Thursday, May 16, 2024


The California state legislature is currently working on a bill that would require schools to enact homework policies that take into account their students' mental and physical health. Introduced by Assemblyperson Pilar Shiavo, a member of the state's new "select committee on happiness," the bill appears to have very little opposition and will likely in some form become law.

"This feeling of loneliness and disconnection -- I know when my kid is not feeling connected," says Schiavo, "It's when she's alone in her room (doing homework), not playing with her cousin, not having dinner with her family."

According to an article on the CalMatters website, "The bill analysis cites a survey of 15,000 California high schoolers from Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education. It found that 45% said homework was a major source of stress and that 52% considered most assignments to be busywork . . . The organization also reported in 2020 that students with higher workloads reported 'symptoms of exhaustion and lower rates of sleep,' but that spending more time on homework did not necessarily lead to higher test scores."

Preschoolers should never be assigned homework, of course, although I know it's happening, at least in some places. Indeed, on Monday I wrote about a five year old being coerced into filling out worksheets while flying on an airplane as part of a family vacation. Useless busywork robbed this girl of what should have been a wonder-filled, connecting experience. The evidence is overwhelming that homework, especially through the elementary years, has nothing but negative impacts on learning, well-being, and, most importantly, happiness. So good on this committee for following the science.

That said, I have incredibly mixed feelings about this bill. I support its intent and I'm pleased that it's receiving bipartisan support in an era in which bipartisanship is nearly dead. At the same time, I don't at all like the precedent of politicians telling professional educators what to do. I don't like it when it's school boards banning books and I don't like it when it's legislatures dictating homework policy, even if I think this particular policy is a step in the right direction.

It's our own fault, however. I'm outraged that our profession is so shockingly out of touch with the current science about how humans learn, that we have not already, on our own, cut back, or even eliminated, homework altogether. This proposed law wouldn't be necessary in a real, professional educational system. And this is far from the only place that our schools straight up ignore evidence in favor of discredited behaviorist and factory floor approaches to education.

I don't have any memories of homework until about 4th grade. We were expected to solve the equations at the end of the chapters in our mathematics text book. It took about an hour a week. I was lucky because my father, an engineer, was facile with numbers, and patient with me as he helped me through the challenging parts. I don't know whether or not I learned the math I was expected to learn, but I sure do remember the time I spent with my father as we, together, noodled through what was being called "new math." Prior to that, however, and even for some time thereafter, most of my evenings and weekends were homework free -- my own.

But that doesn't mean I didn't study. I would spend time in the family garden, studying the fruits, flowers, insects, and soil. I studied sports, games, and performing arts with my friends. I studied the movement of clouds, the sound of rain, and the thrill of wind.

When I was 9-years-old, my family moved to Greece where I spent my time studying an entirely new culture from the inside. I attended an international school that ascribed to a work-at-your-own-pace model, which meant that homework was optional. Every now and then, I was inspired enough by something that I would actually choose to spend "my time" working on it. In fact, I was so enthusiastic about English that I completed all the expected elementary school work by the end of 4th grade. 

Most schools today would likely respond to my precociousness by loading me down with more "advanced" English work. But at this school, during this era, I was "rewarded" with free time. So while the other kids continued to pace themselves through the work, I would read whatever I wanted in the library. One day, I discovered the collection of vinyl that we could check out and listen to on headphones, a state-of-the-art technology. That was my real introduction to popular music, not to mention the comedy of Cheech & Chong. (My friends and I found them hilarious even through we certainly didn't get much of it). When my music teacher learned what I had discovered he started suggesting music I might like. This is how I first heard The Beatles, The Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack, and The Jackson Five, my gateway into an entire world. That, to me, is the highest form of teaching.

On Sundays, we went to a non-denominational church. The pastor's son was our Sunday school teacher. What he chose to teach us about what what he was interested in: the possibility that aliens had once lived amongst us. We would spend an hour each Sunday morning listening intently to this glamorous teenager tell us about how beings from another planet helped, for instance, the Ancient Egyptians build the pyramids, showing us pictures and detailing archeological "evidence." I was so inspired that I convinced my parents to purchase all of Erich von Däniken's pseudoscientific books. That spurred me to further reading. I became fascinated with all sorts of unexplained phenomenon -- the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster, the lost city of Atlantis -- which ultimately led me to an interest in archeology and the study of ancient things, which was highly motivating for an American boy living in Greece, a land full of historic and wonderful artifacts from the distant past.

That was my homework.

It seems to me that all school children should have homework. In fact, they should have nothing but homework. The problem with homework is when it's assigned from above, when it's simply busywork, when it's forced onto children because it's always been forced onto children. I don't know if this legislation will do any good. I hope that educators will see it as a chance to, finally, start doing the right thing. 

What is the right thing? To me the right thing is to inspire children to pursue their own interests, even if that's pop music or pseudoscience. What if the goal was for all children to come home from school eager to dig deeper, learn more, and follow threads wherever they lead? In other words, inspired to do homework.

I might not like the idea of a legislature sticking their dilettante noses into education, but I do love the idea of a select committee on happiness. I love the idea of a society, and by extension an educational system, that measures success by Gross National Happiness rather than Gross National Product. 

We live in a culture in which loneliness and disconnection are a deadly epidemic. And I do think these legislators are onto something when they focus in a bipartisan way on homework. But I would take it further. The answer to disconnection, I'm convinced, is to set our children free to do the homework that inspires them. That might not create more happiness, but it's the direction we must go if we want our children to find purpose in life, that thing that makes them come alive, and that, at the end of the day, is what the world needs more than anything else: people who have come alive. 


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast here or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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