To Homework or Not To Homework

That is the question. Or is it?

Two bills have been filed in congress seeking to ban homework as a requirement for schools. One seeks to ban homework in general and the other only seeks to ban it during the weekends. It has been interesting following the debate on this issue.

The proponents of the bills, as well as those who are pushing for these, say that it promotes more quality time for the children and parents and enhances well-being by eliminating a stress factor. Besides, they say, a lot of parents or tutors end up doing the homework anyway.

Those against the measure say that by doing this, we are producing wimps. Pile on the homework. Life is more difficult so we should prepare them for it instead of running away from it.

If you have been reading my previous articles, you could say that I favor throwing out the homework. But focusing on homework alone, however, is missing the point. I say throw out the homework, and the entire curriculum as well.

You see, the problem is not whether or not to give homework, because if a child is inclined to learn a certain topic, you can pile all the homework you want and he will do it. But if a child is not interested, no amount of homework will make him learn. Oh, he will perhaps learn just enough to pass the quiz, then the exam, and then forget all about it.

So it is important to study motivation and purpose — not the adults’, not the parents’ nor the teachers’ nor the principal’s motivation and purpose, but the child’s. 

There is a popular saying that goes, “the two most important days of your life are the day you were born, and the day you find out why.” 

What education ought to be doing is helping children discover their why’s, but what is happening with education now is that it is obsessed with telling children what they should be concerned with, what they should deem as important, what they should do with their time, what they should be studying, and even what they should be wearing and how their hairstyles ought to be.

This is not what education is all about. It is not about molding or shaping the children — because that implies that we are bending them for the purpose of the molder or shaper.

Each child has a unique gift, talent and purpose. The educator’s job is to get out of the way and let them discover the joy of finding it, then support and nurture that joy.

In the words of John Taylor Gatto, “Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges. It should allow you to find values which will be your roadmap through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.”

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

What I Learned From Video Games

I saw an internet meme that said, “You see children cooking. I see reading, measuring, math, following directions, collaboration, listening skills, problem solving.” Indeed, a lot of people still believe that learning only occurs when “subjects” are taken separately, dissected and taken to unrealistic depths — with a need for highly trained, specialized and expensive teachers.

Learning happens everywhere, everyday with mundane tasks such as cooking — and this learning is wholistic, practical and grounded on reality. It is learning that caters to a child’s interest, and thus has more retentive qualities than rote learning in the classroom.

An activity that parents today worry about a lot is their kids playing video games. They think it is useless and addictive. I find it ironic that these same parents have their own addictions — alcohol, socializing, shopping, expensive watches, gambling, arguing with random people on facebook, and so on.

Let me tell you something, I have been a computer gamer since I first put my hands on my friend’s Apple 2 computer way back in 1985. I was 11 years old. The games back then were displayed in 1 color (usually green) and a far cry from today’s photorealistic graphics.

The very first game that captivated me was Secret Agent. It was an adventure game that started with you on a plane that was bound to crash, and you had type commands like “open door” or “get gun” or “shoot door” in order to get to the next stage.

The game required a lot of reading as you had to read scene descriptions and deduct clues from it. It also taught a bit of logic. You learned very quickly that “get parachute” followed by “jump out of the plane” doesn’t work because you have to “wear parachute” first before jumping out otherwise it will just go flying out of your hand when you jump.

Where in the World Was Carmen Sandiego? was another very popular game. You followed bandits by tracking clues which would tell you which country they went to. For example, you could talk to a witness and he would say something like, “She said she always wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” and so that told you where the bandit went to next. And because you had to fly to the capital cities of each country, you would naturally memorize these capital-country pairs quite easily, and know if they were in Europe or Asia or South America. How’s that for learning geography?

Even arcade-style games like Karateka or Lode Runner or arcade-strategy game Captain Goodnight required rapid hand-eye coordination and strategic-thinking combined, especially at higher levels. And of course, I learned persistence when I kept dying at certain levels, but wanting to try again this time with a different tactic, or with faster fingers.

(Fun fact: I played the original Castle Wolfenstein, the grandfather of Wolfenstein 3D which came out in the 90’s — the original first person shooter. It was in 2D and only had stick figures. When the guards first appeared, my friend and I were startled because the speaker suddenly blared a very loud “Achtung! Achtung!”)

Even today, I still enjoy playing computer games and still learn from them. I don’t think it is unhealthy at all and people should loosen up about it. Yes, there are dangers in extremes, but that’s true for almost anything.

You see kids playing video games, I see hand-eye coordination, strategic thinking, persistence, out-of-the-box solutions, even applied math, physics, history and geography, and with the internet you can also throw in socialization and collaboration.

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

How Teaching Hampers Learning (Part 4)

“What is the use of this?” is probably the most asked question in school, whether spoken or unspoken. And it is the question most often ignored by teachers, giving such formulaic and even smart alecky answers as “you’ll find this useful for college,” or “you’ll need it to get a passing grade in my class.”

They do not understand that unless they answer this “why” with all sincerity, their teaching amounts to nothing, and their students are merely learning by rote, which is probably the most ineffective learning style there is because when summer vacation comes, you’ll be lucky if they remember even 10% of whatever they were able to memorize just to “get a passing grade.”

Indeed, students who understand why they are learning something, who display genuine interest in the subject, are those who do well in it — and even if they don’t understand it in the alloted time, they will persist until they get it.

In 1929, Louis Benezet, the superintendent of schools of Manchester, New Hampshire, wrote the following to a colleague:

“In the first place, it seems to me that we waste much time in the elementary schools, wrestling with stuff that ought to be omitted or postponed until the children are in need of studying it. If I had my way, I would omit arithmetic from the first six grades. I would allow the children to practise making change with imitation money, if you wish, but outside of making change, where does an eleven−year−old child ever have to use arithmetic?

I feel that it is all nonsense to take eight years to get children thru the ordinary arithmetic assignment of the elementary schools. What possible needs has a ten−year−old child for a knowledge of long division? The whole subject of arithmetic could be postponed until the seventh year of school, and it could be mastered in two years’ study by any normal child.”

He then proceeded to convince teachers in his school to conduct and experiment. They would eliminate teaching any form of arithmetic from the first to fifth grade. Instead, they would focus on allowing their students to express themselves, to learn to read and reason, to tell stories and give their own opinions. The result was astounding:

“The children in these rooms were encouraged to do a great deal of oral composition. They reported on books that they had read, on incidents which they had seen, on visits that they had made. They told the stories of movies that they had attended and they made up romances on the spur of the moment. It was refreshing to go into one of these rooms. A happy and joyous spirit pervaded them. The children were no longer under the restraint of learning multiplication tables or struggling with long division. They were thoroughly enjoying their hours in school.”

But even more astounding was when Benezet introduced arithmetic in the sixth grade level, these 12-year old kids who had no previous formal training arithmetic were very quickly able to catch up and even perform better than their peers in traditional schools. They did especially well in story problems that required a mix of general understanding, analysis and plain common sense. Benezet performed the same experiment in other schools in Indiana and Wisconsin, with the same results, showing that this was not merely due to chance or a fluke accident.

When we teach less, children learn more.

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

How Teaching Hampers Learning (Part 3)

The way we learn is a mix of our natural individual tendencies, as well our experiences, from when we first started to form words, and to curl our fingers, and to stand and walk, up to the present. We learn in different ways and at different speeds.

In high school, I found the math and physics lectures easy to absorb. Halfway through the class, I and another classmate with a similar interest would already be answering the problems at the end of the chapter. He was seated at the back so I would turn around and we would use hands signals  to compare answers with one another. Meanwhile my seatmate would be scratching her head in frustration because she couldn’t get past the teacher’s first example, and at this point, the teacher assumed everyone had got it and had moved on to the second part of his lecture.

What I described still happens (in varying degrees) every day, in every traditional classroom around the world. You have a group of kids with different learning styles, listening to a single topic, each with varying degrees of interest, delivered by a singular teacher in her singular style, which was also developed from her own unique set of abilities and experiences.

In this day and age, how can we still see this as the optimum way to learn?

My seatmate never got over her math phobia and to this day utters her disdain for the subject. The way I see it, the act of teaching hampered her learning in several ways:

  1. Perhaps the way math teachers traditionally teach just didn’t jive with her learning style. Being her friend, I also tried to tutor and help her, but she couldn’t get me either. So our styles don’t match as well.
  2. Perhaps she subconsciously found a certain pride being in the “not good in math” crowd — a far larger crowd than the opposite — and thus identified with more people.
  3. Being seatmates with one who found the subject easy certainly didn’t help. Perhaps she felt pressured to catch up. “Why does he get it so quickly and I don’t? Am I dumb or something?” This pressure in turn made it harder for her to just relax and go at her own pace.
  4. Perhaps she just didn’t find any practical use for it at that time. She is currently a pediatrician and does just fine when computing medicine dosages for kids of different weights. That shows she can learn well enough and master certain aspects of math when she finds it interesting and useful to do so.

In an article entitled How Early Academic Training Retards Intellectual Development, Dr. Peter Gray asserts that “It is generally a waste of time, and often harmful, to teach academic skills to children who have not yet developed the requisite motivational and intellectual foundations.  Children who haven’t acquired a reason to read or a sense of its value will have little motivation to learn the academic skills associated with reading and little understanding of those skills. Similarly, children who haven’t acquired an understanding of numbers and how they are useful may learn the procedure for, say, addition, but that procedure will have little or no meaning to them.”

Teaching does not equal learning. The tragedy is that we know this, yet send our kids to school anyway.

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

How Teaching Hampers Learning (Part 2)

Some people are alarmed over today’s kids not being literate enough. They complain that kids spend too much time on gadgets and video games and Youtube, and not enough time reading books. The solution, they think, is to require more reading in the school curriculum, to add more material, to force them to “love” reading, even to like reading a certain sort of literature (e.g. the classics) over others.

I used to think in the same terms, that kids ought to be guided and gently coerced into appreciating reading and literature.

However, my own experience with my kids has taught me to see with different lenses. Even though we brought them up in almost the same way, exposing them to books and stories while they were young, they had varied reactions towards books.

My girls like to read and they ask me to buy this or that book every now and then. My boy hardly touches a book and for a time would not even look at comic books, preferring instead the aforementioned Youtube and video games. His grandfather often bought him Spider-Man comics over the years while he was growing up but he hardly touched them except to look at the pictures. I am an avid comics reader myself but even I could not get him to read the books.

But I was surprised when just a couple of weeks ago, he began reading them, and even brought them along on a recent trip to Manila. Even though they weighed heavily on his backpack, he happily lugged them along so he could take one out and read when there was a dull moment.

So often we do children a lot of injustice by forcing them to like what we like, to know what we know, to learn at the same pace we do, or as their siblings or peers do. We forget the basic principle that each individual is different in every sort of possible way — interests, skills, abilities, competencies, and so on — and that they ought to be respected, even as children, because they are no less human than we are.

How will kids learn to read if you don’t force them to? Well, as long as they live in a family or a community, they will naturally develop an interest in reading — children are naturally curious anyway and often want to mimic what older people are doing.

Once they decide they want to read, there is nothing you can do to stop them, much as there is nothing you can do to stop them from learning how to pinch, swipe left and right, and lock you out of your phone.

My Australian friend, Derek Sheppard, relates, “Of our 5 sons, two didn’t read until they were about 11 or 12 years.  Needs drove their quest to learn. They taught themselves. All 5 of our sons are individuals following their own paths.  All are independent, and successful in their own ways. None have been disadvantaged, and probably gained advantage over peers in mainstreamed schooling, through their democratic Sudbury education.  One of those two sons who taught themselves to read, went on to achieve a science degree, now works in energy supply, lives in Melbourne and is married, and the other is a department manager of a high turnover store of one of the two largest Australian retailers.”

He further asserts that the “conveyor belt system of industrial schooling is at fault for the failed literacy of graduating students, university students and too many Teachers.  Authoritarians in mainstreamed schooling a couple of decades ago decided to push, prod and manipulate young people into falsely believing their only course and path to success was via university education.  Young people ought to have had the time to look around, understand the world around them, and decide for themselves how they could become independent. A third drop out of university in the first year, because they simply don’t know themselves, or what interests them, or even how to be self-managing.  They are accustomed to being extrinsically directed, monitored and their time filled wastefully, by others. As a consequence they don’t know themselves, in the same way as those who were charged with the responsibility of teaching them didn’t know them, or their interests.”

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Originally published in Sunstar Davao.