‘Does it count?’

By skepticlawyer

Maybe it’s just me, but I find the piece excerpted below (in HuffPo) rather disturbing, along with the revelations that the same thing is going on in Australian schools. It is less common in Britain; parents are more likely to tell the school to f*ck off, and in any case the school day is an hour longer. From the HuffPo piece:

There is much debate about the merits and volume of homework imposed on our kids. But there’s one big component that has been notably absent from the discussion: Mommy Homework.

For the uninitiated, Mommy Homework is the bane of many mothers’ lives. While perhaps intended to be an opportunity for bonding between parent and student, it instead frequently devolves into a parent Googling “How do you paper maché?” at midnight. It is dioramas in first grade, ancestor dolls dressed in authentic cultural costumes in second grade and re-construction of Colonial Williamsburg in fifth grade.

Mommy Homework (and yes, of course it can also be Daddy Homework) has been known to tie up entire weekends, leave its victims covered in baking soda (volcanic eruptions for science) — and befuddled as to why a balloon can light a lightbulb.

I have to say as a mother who works outside the home that I find homework extremely difficult to organise. If I was also a single parent it would just about break me. On the days I go off to work we don’t all set foot again inside our front door until just before the kids’ bedtime. Asking friends and family who pick up our kids from school and kindy, and who look after them for the afternoon and evening (including bathing them and giving them dinner), to also supervise their homework feels like a step too far. Fortnightly homework schedules are a little easier for me to manage because that gives us a weekend to catch up on all the homework.

The comments are worth a look, too, including one from a woman who gave up her job thanks to the volume of homework her kids were getting.

I don’t have kids (for which I am thanking my lucky stars more and more every day), but apart from placing ridiculous demands on parents’ time and not allowing kids to be kids (what about sport? Or a musical instrument? Or just tooling around the neighbourhood on a treadly?) has it not occurred to the eejits demanding this kind of parental involvement how classist it is?

My mother left school and went ‘in service’ at 13. My father left school and joined the Royal Navy at 16. Neither of them were stupid, but my mother’s literacy levels were marginal and while my father was bright in a practical way, there was no way either could have helped me with, say, quadratic equations or reading Shakespeare.

My policy with homework (just to give a student’s perspective here) was that if ‘it didn’t count’, I didn’t do it. All my continuous assessment was handed in on time (often early, in fact), and completed to a meticulous standard. However, homework that wasn’t for marks was never completed. Ever. Because I had better things to do with my time, like playing hockey or debating or tooling around the neighbourhood on a treadly. From the age of 15, I also worked part-time.

Were I a parent in the position of the various people quoted in the two pieces above, the school would get told where it could stick its homework. If they want that much homework done, make the school day longer, pay the teachers more and offer ‘prep’ time (common in Britain and in successful US charter schools).

I now understand why homeschooling is becoming popular. I always used to think homeschooling was for people who thought that on the eighth day the Lord created Smith & Wesson, but now I know better. If schools are asking parents to do this much at home, I completely understand some parents saying, ‘bugger it, may as well go the whole hog’.


  1. Posted May 20, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    For the non-religious, it tends to be called the “unschooling” rather than the “homeschooling” movement, for the next time you are googling relevant stuff.

    If I was starting my kids’ education again these days (they’re just finishing high school now), unschooling would definitely be an option I’d be seriously considering.

  2. Posted May 20, 2012 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    ‘Unschooling’. I like that. That tickles my funnybone…

  3. Sinclair Davidson
    Posted May 20, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    The kids’ homework is very annoying. Parents are expected to home school.

  4. kvd
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 3:59 am | Permalink

    This is quite a neat transition from the previous post about who is responsible. Maybe one way to look at the Geelong Grammar parents is that they are more completely outsourcing their tutoring duties to the school, and then expecting value for money? Whatever.

    The HAT post is very good (great writers over there!) as are the comments as SL says. There is no hard rule you can apply: some homework is quite simply pointless, but some is a natural extension or reinforcement for what is learnt within the classroom – and good luck working out which is which! Reading of any and everything has got to be beneficial; paper mache maybe not so much.

    But it’s the guilt thing, leading to resentment and frustration, which is the most damaging in the home. Possibly extend school hours by an hour or so and do away with homework?

  5. Posted May 21, 2012 at 5:14 am | Permalink

    If we were given homework in primary school, dad did his block.

    The next day, we’d be sent to school with a note for the headmaster, saying that we’d been given some saddlebags or something to fix, & they’d “better” be finished by the time we got home.

    Shortly after this (to use lawyer type speak, on this legal blog) dad “had a conversation” with the headmaster.

    Arriving home after 5pm, after jolting on a hot bus over gravel & dirt roads since 3pm, & arriving at school having been on the bus in similar conditions since 6.30am, we were glad to not have homework.

    The headmaster got the message, he had all 40 fathers steaming at him for giving homework.

  6. Posted May 21, 2012 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    “Homeschooling”. Now there’s a phrase that makes me want to vomit!

    All accross the nation there are parents who’d give their right arms to have their kids educated in a proper classroom, instead of by correspondence & school of the air.

    Then: The internet gets invented & one reads all the time of parents eschewing the golden opportunity that some of the best people in the nation can only dream of.


  7. Posted May 21, 2012 at 5:27 am | Permalink

    I did some of my education by School of the Air. It rocked. It was better than ‘normal’ school, IMHO.

  8. Posted May 21, 2012 at 6:06 am | Permalink

    From a kid’s perspective sota rox, yair. However for parents who desperately want three R’s for their kids, it is less than ideal.

    It was a poignant moment when I got to high school, and was able to see the opportunities for learning that are available for big schools with lots of resources.

    Kids (at the time) don’t appreciate the sacrifices their parents have made for their education.

  9. Patrick
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    I’d homeschool my kids in a flash if I could. The idea is:
    1 form a small group (that way every parent gets a couple of days a week ‘off’ and you can still socialise your kids/have group assignments, excursions, etc)
    2 take advantage of the internet – you don’t need to teach your kids nearly anything anymore inbetween Kahn Academy and the massive homeschooling resources available, you just set the agenda, timeframes, and test them
    3 coach them – the testing tells you what they have problems with, so you fix that, you learn how they learn and you tailor the program to their passions (ie, there’s maths in everything, you work out what they’d rather the background be and use that
    4 don’t forget the real world – work in projects like building a brick hardwood grill in the backyard, growing a herb garden or re-setting and re-configuring the household wireless network.

    I just wish I could afford to! I’m fairly sure my kids could start uni aged about 12 if I did. Of course I wouldn’t actually let them, I’d make them spend a few years living in foreign countries and working/volunteering, but at least they’d have a crack at doing something better than school in their first 20 years of life.

  10. Posted May 21, 2012 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    You can homeschool them any time Patrick.

    Do like the rest of the country has to & pop an ad in the paper for a governess, fit out a classroom, & hey presto, you are in control of your kids’ education.

  11. Patrick
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Well I do Steve, but there’s a limit to how much time I can fit in around my day job, and reasonably demanding day-job notwithstanding, I regrettably can’t afford a governess.

  12. Posted May 21, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Patrick is already beginning to empathise with those who are forced to homeschool, as the Americans call it.

  13. Julie Thomas
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    There could be some interesting experiments happening with the home-schooling in the US. This ‘over-the-top’ trite and badly written article “Home Schooled and Illiterate” has a point; it raises some of the potential problems that will result if large numbers of people are allowed to do unregulated home schooling.

    I was shocked to find so many tales of gross educational neglect. I don’t merely mean that they had received what I now view as an overly politicized education with huge gaps, for example, in American history, evolution or sexuality. Rather, what disturbed me were the many stories about home-schoolers who were barely literate when they graduated, or whose math and science education had never extended much past middle school.

    More here:


  14. Posted May 21, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    That’s probably an important life lesson: sometimes its easier to just suck it up and do the pointless shit to please someone else, rather than trying to convince them of why its a waste of time, or to try to avoid the consequences of displeasing them. If you can’t handle doing that then you’ll never be able to survive in a large organisation.

    I do wonder how homeschooled kids manage to reintegrate back into later education or the workforce. It seems like something that employers might seek to avoid as it’s easier to judge the quality of a school than it is to judge a parent’s educative skill.

  15. Posted May 21, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Look, I take SATP’s point (it goes with Sinclair’s above, and the comments at HAT). If you don’t have the time to do this, and you’re paying taxes that purport to pay for state education, then involving yourself in your kids’ education any further may be impossible as well as mightily irritating. I finished up with some School of the Air on the basis that a subject I had half completed was no longer offered, and I had to finish the requirements somehow. The learning was self directed and since it was a foreign language there was no way mum and dad could help out. Other parents may well find the whole thing a significant impost, however.

    I think the basic issue here is the lack of appreciation of the extent to which intellectual ability is heritable. Parents can probably influence their kids via upbringing to have good manners and (maybe) persistence, but not much else. I’ll never forget that video of Steven Pinker’s at TED where he pointed out that until we have Gattaca, you basically get what you’re given. And even if Einstein and Curie had had kids, there would be likely regression towards the mean.

  16. Posted May 21, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Like a lot of education, the overlooked question is: what is the evidence? What evidence is there that homework is pedagogically beneficial? In what circumstances, what levels, what types, etc? You can tell education is a state-and-church dominated industry, the research basis is abysmal.

    And education academics are typically, if anything, worse being classic C P Snow “Two Cultures” types who seek to Transform Society via their (current) Wonderful Ideas (usually, relabelled versions of the Wondeful Ideas of a generation or two ago) and apparently allergic to anything resembling empirical testing.

  17. Posted May 21, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

    Pinker’s talk is here:


    The discussion of the hang ups over parenting (and the arts, too) starts at 10:00, but it’s all worth a look.

  18. Posted May 22, 2012 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Well, yes, it’s hard to organize if the teachers “helpfully” give the weekend – forgetting that so many kids have every second weekend visiting the other parent and coming back cranky.

  19. Mel
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks for introducing me to the thinking of Steven Pinker, SL. He is always worth listening to.

  20. conrad
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    “What evidence is there that homework is pedagogically beneficial?”

    There’s a wonderful example of this that was done to provide an example of the use of a statistical technique (multi-level modelling) with the essentially free package HLM and what you could learn from it. The answer is that lots of variables matter, and some are negative on some groups but positive with others!

    As for early childhood stuff (e.g., reading to your kid), there is quite reasonable evidence for that sort of stuff, although of course at the level of the individual, it would interact with what the school is doing.

  21. conrad
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    “I think the basic issue here is the lack of appreciation of the extent to which intellectual ability is heritable”

    There’s no doubt some heritable component, but if you look at the Flynn effect, then it suggests there is a very decent environment component also. There are also studies now comparing things like country-vs-city, and you do find quite reasonable differences, again suggesting that at least for intelligence, there are decent environmental effects.

    As for just what kids learn in Aus, pre-politician Andrew Leigh had a nice paper looking at maths ability, and if I remember correctly, there was an overall 1/4 of an SD difference between the 80s and now (which is big in my books). Overseas, there are a number of studies looking at early literacy, and there are big environmental effects there as well.

  22. Ross Williamson
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Education is a terribly fraught aspect of parenting. Forget playing on the treadly these days: it is a constant battle against digital technology. It would be worse now with smart phones and facebook. Home schooling is big in USA. I wonder how they deal with the sheer cost of it? But its merits are screamingly obvious to me.

  23. Posted May 22, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Conrad, is that 1/4 of a SD better or worse since the 1980s? Enquiring minds, etc.

    And yes, Andrew Leigh’s loss to politics has been very considerable. He was a splendid researcher.

    Pinker’s point was that none of the earlier studies controlled for heritability, and as soon as you did so, the effect was much smaller, or pointed in all sorts of directions, or was not statistically significant. I remember one study finding that the mere presence of books in a child’s home had an effect; borrowing them from the library and bringing them home to a bookless house wasn’t enough.

    Not controlling for heritability is the bane of education studies, because in their heart of hearts, the researchers don’t want to admit to vast differences between people on the basis of sheer chance. It is a pity, because philosophical discussions of luck egalitarianism and theological discussions (this from paganism) of divine partiality (sorry, Virginia, the gods do not love you all equally, or pay equal attention to you) would help conceptualise and frame the debate. It has, after all, been going on for a long time.

  24. conrad
    Posted May 22, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    Conrad, is that 1/4 of a SD better or worse since the 1980s? Enquiring minds, etc.

    Less unfortunately — a lot of it coming from the right tail getting killed and the distribution becoming more homogenized, which is exactly what you don’t want (i.e., no more really smart people to think of really smart things. Thank god for the Russians, Chinese and Indians exporting their smart people). This is actually pretty unsurprising, because fewer and fewer kids do advanced maths and physics these days and instead do the equivalent of what we used to call “veggie maths” when I went to school (business maths), because only vegetables did it.

    I have read Pinker’s book and I do have some sympathy for his position — especially for the glut of shitty studies, and some sympathy for topics that never get raised in education circles because they are too contentious, like there being a dysgenic effect. This means that even if you stayed still, things would get harder and you would get more inequality also, which is a rather nasty environmental loop.

  25. Julie Thomas
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    SL “I remember one study finding that the mere presence of books in a child’s home had an effect; borrowing them from the library and bringing them home to a bookless house wasn’t enough.”

    I’d be thinking that this is because humans learn the most important things – well the things that were once vitally important to human survival – by imitating the people around us – not by doing what we are told to do.

    My dad used to say to me ‘do as I say not as I do’ when I caught him out being a hypocrite, but this is not possible for young children to do. They need to see to actually observe people that they value, doing the right thing.

    So kids have to see parents or other role models actually reading books themselves, and engaging in all the other associated behaviours that go with households in which books are common, to understand that reading is an activity that is worth while doing.

    There is a lot of recent work that supports the idea that social learning and imitation are essential to human progress; innovators (insert high IQ individuals here if you are still enamoured by the individualist ideology) are important but are not sufficient to drive adaptation and human progress.

    IQ is really a meaningless term; measuring and quantifying human abilily began as an attempt to prove that white men were the smartest and most evolved people in the universe; and it seems they were wrong and the most recent consensus in the area of racial differences in IQ, is that East Asian people have a higher IQ than white people.

    So should we all do what the Asians do?

    This link is to a long read but I found it absolutely fascinating,. I will post one paragraph to entice you into reading it all;

    “Thinking about the coevolution of the cultural pool of observable behavior and the genes that control the individual and cultural learning suggests that cultural learning can increase average fitness only if it increases the ability of the population to create adaptive information (32). The propensity to imitate evolves because it is directly beneficial to the individual, but it may, nonetheless, also benefit the population as a side effect. We have thought of three ways in which this could happen. First, cultural learning can allow individuals to learn selectively—using environmental cues when they provide clear guidance and learning from others when they do not. Second, cultural learning allows the gradual accumulation of small improvements, and if small improvements are cheaper than big ones, cultural learning can reduce the population’s learning costs. Finally, by comparing “teachers” and learning selectively from those that seem most successful, “pupils” can acquire adaptive information without making any inferences based on environmental cues. If individuals acquire information from multiple teachers and recombine this information, this process can create complex cultural adaptations without any intelligence, save that required to distinguish among more- and less-successful teachers.”


  26. Posted May 23, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] Thanks for the link, it does look fascinating.

    The Economist recently had a piece in their Free Exchange column which cited research on the effect on girls of having female village heads which goes to the same point.

  27. Julie Thomas
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Lorenzo, there is so much interesting evolution stuff to read lately; it is my current obsession. But the information about role models being important for children, has been around since the ’70’s in psychology. I was a mature aged student and a parent in the ’90’s and I remember having a flash of ‘recognition’ about the way my kids had picked up things that I hadn’t actually taught them.

    Your example would seem to support the idea that some role models would be more effective than others; eg female leaders would be necessary for girls who had learned that women were not leaders.

  28. conrad
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    “IQ is really a meaningless term;”

    I don’t think it’s meaningless — you can use it for lots of very useful things — tracking populations over time, identifying individuals at risk of one thing or another, etc. . However, I do think it is seriously abused — a lot of the general public seem to think it is a perfect measure (it certainly isn’t — it has to be adjusted constantly due to shifts over time and some of the measures are fairly dodgy), and we mainly hear of the controversial uses of it (racial differences etc.).

  29. Mel
    Posted May 23, 2012 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Julie Thomas @27:

    “IQ is really a meaningless term; measuring and quantifying human abilily began as an attempt to prove that white men were the smartest and most evolved people in the universe.”

    The acknowledged father of the IQ tests we use today is Alfred Binet and the testing was related to the education of children in France which had just been made mandatory. Your claim is fanciful.

    IQ tests have a variety of applications and good predictive qualities and are far from meaningless. The fact that some racial groups score better than others doesn’t detract from their validity. On the contrary, it may go some way to explaining the diferences in outcomes for different groups. As an example, Australian Aborigines have exceedingly low mean IQs ( in the 60s according to Flynn) and this is probably a major factor (along with racism etc) in their generally low life expectancy, poor health, cultural dysfunction and lack of educational success relative to intellectually superior peoples in similar historical and cultural circumstances, for instance native Americans and New Zealand Maoris.

    This summary of Lynn’s work is well worth a read.

    I hasten to add that different mean intelligence levels does *not* under any circumstances justify racism against the less able groups any more than the fact that men rape, kill and steal much more often than women justifies misandry.

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