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Monday, April 29, 2013

Why Do Children Dilly Dally Over Their Work?

I hear this so often from parents that I thought I would write about it.

In the busyness of everyday living, parents see a series of tasks that their children must complete in order to get reasonable grades in school. It really is quite normal because maintaining a task list is one of the more effective ways that adults have to organise their lives.

The only difference is this.

If we are adult enough to devise a task list, we are adult enough decide when and where the task list ends. Once we have completed the final task, we can go and do the things we like. We know what this last task is, and we know that after that task is done, we can do something we like.

The view is very different from the child's perspective. The child sees a task list assigned by an adult. There is no certainty that once she has reached the end of the task list, she can go and do the things she likes. In the experience of most children, once the tasks are completed, more tasks are added... because really, work is never done.

Yes I know. Even for adults, work is never done. However, we do have more control over when we stop to play. We CAN more or less decide that once we're done with such and such a task, we will go and watch a movie. Of course, some people work in jobs where the boss controls what we do tightly. People usually resign after a while because they feel overly controlled.

Children cannot resign from their families.

If the adult keeps on adding tasks to the child's task list, the child has nothing to look forwards to except work and more work. In such a scenario, the child has every incentive to work slowly. The slower she works, the less work she has to do.

Little Boy's workload was a result of open and respectful negotiations between the both of us. We devised his work schedule jointly. We had a 2 monthly plan. We then confirmed the weekly schedule at the start of the week. He had visibility into his work goals... he understood and bought into the whys and wherefores of whatever his works goals were to be... if he didn't agree or didn't understand, we would talk it out.

The work schedule was a promise we made to each other.

(1) I promised that I wouldn't add tasks even if he completed those tasks so fast that he had extra time to play. The extra time was his reward for focusing well and working fast.

(2) He promised that he would complete all those tasks with care and exactitude. Else, he would have to redo them until they were of a quality acceptable to me. If tasks were poorly executed and he had to sacrifice his playtime to perfect them, then the lost time was his punishment.

The work schedule was our contract. To keep my part of the bargain, I added no work tasks. In fact, I made sure to examine the homework he brought back from school everyday. If the homework added no value to his learning, I would write him excuses. If the homework did add value (and he could not be reasonably expected to complete school homework and also the work I assigned him), then I would delete my work from his work schedule.

In this way, Little Boy was CERTAIN about the end of his task list. He also knew that the task list would be a reasonable one that would not cheat him of playtime. This gave him confidence that if he focused and did a good job, he would be rewarded with more play. It was then up to him to work as fast as he could, to do the best job he could... to maximise his play time.

As a result, Little Boy did not dilly nor dally over his work.

Post Script: 
In case there are those who wonder why I didn't approach the Teacher to give feedback on "homework that didn't add value", there are a few reasons. 

(1) Firstly, the homework assigned could add value to some other student in his class with a different strengths and weaknesses profile. Teachers have 3 and sometimes 4 classes of 40 to teach. There is no way they can afford the kind of personal and individual attention to construct customised homework for each child. 

(2) Secondly, Teachers feel bad when they receive negative feedback and since different parents have different views, the poor Teacher should not be in a position to pander to all the different views. 

(3) Thirdly, it bleeds Teachers of time and energy if every parent goes over to them clamouring this and that. Teachers already have too little time to properly mark compositions (since classes are so large).

(4) Fourthly, the thinking skills requirements at the PSLE have risen so high (and the exam has become so high stakes) that if low value added HW is done, Little Boy would either have no time to play or his potential would be capped by HW that didn't help him learn beyond what he already knew. 

Something has to give.

In short, the MOE should not expect its individual Teachers to be founts of infinite resources. They have to write curriculum (because textbooks are so insufficient)... mark 4 classes of work... manage parents... set exams... plus others. If MOE had more realistic expectations of what individual Teachers can do to bring the children up to the high skills standards of the PSLE (give Teachers smaller classes and better textbooks) then perhaps parents need not have recourse to external tuition... and parents like me need not teach the syllabus actively.

I'm still waiting to see what MOE will be doing to improve mainstream textbooks (apart from further Conversation) so that children taught in classes of 40 by overworked Teachers, can have ways to independently learn.


Jenn said...

Hmmm.... that's provided the child is old or mature enough to understand. Children 4-7 or sometimes even up to 8 may not be mature enough to understand

Petunia Lee said...

Errr... nope... even the little ones can grasp the concept that if they dilly and dally over their daily regime of 6 Dr Seuss alphabet games at the computer, they eat into their own play time.

The little ones are poorer at conceptual understanding but when they experience the loss of playtime... they quickly understand what is at stake. When they lose playtime as a result of doing poor quality work, they also quickly understand what is at stake.

It really is chicken and egg. Does the parent wait for understanding to develop before anything is possible? OR does the parent actively engineer experiential situations that develop maturity and understanding?

Anonymous said...

I think you were born knowing how to be a good Mom!

Petunia Lee said...

Theanne - Oh... you are sweet. I think though, it's really because I've never really forgotten what it's like to be a child. So many people forget.