. We can get at knowing in many, many different ways because learning is an abstract, organic process that must be individualized in order to work. It cannot look the same for Jennie with the bubbled I’s or Albert with the secret jawbreaker. It must be different for the girl who hasn’t learned yet that she cannot see the board and will need glasses sooner than she wants, and it won’t look the same for Ryan who will move twice in the same year and spend more time than everyone else trying to be liked so that he can find friends in addition to the answer to #11, which everyone knows will not be in the back of the book.

I want to put learning above knowing. The experience, the adventure, the exploration—all of this is worth marveling over. All of this is worth your time, worth your patience, worth your moments.

Give your kids as much mercy as you can this year. Read them SpiderMan books. Let them play in grass. Tell stories, and make a big deal of the good things happening in the world.

Make an even bigger deal of the good people you see changing the world for the better.

Most importantly, make sure your kids know they’re among them.

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One Reply to “In Praise of Messing About, or Why I Hate Homework”

  1. Great read!! I hate homework. I don’t think you should go to school all day just to bring it home at night. I also believe I was fed way too much knowing and not enough learning in public school. When all you do is look at the clock, pray for it to be over, and memorize just to get A’s, I don’t really think my education was effective at that point.

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