Me In The Middle
The threat is always there
The threat is always there

Homework - the solution or the problem?

A Big Think

Topic:  Education
Mood:  Puzzled

Dragging myself back to the 1970s when I was at school, homework was always seen as a punishment by me and my friends. It was a sticky mix of revision, research and writing skills that was as boring as it was painful. 

For some pupils it was a time to shine; they slaved hard, absorbed the information like a sponge, basked in the glow from their chuffed parents and smirked in joy at the gold star stuck by the teacher to their essay. For the rest of us, however, it was slightly more ghastly than watching our fathers laugh at the thinly veiled sexist and racist comics on British TV. 

Times have changed, of course. Education is far more relevant these days and the kids come home skipping and chanting the names of beloved teachers as they prance up to their bedrooms to have a rapturous evening writing up their most recent report. Yeah, right.

Tom Bennett, award-winning teacher, former nightclub manager in Soho and writer of The Behaviour Guru,  actually doesn't have anything against Homework as such, but more against the pointless exercises often set under the guise of being useful - "Imagine how Jesus felt on the cross and draw it," and "design your own ideal bedroom" being two such daft examples.

It does raise the question, however, of how much that is taught in schools, often politically motivated to show that the government cares about such things, is also pointless?

Physics is my favourite example here. Now, let's be straight about this, we need physicists. The world of science, and at the end of the day that means every aspect of our world, is built on the ideas demonstrated in physics. The idea that matter and energy and neither be created or destroyed is fundamental to everything from how a car moves, to why we don't sink through the planet and how our digestion works. By the by, it also keeps people like Brian Cox permanently employed. But, how many Brian Coxes do we actually need? 

I have met several physicists over the years, even had one as a friend, and they are without doubt, scarily intelligent. Apparently, I am a bit above average for the UK and yet I am dwarfed by the sort of brain required to actually do anything useful with physics. As a subject, it can only be fully realised by about one percent of the population and that drops considerably when you take away all those intelligent people who find physics really, really boring - that would be most of them, then. 

For the rest of us (that is nearly all of us) the laws of physics will go in one ear as a kid and straight out the other and that will be perfectly fine since we will never have any use for that knowledge in our entire lives.  Now, I was quite interested in physics at school, enough so that my teachers pushed me into the sciences and denied to me all the arty subjects that I really wanted to do. In the end, I gave up on the whole system and dropped out. I have spent my life earning money from all the arty bits and have never used physics again, though I still find it quite interesting. 

For six years I learned physics twice a week (that is two hours) plus probably did a a half hour a week homework. I spent roughly 600 hours doing a subject I had no use for. Worse for many friends since they hated physics and still had to do it.

Well, that is physics. It is an exceptional subject for exceptional people and is probably a bad example. So what about all those other subject? English is useful, as is a foreign language (you can argue whether learning French is the best one to learn - Urdu and Arabic might be more useful and probably more interesting too...)  and anything that helps explain society is good. But how about the other sciences? Or history? Or Geography? Geology? Metal work? Personally I have always wanted a forge in the garage, a machine shop and the skills to make replica ancient weapons and tools from an archaeological dig in a remote part of the UK, but that probably is not the ambition of most people.

The point here is that no knowledge is pointless, but most knowledge is useless to most people. 

A plumber will benefit from metal work and wood work classes, but not from history. An accountant will benefit from learning arithmetic, but will never use calculus (or need to understand it).  An interior designer will benefit from an understanding of space and techniques in art, but will never need to know about volcanoes or how an engine works. 

More controversially, the government now believes that all children need to be able to program a computer. Bollocks. Most will never want to, will hate it and will never do it again. I never learned to program as school and come from an older generation that is meant to find this all a mystery. And yet I can build a website from scratch using code. 

The chances are that for most people in most jobs, most of the knowledge that  was rammed down their throats in school will have no use to them ever again in either their jobs or their personal lives.

However, what WILL be of use to them, is learning HOW to learn. 

Actually, mostly we know that anyway or we would have never learned to talk as kids, but a good education can polish that innate ability and even jump start it within people where it seems less than automatic. Being able to take on a job because you are a great study is much more important that taking it because you have some basic knowledge. The best employees are the ones that take on the job and learn it, DESPITE what they learned before. 

The subjects we learn in school are all about politics. MPs around the world are obsessed with proving that they can get more crap into their kid's heads than the other countries and will spend hours looking over the latest international studies to see how they are doing. They will relish in pictures of happy school kids saying how successful they are completely ignoring that the happiness was because of the snog round the back of the bike shed's not because of the physics lesson. 

We start this political process as five and run it all the way to university where, apparently, we cannot function unless at least fifty percent of our kids get a degree. Why? 

A bank manager needs a degree - you cannot even apply for the job without one - but do they need it? Well, back in the day when the job was much harder, when you didn't have computers judging credit worthiness or automatically calculating payment structures and had to do the job with pure experience and gut instinct, you didn't need a degree. You didn't even need some lower level of higher education. I know two people from the old days - one was a bank manager, the other the chairman of a building society and both left school at 14. 

So, why do they need one now? 

Education needs a rethink. It is vital that the skills taught at school are defined better, are more about ability and less about knowledge. We need to find ways of judging what a student is not best at, but will get the best out of so their education can be tailored appropriately.

Most importantly, we need to make education continuously available from birth to death. It is impossible to work out what kids are going to need to know in later life which is why we cram their heads full of pointless rubbish in the vague hope that this scatter-gun approach at leasts gives them something useful.  Making eduction something you can go back to easily whenever you need it means people can make decisions about what they learn earlier, perhaps, in the knowledge that if that doesn't work out, they can go and have another go later, even if that is thirty years later.

It is all very well saying education should be fun or productive and these are wonderful political judgements, but it should not be forgotten that the main reason many kids will get up and go to school is not because of fear of the future, but to meet their friends and get that snog round the back of the bike sheds (if they are lucky enough). 

Maybe the idea of "educating" society is fundamentally wrong. What we should be doing is giving society the chance to educate itself. For that we need two things - employers that remember that training is THEIR responsibility, not the tax payers, and politicians that want to see outcomes and not results.

So, looks like my great idea will fail at the first hurdle, then.

 

#MITMhomework
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