Surprising truth #7: At Acton, life is the big homework assignment

The homework that is a part of Acton Academy could really be called “lifework.” Our students are assigned the work of living life with purpose and meaning. This may sound a bit fuzzy but it is actually a clear discipline that requires a committed focus. The focus is on our mission that each child will stay on task to find and pursue personal passions and gifts in ways that will ultimately change the world. The curriculum must not distract from this.

At Acton, we honor and embrace the fact that the lives of our students and their families are rich and full. School is one important piece of the learning experience in our students’ lives. But there is much to discover in the freedom of having time and space to explore, to play with friends, to write a book, to memorize a song, to play games, to be alone, to compete in sports, to master an artistic discipline or to dabble in a variety of activities.

I would even say that being given the opportunity to wind up bored at home some days is a learning experience that children deserve – even if this idea is counter-cultural to our American lifestyle. (Let me clarify that boredom at school is not something we will ever aim to cultivate. We have room at school for frustration, failure and difficulty, yes; but boredom, no. Life at home is another story.)

But wait! I want my child to have real homework. I want him to know how to manage his time and work hard and practice math. I crave watching him sitting down with a sharpened pencil working problem after problem until he gets the answers correct. Maybe he would even smile up at me after completing his assignment and then run off to play outside.

The vision of afternoons around a table practicing spelling and math and handwriting makes me happy. I have no idea why. Isn’t it important for a school to assign homework? Doesn’t this practice solidify academic learning? Why would a school not give homework?

And so my internal script goes until I sit on the floor and talk with children. I want to ask them about this. What do the children think they are learning outside of school? Are their learning experiences real and valid? Are they valuable to their deep, lifelong learning?

I posed the following question to a few of our students:  Are there things you do when you are not at school that you think are important to your lifelong learning? Here is what they said:

Henry: Yes. I like birdwatching and drawing. I also like to write my book about zoology.

Sofie:  Yes. I learn about the computer. I like to play games on it. I also ride my bike and read.

Tate:  Yes. I read Harry Potter books and like to pretend I’m Harry Potter. I also take care of my pets, learn soccer and piano and do Cub Scouts.

Anaya:  Yes. I work hard at violin. I learn binary math systems with my dad. I swim and I learn a lot from my sister. I like to watch her and I’m inspired by her. I love to be outside and ride bikes with my family. I like to learn singing. We read and play games.

Derek: Yes. I am learning to beat levels in video games. I was on the Lego team and will be in the Spanish workshop. I learn about soccer. I go to museums and I learn about history. We read. If you come back to me, I will tell you more. (Sorry, Derek, I owe you a lunch date to hear more!)

Bodhi: Yes. I learn about lots of sports. I’ve learned baseball, basketball, and I do the Minds in Motion program. I also learn piano and liked chess lessons. I’ll be taking those again.

Bella:  Yes. I learn horseback riding and surfing. Also gymnastics, hip hop, yoga, piano and guitar.

Ellie: Yes. I learn dance. I also learn baking and theater. Also volleyball, guitar and ballet.

Hayes:  Yes. I learn about teamwork and patience by doing things with my neighbors and friends. I help out with yard work and help others so we can go do things. I also do math at home so I’m always learning about that.

Garrett: Yes. I read a lot, too. And I learn when we travel.

Libby:  Yes. I read. I like to catch frogs in my backyard. This creates patience because I have to wait for a frog to come to me.

Cash:  Yes. I learn about reading, baseball, guitar, soccer and swimming.

Grayson:  Yes. I read and play basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, lacrosse and swimming. I have so much going on after school.

Lillian: Yes. I learn drums, piano, tae kwon do and lacrosse.

Ella Reese: Yes. I learn ballet, art and cello. I have designed some clothes. We travel a lot, too.

Ian:  I learn how to have fun and how to take a break and do my own thing. Imagine if we can never have a break. We would never learn how to do a lot.

Children, thank you. You always bring me back to the truth. You are pursuing your endeavors with sincerity and with serious minds. What a travesty it would be for a school to impose homework that might impinge on the important work you are doing simply by living your lives with such gusto; especially when there is little evidence documenting any benefits of homework in elementary school. (See links below.)

Clark Aldridge says in Unschooling Rules: “The cost of [homework] is extraordinarily high on the students’ education. Homework robs children and their families of meaningful time together. Robs children of self-paced experiment and reflection time where so much learning to be, learning to do and, yes, learning to know actually occurs. This is where boys and girls, on their own, can learn what they love. Homework covers up bad processes and bloated curricula.”

Clearly a lot of reading is going on within our Acton homes. Many of our students and families also choose to commit time to practicing math and spelling. These are wonderful things to do as a family and I am glad they are chosen freely.  As students move through middle school and high school there will be an even more focused pursuit of discovering one’s gifts which will carry over into life outside of “school.” This may include reading, writing, creating and researching.

When the question about homework arises from prospective parents, their main concern is that without homework, children will not learn time management.

At Acton, we cheerfully disagree.

First, one of the life skills taught at Acton is how students must manage their own core work time in order to reach their goals. Part of this is considering the cost/benefit tradeoffs and small decisions that each person makes each day about how to use time and how these decisions impact progress towards excellence and ultimately mastery. This is a daily discipline.

Second, the best way for a child to learn time management is seeing it modeled in family life. A central question of our family meeting time is: We want to do so much. How do we fit it all in? What must we give up? We struggle to carve out time and acknowledge that some things must be given up in order to manage the most important goals of our lives.

I know my children watch me manage my time and will copy my practices. Where do they see me wasting this most treasured resource? Will I let them see me slow down and do nothing for long periods of time? Will they see me value playtime and quiet time? Will they see me practice my hobbies and my work? Will they see me serve others? Will they see me frenzied barely able to get my “to do list” done each day? Will they see me enjoy the gift of life?

I’ll take this as my homework assignment. And I think I have a lot of work to do.

Food for Thought on this topic:

Sandeep shared this link with me on this particular topic of homework: