10 Basic Principles of Our School System, Part 1: Homework

I decided to start a meta-series about school. After discussing the principles of our school system with a class again (something I do on a regular basis), I thought that it would be interesting to look at everything that we consider basic aspects of this system and discuss what doesn’t work about it and why. “Wait,” you say, “does that mean you’re trying to dismantle the school system from the ground up?” Well, yes, in a way, but I also want to look at those aspects and see what could work or how you could change it. But still, I do believe our school system is one of the biggest problems in our society, shaping young people in a way that makes them accept many absurdities and lies that keeps our culture alive and destructive. So any suggested change is relative to my overall disregard of this system. Note also by the way, that when I say “our school system” I mainly talk about the German school system as I know it. I know there are other systems or simply other schools (which is one way I was inspired to write this), but I’m sure much of it also resonates elsewhere. So, here you go, the 10 basic principles of our school system as I see it (in no particular order):

  1. homework
  2. class tests, tests and exams
  3. grades
  4. schoolbooks
  5. the curriculum
  6. 45/90-minute lessons
  7. class size
  8. age-based classes
  9. subjects
  10. teacher focus

When you ask students about things they really don’t like about school, homework comes up very regularly. The way I have always known homework, both as a student and a teacher, it makes sense to say that. Teachers are taught early on that homework is mandatory, that a lesson should end with giving homework. In teacher’s training you could fail if you didn’t include homework in an exam lesson you gave. Most teachers follow this rule, so students can expect to get some kind of homework in every lesson. Why is that such a problem?

First of all, homework often serves no bigger purpose. It usually repeats what was done in the lesson, for practice, which can either be redundant if you understand the subject matter already or pointless if you didn’t because you probably need more explanation to get it. If you’re in between those two extremes, it might be useful, but that leads to one of the biggest problems with homework: its lack of individuality. Like everything in school, everyone has to do everything, so in many cases there is no real gain. If homework was adapted to each specific student’s needs, both in content and study preference (reading, writing, listening), it could be useful for guaranteeing that topics are actually understood and remembered.

Second, homework takes time. A lot of time. It starts early on, but in higher classes, especially starting with year 11, it amounts to more than a full-time job. Your long school day is over and what you face then is not necessarily free time, but loads of more work that if you don’t do it, will lead to bad grades or other punishments. You know what teachers like to say? “It’s weekend, so you have lots of time for doing this.” If you consider that many students have many non-school activities like sports (often to also gain some skill or advantage for the future), school becomes a 24/7 profession. And not a low-wage job, but an unpaid one. If there is actually some learning progress is totally irrelevant to this.

This doesn’t even take into account the normal studying for exams and tests (more on that when get to that principle). The problem here comes from teachers not realizing (or caring) how much time it costs students to get done with all of this work (let’s not even talk about students who have problematic situations at home or learning difficulties).  Also, teachers don’t talk to each other, so every teacher only thinks of their homework, rarely considering how it stacks up against everything else students have to do. Expecting students to manage this, assumes a lot of determination and time-management skills that many students simply don’t have, even if they saw the point in all of this work. Imagine how much more stressful this becomes, if you believe that writing this text, researching that topic or doing these exercises gains you no benefit for your present or future life. Knowing that in many cases the homework is not looked at by the teacher in detail (or sometimes at all), does ensure that any possible motivation goes beyond zero. Think about it: in the worst case (which happens quite often) you’re expected to spend your free time on doing something that is of no value to you and will not be regarded by anyone, but if you don’t do it, you’ll be punished. Follow that logic long enough and you become a good, obedient student. Which, in the end, might be the main reason for homework after all, albeit a hidden, subconscious and only cultural one.

Could homework work? Well, again, it depends of course on the idea you have of the school system in general. If you just think about “acquiring knowledge” for tests and such, it could be used somewhat effectively. But even if you see school just as a way to get knowledge you actually need and students are interested in, some homework could possibly be useful. Sometimes. But only if its adapted to the needs of each student, if it is based on the student’s learning preferences and if there is actually a benefit of doing it at home and not at school.

I almost never give homework, for all the reasons mentioned and if nothing else, just out of pity because I know how much the students have to work for other subjects or courses, so why make them suffer more if it’s not really necessary? And it rarely is, so it’s not like I make anything harder for anyone, neither me nor them. And it takes months and sometimes years until students stop being really pleasantly surprised when I announce that there is no homework today as they need to get over their instincts that homework always happens and that it’s a blessing if it doesn’t. Seeing this conditioning at work will always be one of my biggest motivations to do things differently. I have not become a teacher to train young people to do things. My advice to any teachers: listen to your students! That advice applies to anything.

What do you think?