By now the new school year is revving up. Students and staff are settling in as some of the impetus gets drowned by old habits and routines. And prominent among these routines are the age-old school assignments and homework. What purpose do these serve?
For most students school work is a chore. Kids are taught early on that school is “their job” and they must comply with it same way adults carry on with their jobs. “Life is tough, suck it up!” is the message they commonly get. And “You must put up with it to earn a living!” The idea that most people have no choice but to spend a great deal of time doing something they don’t necessarily like is so pervasive that kids take it as a given. Many adults around them fulfill their job duties half heartedly. They go to work but often times it’s obvious they’d rather do something else. Whether they acknowledge it or not, their heart and soul is elsewhere. They always look forward to the weekend. Of course the kids follow suit!
The other day someone was telling me about how much more challenging homework has become for their grandson now that he has started grade 2. And how disappointed the grandson is when his teacher doesn’t check his homework. It’s too bad that the kid’s motivation is tied to homework checks, I said. I wish that wasn’t the case, and your grandson did homework primarily because it was interesting and meaningful to him, I added. But it’s important that kids acquire a sense of duty early in life, came the reply. And more to the point: One must learn early that there are obligations to fulfill. There are chores. How else would you motivate people to work hard? Who likes to exert themselves?? Why make an effort if not out of duty?? Hmm…
The exchange reminded me of my experience as a teacher. It was true, most of my students did their school work out of duty and to pass the homework check. School work is automatically viewed as a chore regardless of how interesting or uninteresting it is. Whether it’s answering practice questions, solving problems, completing case studies, preparing for a debate or presentation, or analyzing lab results, in essence students do any school work for the teacher. When do you want this by? they ask. Why bother do it if you don’t check? they wonder. I had trouble with it! they’d usually say when their homework is incomplete. And some parents request that teachers supplement homework. So that kids don’t spend too much time online, in front of TV and with friends. At the same time, other parents complain that teachers assign too much work thus depriving kids of relaxation. Some kids are more conscientious than others, but in the end they too are motivated by obligations and goals that have little to do with the intrinsic meaning of the work itself. So, school work is a necessary evil…Is this a fact?
I do not mean to say that school work is always meaningful. Because it isn’t. But even if it was, I’m afraid that we would continue to see it as a chore for as long as we’ll treat our jobs as chores. And that won’t change unless we collectively agree that seeking meaning and purpose in what we do “for a living” should be our main goal. That often times, if we believe that what we do is valuable, we’ll work hard for it without resentment. That it will feel natural to exert ourselves for something that engages our heart and mind. And yes, we’ll invest effort gladly into a task which we believe is worthwhile. Families and communities must instil these ideas in kids from the earliest days of their lives. Because by the time they get to school it may be too late.
Life is tough, but also interesting and exciting. And it happens every day, not just in the weekends. School learning and work are inseparable parts of life. To impress on kids that they are chores has grave consequences for everyone.