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Three Guiding Principles for Homework

Progress reports went out recently and, naturally, this leads to questions about how to improve poor or mediocre performance. Even students that are doing well should not rest on their laurels; the year is young and grades are not an end unto themselves.

Homework provides an ideal focal point for parents seeking to improve their boys’ academic performance. Specific and measurable resolutions are possible for young men in all three categories: below average academically, average, and above. Our goal in this post is not to provide the goals necessarily, but to offer some guidance for parents as they evaluate their sons’ homework habits and set goals to improve them.

There are (at the very least) three ends or purposes for homework, listed here in order of importance from least to greatest:

• First, for the boy to develop the basic mechanical skills needed for success in academics and beyond. Here we think of penmanship, attention to detail, and the rote mechanics of completing an assignment—making careful boxes for 3rd grade math; properly formatting footnotes in a Jackson Scholars Thesis; etc.

• Second, for the boy to better understand and more deeply internalize the subject matter. “Oh, I get it!” says the boy sitting by himself after finally working, re-working, and re-re-working the problem. This level of understanding, gained through grappling with an idea or concept during silent study is what we are striving for.

• Third, for the boy to develop the will-power and the habits of mind needed to work independently in pursuit of wisdom and understanding. We want our boys to develop the ability to think, as our Upper School Head puts it, at the pace of a page turning. Imagine what this depth of thought will do when leveraged by modern technology?

• An additional consideration, of course, is the pursuit not just of learning, but of the love of learning; of wonder at that which has been learned. Your son can’t just make this happen, and you certainly can’t demand it. It just sort of… well… happens when things are working the right way and the boy is learning in the way he is designed to learn. When the conditions are right, wonder at beauty is nearly inevitable.

And so, our goal is straightforward: to use homework to develop good mechanics, an understanding of the subject matter, positive—and independently exercised—habits of mind, and a love of learning.

You will notice that grades, perfection, and getting it right were not mentioned. If we become fixated on the grades, then we short-circuit the development of the boy towards each of the three ends.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t help our sons with their homework. We should, but only in order to—and in a way that—helps their mechanics, understanding, and independent study habits. Ultimately, the goal is to have your son (even in 3rd grade) knock out homework without your having to check it. “Is your homework done?” “Yes.” “Good.”

Those of us with more than one child know that this comes easier to some of our youngsters than others. So, by all means, help with homework, but don’t do the homework. Seek understanding and positive habits, not perfection. And please, do us a favor and allow incorrect answers, because as teachers, we don’t know that your son needs help if all we are seeing is perfect work coming from home.

Broad and lofty principles, but that’s the way it has to start. The beauty of The Heights is that we are here to help you dial in the specifics of how these things apply to your boy. For starters, boys who are not studying enough should study more. Those who are studying without results, should rethink their study environment and methods. Finally, those who are studying well, should study better; should move from studying for the grade, to studying out of love of learning. A great first step in this regard is to develop the practice of reviewing and annotating one’s class notes, even if tests are days or even—*gasp*—weeks away.

About the Author

Rich Moss


Rich is the Director of The Heights Forum and the Director of Admissions at The Heights School.

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