Tuesday 17 January 2017

The death of devoir

We had two families, as a controlled experiment. As we left our teens, we had a single boy and as we left our thirties, we had two girls. That’s different: most people soldier on through a couple of decades of child-rearing – until the offspring finally begin to show a modicum of independence (financial, emotional, laundry) at about 25. Our experiment reveals key differences between the sexes: that girls pull up their socks, boys do not. The Boy had a wide experience of schools: alternative, main-stream; catholic, non-denominational; fee, free; NL, UK, US, IE; so we’re quite the experts on that. Second time round, the girls didn’t go to any school ever.

When they were six-to-ten, other kids would ask them, with amazement “How did you learn to read, if you didn’t go to school”. The answer was, more or less: the same way we learned how to walk, speak grammatical sentences, and know which end of a chicken delivered the eggs. You can make a meal out of something if you choose, or if there is a powerful lobby [textbooks] and special interest group [teachers] which says that education is something that is done to/for children. As it happens, Caitlin Moran was also home-educated. There is an amazing book by Francis Spufford called The Child that Books Built – and Caitlin Moran was that girl. She auto-didacted herself through Moby Dick, Jilly Cooper, Little Women, Narnia and Adrian Mole and as a girl articulated a fantasy that when she grew up she would marry the local library.

In her book Moranifesto, she urges the abolition of homework for school-children because is demands extra work for pupils, teachers and parents. When we came back to Ireland in 1990, the boy was shoving 14, The Boy finished up in a fee-paying school in North Dublin. It was not so much of change from the catholic comprehensive school in North England from which he transitioned . . . except for the cult of home-work. We spoke to old pals of ours who had a boy of similar age, and they all three assured us that 3 hours of home-work went down in their house every weekday night. That's THREE HOURS of extra school-related work each day. Because we were busy / reprehensibly lax in parenting, we let The boy get on with it. It was a lot like the story of us trusting him in primary school to make his own lunch <not!>. Well, he never got into the habit - which is inculcated in middle class Irish kids from early days - and it was rare when 3 hours of home-work was completed in the whole week. Those two boys have both finished up in more or less the same position socially and financially.

Home-work is invidious for two other reasons than Moran's extra-work load argument. Firstly it is unfair - it give a chance for articulate, affluent parents to help their children directly to shine academically and gain extra positive attention in school. It is hard to step off this self-serving unmerry-go-round without feeling like you are failing your child, so everyone buys in and everyone suffers.

Secondly, it is counter-productive. In WWII there was a great demand for signallers in the US Army so lots of squaddies were told off to learn Morse code. Because they were in the Army, they did 4 hours of Morse between reveille and dinner and 4 hours Morse between dinner and knocking off. Results were not so good. Somebody had the idea of halving the Morse-working day and found that competence in Morse could be achieved in half the elapsed time. If time was allowed to embed the learning, then learning was more efficient. Less is More - again!
As for homework: just say No.

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