Busywork Blues

This was written by a student (and friend) involved with Challenge Success. We appreciate his willingness to share his personal story with us.

In the living room of my parent’s house there is a table worn smooth from the weight of books and spotted with flocks of pen tip indentations. This of course is the dreaded “Homework Table,” which sustained nearly two decades of use by both me and my older brother. It is from this table that I would often depart early in the morning, only to return again later—after school was out, after tennis practice was out, well after sundown.

Although I explicitly remember spending what constituted a significant portion of my adolescence at this table, I am hard pressed to recall the specifics of any of the actual assignments. Granted, this retrospection is a few years removed, it still brings up an interesting question: if the overwhelming majority of homework is busywork, why assign it at all?

While each of the papers that I have been assigned in college requires critical thinking and provides flexibility to reward intellectual curiosity, high school assignments rarely encouraged me to go beyond what I had to do, and were simply a means to an end—frequently appearing to be assigned more out of habit than of help. More often than not, they would simply be a nebulous batch of problems lifted by my teachers from the back of the book. These blitzes of questions had little real-world application, and were alarmingly tedious—often generating more frustration than actual learning. One particular high school teacher was notorious for his rigor—his assignments would often be supplemented by a short worksheet which unsurprisingly operated under the title “Drill It and Kill It.” The instructions for this exercise were to set an alarm for a designated amount of time, and race through as many problems as possible. While his efforts to hone efficiency could be seen as admirable, these overly-repetitive tasks did not encourage understanding, and placed too much of an incentive on isolated instances, instead of the larger picture. While seemingly harmless, over time this sort of assignment creates an attitude where too much of a reward is placed on the immediate, which can lead to narrow-mindedness and overshadow the far more important goal: long-term learning.

And it is with this sort of busywork that the issue of homework becomes inseparable from that of academic integrity. On a great many occasion, I would walk into school dazed and bleary-eyed from an exhaustive night of homework to see my classmates huddled in the back of the library covertly copying the solutions down in the few minutes before the bell rang. If it takes a scant handful of minutes to copy down an assignment, how can it really be beneficial? By assigning homework without a strong relationship to course content and emphasizing that the answer is all that really matters, teachers are creating a scenario in which critical thinking isn’t really worth it and cheating really does pay.

Admittedly, not all homework is evil, and I am very thankful for many of the hours I sat underneath my fluorescent lamp on that old dining room table. But I cannot help but look back with at least some regret—at all the hours of work which really didn’t amount to any purpose, and of all those assignments which were at best misguided. The mindless work piled before me did nothing in the way of strengthening my critical thinking skills, and it left me ill-prepared for the project-based learning I would later face in college. I was a part of a system that just didn’t make sense—and long hours were spent grinding away, as I struggled to find the meaning behind what I was learning.

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