Friday, March 6, 2009

Me On My Soapbox

Just me on my soapbox about homework again. But it's not only about homework...I guess. It's about the entire educational model we set up for our kids in this country.

And my main argument is this: Every child is different. Every child has different strengths and weaknesses. Every child learns differently. And every child...EVERY talented in some way, be it academically, athletically, creatively, mechanically, technologically, or emotionally. It's time to celebrate our children's differences and encourage their strengths, and help them be all THEY can be...

Homework: Too Much, Too Soon?
After-hours school work doesn't always benefit budding brains.

By Rich Maloof for MSN Health & Fitness

Schools impose a substantial after-hours regimen on school children to intensify learning and heighten achievement. But does homework work?

As anti-homework advocates love to point out—and by this we mean educational psychologists and educators, not kids who'd rather be playing Wii—100 years of research have failed to prove conclusively that homework administered prior to middle school increases academic performance, improves skill sets, or leads to higher levels of achievement.
Back to front

Why is middle school the turning point? The answer may lie in how the brain develops over time.
In the initial stages of development, most of the gear-turning goes on in the back of the brain, where sensory cortices process the information absorbed from a child's environment. As a child grows and learns, the bits of information stored throughout the brain's memory become interconnected, resulting in a broadening set of skills and intelligence.
Come the teenage years, the sensory posterior becomes increasingly interconnected with the front of the brain, where more complex thoughts and emotions are managed.
"Once the frontal lobes start to develop, teenagers start being able to handle higher-level, more abstract concepts," says Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, research neuroscientist at the UCLA Semel Institute's Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity.
"The fiber tracts—highways that carry information from the sensory areas of the brain to the frontal lobes, and back again—have to be paved for information to travel."
Molnar-Szakacs explains that the paving, known as myelination, is the process by which the fiber tracts are insulated. With more learning comes more paving, and as the pathways become more efficient, the brain gets better at integrating information. There's a kind of built-in mnemonic device for understanding how myelination relates to learning: reinforcing lessons puts "miles" on nerves fibers, and information in the brain moves most easily along a well-traveled road.
However …

Myelination begs the question of whether the brain works best when lessons are repeated time and time again, as they are in homework assignments. The answer is a qualified yes.

Those students who have absorbed a lesson well in class and can recreate it faithfully on their own will reinforce neural paths and create new associations in the brain. In this respect, and for these particular students, the brain really can be worked like a muscle, trained to flex and make a good show of its strengths on request.

Moreover, Molnar-Szakacs explains, the brain builds in chemical rewards for students who take well to this method of learning, much like the body rewards exercise with endorphins.

"The system will release a certain amount of neurotransmitter to reinforce the feeling of accomplishment that studying brings," he says. "It's essentially the brain saying, 'This feels good, do it again.'"
The problem is, not every student does absorb or re-create the lesson well.
"There's a disconnect between cause and correlation," says Kalman M. Heller, Ph.D., a retired family and child psychologist who practiced for more than 40 years in Massachusetts. "Students who do their homework and get better grades are generally more organized and may be very eager to succeed. It fits their 'student personality.' They do their homework and get better grades because it's natural for them to do so."
Heller and Molnar-Szakacs both touch on the notion of multiple intelligences. Academic skills, and the homework used to sharpen them, simply do not cover the range of possible ways in which kids can shine.
Says Heller, "Students may excel at making personal connections, being creative, or having athletic ability. Generally they are not good fits for the traditional educational model, even though there are so many people whose success is based on those same talents."
Free to be

The narrow focus of many homework curricula can strand those kids. Brilliant creative thinkers who struggle through piles of math and science assignments may complete high school without ever putting the appropriate number of miles on their neural pathways. They will experience all of the stress and little of the reward, neural or otherwise.
Unrecognized and unpotentiated, their intellect is put on hold, delaying their success and their happiness. Many will not blossom until their adult life when, of their own volition, they pursue a career that plays to their strengths.
"Children come to school thinking the world is their oyster and that anything is possible," concludes Molnar-Szakacs, "and then every year we essentially limit their vision by teaching them how to narrow their thinking."
If homework can't be more universal in drawing on student strengths, the least our schools can do is allow a kid more time to be a kid. After all, the most respected thinkers in history are noted for their exploration of unconventional ideas.
Some of the hours now spent hogtied to a chair, trying to solve for x and y, would be better spent thinking outside of the box…or even simply outside of the house.

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