This morning Jung and I went to a coffee discussion time with many of the parents of our daughters’ classmates and the head of their school. The discussion was about homework which had become such a hot topic for some of the families of S&J’s grade that Mr. C (the Head of School) created a homework log for all students to fill out for two weeks so he would have some hard data to look at and present to the parents. We left the coffee feeling a little surprised with some of our fellow parents, and with lots to think about regarding the educational needs for our children and their classmates. Jung and I are not huge proponents of homework, but we have found that our daughters are receiving just enough homework to challenge them and for the first year ever, we are seeing some benefits from homework. I think this may be why we were so surprised by the uproar from some of our fellow parents. (The uproar and the strong difference of opinions in the room this morning inspired me to henceforth refer to homework as “You-Know-What” and “The-Topic-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named” with apologies to J.K. Rowling.)
We’re concerned that most of the criticism over the homework load is being directed at the Humanities teacher, and we wanted to be sure that she hears the voices of those of us who are happy with what she is doing, so, with the experience of the morning coffee fresh in my mind, I wrote her an email (with Jung’s input). In the email I refer to “Checkups.” These are sets of questions about the material for a particular chapter in their American History textbook and it is these “Checkups” which some parents are concerned that their children are spending too much time on. I don’t doubt that some of S&J’s classmates are spending too much time on their homework, but in my opinion, removing part of the “Checkups” would be an unwise solution to that problem. In my email, I explained why:
Dear Ms. R,
At the coffee today, I heard a wide, wide range of opinions and experiences from the parents, and I also thought about what you said to us at Curriculum Night as well as what you’ve written in the Syllabus and “Tips for a Happy Checkup” handout (especially line 7c: “Answers should include your insights, ideas and opinions.”) First of all, I hope you’ve inferred by our lack of complaining about You-Know-What, that in our entire family’s opinion, S&J’s workload is fine. They could probably stand to put a little more time and effort into a number of their subjects including Humanities, but we’re also using this first experience with grades to teach them to value their own expectations over others’ expectations. Jung and I also feel that it’s very healthy that you’ve told the kids to feel good about receiving a “B” and that it is indeed the grade to reach for. We really don’t want our children to be motivated by external stamps of approval. We want them to be motivated internally. (Case in point: S read an “extra credit” book because it was interesting to her and not for the “extra credit.” Getting “extra credit” was a nice bonus, and she liked that, but she told us that she picked up the book because you told her you thought she might like it, and you were right.) We are grateful that you appear to be “on the same page” with us when it comes to grades and “grade inflation”—you’re leaving room for them to reach further if they want, and allowing them to make that choice themselves so they learn to become accountable for their own education.
The realization which struck me the most, though, is that your class, more than any other, has significantly raised the bar on these kids in the area of independent thought, and as Jung and I talked about this, we came to the conclusion that it’s none-too-soon. These are gifted kids, and the hope for our future, and they need to practice formulating and expressing coherent opinions as much as possible. I’ve always believed that there are many “mechanics” of education which, while important, can be “crammed” later in life if necessary: arithmetic and spelling are two examples. As foundational skills, learning them sooner is certainly helpful, but I believe it’s easier to make up for deficiencies in these skills later in life than it is with the thinking and reasoning skills that you are asking your students to exercise in Humanities. In retrospect, we wish our daughters had been expected to write more critically in earlier grades as well. I also hope that Ms. S is doing the same because I believe that Science is the other subject where this kind of critical thinking can be easily taught at this age. (I was happy to hear that in Mr. M’s math class he showed some examples of how easy it is to misrepresent data in very convincing ways. At least his math students are now aware of the danger of unquestioningly accepting data as it is presented.)
Going back to You-Know-What, the reality is that thinking is hard. I believe that our children need to practice thinking about what they are reading and being told, and as I see it, that’s exactly what you’re encouraging them to do. Like any skill, however, it takes some work to get good at it. This morning, some parents expressed frustration with the fact that it wasn’t easy to pull the answers for the Checkups out of the textbook. I may be wrong, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy. Answering the questions may require them to question the question, see the different possibilities for the question, and then synthesize what they’ve learned with what they think in order to form their own answer. The parents may have also missed line 7c which I quoted above, and which in my opinion is the most important line in that document: “Answers should include your insights, ideas and opinions.” The Internet has made obtaining information easier than ever, which is why for this generation developing critical thinking skills early has become more important than ever, and that takes practice. This is not about getting work done and turned in. This is about learning how to think, and I hate to say it, but I observed several parents in that room who were struggling with what you are asking your students to do, and that concerned me.
“Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” “Yes: Practice!”
Many people compliment S&J on their drawing ability. Whenever people ask us how they learned to draw like that, we always tell them the same thing: for eight years, they drew for an average of two hours every day. It wasn’t work; it was immersive play. They didn’t follow any method or book; they just drew what was in their imaginations and told stories together about their drawing as they did it. Getting good at something takes practice which as a musician I define as “time plus attention.” Developing the skills to think, evaluate, and form educated opinions about what you are being told (in other words, critical thinking skills) also takes practice: time plus attention, and I just don’t see any more important skill for future world citizens to learn, or any shortcuts for learning it. When I mentioned to Jung that I found it amusing that even the complaining parents agreed that you’re doing a fantastic job, but they still want you to assign less You-Know-What, she commented that it’s like telling an employer that you’re very happy with your salary and benefits and pretty please you want to keep them, but you want to work half-time. I’m sure the parents would agree that this approach would be unlikely to succeed in the workplace. It would be even less possible to maintain the same results in your class if the practice were to be even further cut down because learning is a non-negotiable biological process. There are no shortcuts.
I don’t know what the final results of this kerfuffle will be, but I wish that the parents would spend at least as much time and attention on examining their own attitudes and practices around education as Mr. C (the Head of School) has spent, and as far as I know, the entire faculty and staff have spent, on examining the school’s attitudes and practices. I see you in your class as trying to create future world citizens who can think for themselves, and frankly, anyone who doesn’t see the desperate need for more of those in our world has been living under a rock.
Keep being you, and keep doing what you’re doing so the children will have the skills they need to be our future leaders!