Intuition vs. information

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When I was small I did not think there should be homework. Actually, I still feel that way. I analogized it to adults — when they came home from work, they read the paper and watched television. A dry cleaner didn’t spend evenings at home dry cleaning. But even more than that, I thought that schools should have to get their thing done during school hours. I liked spending time with my mother, my father, my brother, my friends in our Reno neighborhood — or myself.

If only I’d known there was research to back me up. Well, there may not have been then, but there is now. Recently author Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote in the Atlantic about how he spent a week doing his 13-year-old daughter’s homework — three hours or more each night. He’d always been concerned about the amount of homework and had discussed it with other parents who agreed. In a priceless school story, the only parent who disagreed told the teacher about the discussion and the vice principal called in Greenfeld and accused him of bullying the teacher. I am not making this up.

Homework comes and goes. It tends to be heavier after some galvanizing event — the release of a major national study on dropout risk in 1983, for example, or after the Soviet satellite Sputnik was launched in 1957. Plus there is the Let’s-Be-Like-Japan notion that has been pushed for years by those who want greater productivity and a nation of workaholics.

In some endeavors we ask, “Is this a good idea?” or “How do we do it?” On homework, no one asks, “What is the best way to help students — homework or no homework?” They take it for granted that homework is a good idea. And it’s not, particularly the brutal load students today carry.

Why is the assumption in favor of homework? In all likelihood we have been conditioned to think of certain things as automatically beneficial. If the question above is asked, the notion that no homework is good for students is counter-intuitive.

But Greenfeld surveyed the research and found “some of the countries that score higher than the U.S. on testing in [math and science] — Japan and Denmark, for example — give less homework, while some of those scoring lower, including Thailand and Greece, assign more.” France is considering ending homework. “Work should be done at school, rather than at home,” said President Francois Hollande.

But parents concerned about the brutal homework load their children are given are often blocked by parents who respond not to the research but to their own intuition and want schools to load on the homework so their kids can get into good schools and colleges.

Greenfeld quoted Harris Cooper, a professor of education at Duke University and the author of the book “The Battle Over Homework,” who said, “The increasing competition for elite high schools and colleges has parents demanding more homework.” It probably never occurred to such parents that by supporting heavier homework they might be DAMAGING their kids’ prospects instead of helping them.

I’m not really writing here about homework, but about intuition over information. Here are a couple more:

Natural foods and organic foods are all the rage. The term “natural” somehow just suggests something positive, like the word “reform.” Intuitively, it sounds good, and to say that processed or engineered food is better seems counterintuitive. It’s not clear why this is so. Nature, after all, is full of dangers, and researchers have succeeded in developing processes that make nature safer.

Natural food has become a major industry. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as children who cannot make this choice for themselves are protected by health regulation. But health food advocates want to stamp out other kinds of food. They attack advocates of processed food with a fierceness that is akin to attacking the devil.

Presumably natural food advocates would not want to go back to using the kind of medical care that existed in the 19th century, yet they want to go back to food and ways of preparing food from that century, as though it represented a safer time. Science tells us otherwise. Processed and engineered food has never killed anyone, unless the processes or engineering were subverted somehow, as with faulty packaging. But natural food kills people all the time — think salmonella or unpasteurized milk.

Prohibition seems like a sensible response to illicit drug use, if intuition is followed. But the nation had a small drug problem until prohibition came along. With prohibition came a new black market, profit incentive, and motivation to affirmatively get people hooked. Illicit drugs have been a major industry ever since.

When the Carter and Ford administrations deemphasized punitive enforcement, drug use fell. When the Reagan administration jacked up enforcement again, drug use rose. It’s counter-intuitive, but there it is.

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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