Last week, I joined a group of parents and teachers who were talking about homework. They were a fairly representative bunch, in that they were mostly teaching at, or sending their children to, state schools.
"The kids hate it. Teachers never have time to mark it. Parents don't want to spend evenings arguing with kids about it. DOWN WITH HOMEWORK!!!!"
"I want to know who is this parent who allegedly keeps complaining that their child doesn't have enough?!"
"Parents [like] that don't want to spend decent time with their kids."
"Luckily, the teachers my two have aren't that bothered about homework. Both have stressed that the kids work hard at school and need a balanced life and to do other stuff, like talk to us, when not in school. Homework is just a big battle of who has the strongest will."
"All this pushy parenting and anxiety about how well your kids are doing, we all want our kids to do well. Being 'successful' doesn't make you happy or likeable. You concentrate on the person, not the academic results. I feel sorry for those that can't see that."
The conversation was also representative of an opinion I'd noticed amongst many teachers in England: that the pressure to succeed academically may be damaging to our children, and teachers should protect pupils from their parents' misguided ambitions. I disagree with this view as it favours ignorance over wisdom, barbarity over civilisation. In populist terms, they are saying Forest Gump was happier because he was stupid. There is good evidence that homework is strongly correlated with academic achievement, but these teachers and parents seemed to be suggesting that academic success was in some way antagonistic to happiness. What felt treacherous from my viewpoint is that this dogma is more prevalent amongst teachers in the state sector than in private schools.
Their argument goes something like this. We can't force children to learn; we can only provide an environment which will encourage them to explore the world with a sense of adventure. Children are only happy if they are free, and any external repression from parents or teachers will introduce inner hostility towards those in authority, which may also be turned inward and become self-hate.
The logic of this is inevitable, if rather depressing. Schools are no longer places where teachers teach and children learn; they are instead protective environments where children grow at their own pace. The aim of schooling is no longer an academic education, but happiness and personal development. If you think this sounds like an idea that would be promoted by the flower-power generation of the 1960s, then you'd be correct, but actually the roots of the idea are a bit older.
In the early nineteenth century, the Romantic era, a commonly held view was that children can learn all things naturally. This came from the observation that children learn to walk and talk without any tuition, so it seemed a logical extension to assume that any truly important human skill could be learnt through natural curiosity. Children are like flowering plants. If they are just planted into good soil, they will naturally grow and blossom.
Of course, this was before the era of mass education, and so it wasn't until the early twentieth-century when US educationalists took these Romantic ideas and turned them into what became known as progressive education. Learning must be an extension of play. Psychological development must take priority over academic study. Competition between pupils must be eliminated. Hard work and boring tasks have no place in the classroom. Vocational subjects such as mechanics and cookery were introduced into the curriculum.
Similar changes were taking place in the Soviet Union, and a mixture of the US and Soviet systems inspired British educationalists through the post-war decades, until it became the accepted model for English state education during the 1970s and 1980s.
My problem with current thinking is this. There is no evidence that children learn best with this model of education. Nor is there any evidence that children are happier in progressive schools. Those Romantic thinkers of 200 years ago were just, you know, overly Romantic. For a hundred years, many sensible people have pointed out that roughly zero children would learn long-division if given the choice, and most of what we call culture or civilisation is based upon a framework of knowledge that can only be taught, not discovered.
I'm painting an overly simplified picture, to be sure. Teachers are individuals with varied opinion. Progressive educationalists in England have moderated their views, especially in the past decade with the forced re-introduction of synthetic phonics as the main method of teaching reading. But still, there remains a widespread view amongst teachers that academic study is damaging to the emotional and psychological development of the child. I repeat, this is a view backed up with no evidence whatsoever; it is simply the ghost of the overly romantic notions of childhood held by nineteenth-century thinkers.
What is clear, from ample evidence, is that a traditional education is more successful at delivering a testable curriculum to children. Those privileged pupils in the private sector, and those in the top state schools that remained immune from many of the progressive ideas, have achieved consistently better examination results.
What is also clear is the lack of understanding amongst parents of these issues that affect their children's future. While most adults know that teachers no longer rely on rote learning, few parents would be able to tell you how lessons are structured in their local school. I can also guess that many parents, given the option of having a highly educated child who is less happy, might ask the question: "How much less happy?"
To which, any truthful teacher would have to reply: "I don't know. They might be even more happy. It's just a theory I have, with no supporting evidence apart from my own convictions and those of my colleagues."
After that, the choice becomes an easy one. Unfortunately, there is little hope in changing the long-held beliefs and practices of the English teaching profession.