Alfie Kohn The Case Against Homework

PRINCIPAL
January/February 2007

Rethinking Homework

By Alfie Kohn

[For a more detailed look at the issues discussed here — including a comprehensive list of citations to relevant research and a discussion of successful efforts to effect change– please see the book The Homework Myth.]

After spending most of the day in school, children are typically given additional assignments to be completed at home.  This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few people ever stop to think about it.

It becomes even more curious, for that matter, in light of three other facts:

1.  The negative effects of homework are well known.  They include children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities, and possible loss of interest in learning.  Many parents lament the impact of homework on their relationship with their children; they may also resent having to play the role of enforcer and worry that they will be criticized either for not being involved enough with the homework or for becoming too involved.

2.  The positive effects of homework are largely mythical.  In preparation for a book on the topic, I’ve spent a lot of time sifting through the research.  The results are nothing short of stunning.  For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school.  For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement.  At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied.  Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.

3.  More homework is being piled on children despite the absence of its value.  Over the last quarter-century the burden has increased most for the youngest children, for whom the evidence of positive effects isn’t just dubious; it’s nonexistent.

It’s not as though most teachers decide now and then that a certain lesson really ought to continue after school is over because meaningful learning is so likely to result from such an assignment that it warrants the intrusion on family time.   Homework in most schools isn’t limited to those occasions when it seems appropriate and important.  Rather, the point of departure seems to be:  “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week).  Later on we’ll figure out what to make them do.”

I’ve heard from countless people across the country about the frustration they feel over homework.  Parents who watch a torrent of busywork spill out of their children’s backpacks wish they could help teachers understand how the cons overwhelmingly outweigh the pros.  And teachers who have long harbored doubts about the value of homework feel pressured by those parents who mistakenly believe that a lack of afterschool assignments reflects an insufficient commitment to academic achievement.  Such parents seem to reason that as long as their kids have lots of stuff to do every night, never mind what it is, then learning must be taking place.

What parents and teachers need is support from administrators who are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom.  They need principals who question the slogans that pass for arguments:  that homework creates a link between school and family (as if there weren’t more constructive ways to make that connection!), or that it “reinforces” what students were taught in class (a word that denotes the repetition of rote behaviors, not the development of understanding), or that it teaches children self-discipline and responsibility (a claim for which absolutely no evidence exists).

Above all, principals need to help their faculties see that the most important criterion for judging decisions about homework (or other policies, for that matter) is the impact they’re likely to have on students’ attitudes about what they’re doing.  “Most of what homework is doing is driving kids away from learning,” says education professor Harvey Daniels.  Let’s face it:  Most children dread homework, or at best see it as something to be gotten through.  Thus, even if it did provide other benefits, they would have to be weighed against its likely effect on kids’ love of learning.

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So what’s a thoughtful principal to do?

1.  Educate yourself and share what you’ve learned with teachers, parents, and central office administrators.  Make sure you know what the research really says – that there is no reason to believe that children would be at any disadvantage in terms of their academic learning or life skills if they had much less homework, or even none at all.  Whatever decisions are made should be based on fact rather than folk wisdom.

2.  Rethink standardized “homework policies.”  Requiring teachers to give a certain number of minutes of homework every day, or to make assignments on the same schedule everyweek (for example, x minutes of math on Tuesdays and Thursdays) is a frank admission that homework isn’t justified by a given lesson, much less is it a response to what specific kids need at a specific time.  Such policies sacrifice thoughtful instruction in order to achieve predictability, and they manage to do a disservice not only to students but, when imposed from above, to teachers as well.

3.  Reduce the amount – but don’t stop there.  Many parents are understandably upset with how much time their children have to spend on homework.  At a minimum, make sure that teachers aren’t exceeding district guidelines and that they aren’t chronically underestimating how long it takes students to complete the assignments.  (As one mother told me, “It’s cheating to say this is 20 minutes of homework if only your fastest kid can complete it in that time.”)  Then work on reducing the amount of homework irrespective of such guidelines and expectations so that families, not schools, decide how they will spend most of their evenings.

Quantity, however, is not the only issue that needs to be addressed.  Some assignments, frankly, aren’t worth even five minutes of a student’s time.  Too many first graders are forced to clip words from magazines that begin with a given letter of the alphabet.  Too many fifth graders have to color in an endless list of factor pairs on graph paper.  Too many eighth graders spend their evenings inching their way through dull, overstuffed, committee-written textbooks, one chapter at a time.  Teachers should be invited to reflect on whether any given example of homework will help students think deeply about questions that matter.  What philosophy of teaching, what theory of learning, lies behind each assignment?   Does it seem to assume that children are meaning makers — or empty vessels?  Is learning regarded as a process that’s mostly active or passive?  Is it about wrestling with ideas or mindlessly following directions?

4.  Change the default.  Ultimately, it’s not enough just to have less homework or even better homework.  We should change the fundamental expectation in our schools so that students are asked to take schoolwork home only when a there’s a reasonable likelihood that a particular assignment will be beneficial to most of them.  When that’s not true, they should be free to spend their after-school hours as they choose.  The bottom line:  No homework except on those occasions when it’s truly necessary.  This, of course, is a reversal of the current default state, which amounts to an endorsement of homework for its own sake, regardless of the content, a view that simply can’t be justified.

5.  Ask the kids.  Find out what students think of homework and solicit their suggestions – perhaps by distributing anonymous questionnaires.  Many adults simply assume that homework is useful for promoting learning without even inquiring into the experience of the learners themselves!  Do students find that homework really is useful?  Why or why not?  Are certain kinds better than others?  How does homework affect their desire to learn?  What are its other effects on their lives, and on their families?

6.  Suggest that teachers assign only what they design.  In most cases, students should be asked to doonly what teachers are willing to create themselves, as opposed to prefabricated worksheets or generic exercises photocopied from textbooks.  Also, it rarely makes sense to give the same assignment to all students in a class because it’s unlikely to be beneficial for most of them.  Those who already understand the concept will be wasting their time, and those who don’t understand will become increasingly frustrated.  There is no perfect assignment that will stimulate every student because one size simply doesn’t fit all.  On those days when homework really seems necessary, teachers should create several assignments fitted to different interests and capabilities.  But it’s better to give no homework to anyone than the same homework to everyone.

7.  Use homework as an opportunity to involve students in decision-making.   One way to judge the quality of a classroom is by the extent to which students participate in making choices about their learning.  The best teachers know that children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.  Students should have something to say about what they’re going to learn and the circumstances under which they’ll learn it, as well as how (and when) their learning will be evaluated, how the room will be set up, how conflicts will be resolved, and a lot more.

What is true of education in general is true of homework in particular.  At least two investigators have found that the most impressive teachers (as defined by various criteria) tend to involve students in decisions about assignments rather than simply telling them what they’ll have to do at home.  A reasonable first question for a parent to ask upon seeing a homework assignment is “How much say did the kids have in determining how this had to be done, and on what schedule, and whether it really needed to be completed at home in the first place?”

A discussion about whether homework might be useful (and why) can be valuable in its own right.  If opinions are varied, the question of what to do when everyone doesn’t agree – take a vote?  keep talking until we reach consensus?  look for a compromise? – develops social skills as well as intellectual growth.  And that growth occurs precisely because the teacher asked rather than told.  Teachers who consult with their students on a regular basis would shake their heads vigorously were you to suggest that kids will always say no to homework – or to anything else that requires effort.  It’s just not true, they’ll tell you.  When students are treated with respect, when the assignments are worth doing, most kids relish a challenge.

If, on the other hand, students groan about, or try to avoid, homework, it’s generally because they get too much of it, or because it’s assigned thoughtlessly and continuously, or simply because they had nothing to say about it.  The benefits of even high-quality assignments are limited if students feel “done to” instead of “worked with.”

8.  Help teachers move away from grading.  Your faculty may need your support, encouragement, and practical suggestions to help them abandon a model in which assignments are checked off or graded, where the point is to enforce compliance, and toward a model in which students explain and explore with one another what they’ve done — what they liked and disliked about the book they read, what they’re struggling with, what new questions they came up with.  As the eminent educator Martin Haberman observed, homework in the best classrooms “is not checked – it is shared.”  If students conclude that there’s no point in spending time on assignments that aren’t going to be collected or somehow recorded, that’s not an argument for setting up bribes and threats and a climate of distrust; it’s an indictment of the homework itself.

9.  Experiment.  Ask teachers who are reluctant to rethink their long-standing reliance on traditional homework to see what happens if, during a given week or curriculum unit, they tried assigning none.  Surely anyone who believes that homework is beneficial should be willing to test that assumption by investigating the consequences of its absence.  What are the effects of a moratorium on students’ achievement, on their interest in learning, on their moods and the resulting climate of the classroom?  Likewise, the school as a whole can try out a new policy, such as the change in default that I’ve proposed, on a tentative basis before committing to it permanently.

*

Principals deal with an endless series of crises; they’re called upon to resolve complaints, soothe wounded egos, negotiate solutions, try to keep everyone happy, and generally make the trains (or, rather, buses) run on time.  In such a position there is a strong temptation to avoid new initiatives that call the status quo into question.  Considerable gumption is required to take on an issue like homework, particularly during an era when phrases like “raising the bar” and “higher standards” are used to rationalize practices that range from foolish to inappropriate to hair-raising.  But of course a principal’s ultimate obligation is to do what’s right by the children, to protect them from harmful mandates and practices that persist not because they’re valuable but merely because they’re traditional.

For anyone willing to shake things up in order to do what makes sense, beginning a conversation about homework is a very good place to start.

RESOURCES

We are awash in articles and books that claim homework is beneficial – or simply take the existence or value of homework for granted and merely offer suggestions for how it ought to be assigned, or what techniques parents should use to make children complete it.  Here are some resources that question the conventional assumptions about the subject in an effort to stimulate meaningful thinking and conversation.

Barber, Bill.  “Homework Does Not Belong on the Agenda for Educational Reform.”  Educational Leadership, May 1986: 55-57.

Bennett, Sara, and Nancy Kalish. The Case Against Homework:  How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It (New York:  Crown, 2006).

Buell, John. Closing the Book on Homework: Enhancing Public Education and Freeing Family Time.  (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).

Dudley-Marling, Curt.  “How School Troubles Come Home:  The Impact of Homework on Families of Struggling Learners.”Current Issues in Education [On-line] 6, 4 (2003).

Hinchey, Patricia.  “Rethinking Homework.”  MASCD [Missouri Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development] Fall Journal, December 1995: 13-17.

Kohn, Alfie. The Homework Myth:  Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006).

Kralovec, Etta, and John Buell. The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning  (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2000).

Samway, Katharine.  “’And You Run and You Run to Catch Up with the Sun, But It’s Sinking.’”  Language Arts 63 (1986): 352-57.

Vatterott, Cathy.  “There’s Something Wrong With Homework.”Principal, January-February 2003: 64.

Waldman, Ayelet.  “Homework Hell.”  Salon.com.  October 22, 2005.

Education is like a tapestry. Wiggle one thread and many others will move as well.
Alfie Kohn

Following on from his lecture on The Case Against Competition, which I reflected upon here, and a break for dinner, Alfie Kohn delivered a lecture on The Homework Myth, As much as I struggled to reconcile some of what Alfie said during his Competition lecture, much of what was said during this lecture mirrored a lot of my own thoughts on homework.

The lecture was introduced using the above quote and then Alfie spoke about what would happen if we abolished grades. Students, we were told, would question the point of why they attend school and completed the tasks they are assigned. This means that we, the teachers, need to reconsider what and how we teach; to reexamine the curriculum and the pedagogy. This is an interesting challenge and one that seems to fail on the curriculum front. The Australian curriculum is not remotely national, with NSW, Victoria and Western Australia implementing their own curriculum, which encompasses the Australian Curriculum. We also, connecting it to the lecture topic, need to consider the purpose of homework and what it is connected to.

Alfie’s next point was interesting. He pointed out that we as adults have all been on the receiving end of homework and typically the vast majority of us as students neither liked nor wanted (and often did not complete) the assigned homework. Why, therefore, does homework persist? We do it because of rather than in spite of that history. I do wonder why so many parents continue to want their children to have homework. I had a few parents asking me about homework this term as I had not sent any home in the first two weeks and I responded with a message to all my parents via Class Dojo that I wouldn’t be assigning any homework other than some reading of interest and perhaps some SumDog, which they love. The students were relieved and I had a few messages from parents who were relieved as well.

So why does homework persist?

Homework has the capability to cause stress and frustration in students, frustration in parents; it can cause conflict between parents and their children, loss of time to other activities that a child would rather be doing and is passionate about.

So why does homework persist?

For those students who are interested and passionate about a topic,  homework or a unit around that topic has the potential to cast a pall over it and kill the passion and desire for learning (there is still mixed evidence for this either way from what I could see of a very quick search). When even those students who consider themselves academically inclined are pleased to have completed their homework and would rather be doing any one of a number of other things, often involving friends we need to ask ourselves why homework still exists. Alfie singled out reading logs as being particularly harmful. There is no better way, stated Alfie,  of killing a passion for reading than the enforced use of a reading log to monitor how much a child is reading. It becomes a thing  that must be done to get a reward from their teacher of a sticker or a stamp. If you are not sure about rewards and why they are potentially bad, read the previous article in this series.

One of the alleged reasons that support homework is that it supposedly improves achievement. Before going into what Alfie had to say on the matter, the definition of achievement here is very important to this statement. In conversations that I have had, the achievement that is typically being referred to is testing scores. Testing scores are useful in many ways, but they are an indicator only of how well a student answered a specific set of questions at a particular moment in time. The familiar adage that goes something like what is tested is not important and what is important is not tested comes to mind here, though I do not doubt that there are those who would argue that testing is a valuable source of data.

Alife stated that no controlled study demonstrates any measure of improvement before a student reaches the age of fifteen and that even then, there is only a correlation not a causative relationship of statistical significance. Furthermore, at the High School level, the correlation between increased levels of homework and increased test scores is only a very modest correlation and explains very little of the growth.

Including the above graph is perhaps a tad facetious, but the website provides some laughs at the bizarre correlations that can be made between unrelated data. Alfie continued by commenting that the relationship between homework and improved achievement is only measurable in standardised tests which do not measure anything other than a student’s ability to answer that set of questions. An additional factor that needs to be considered is an interesting one, particularly in the case of internationally administered tests such as The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). These tests are initially developed in the English language and are then translated into the other languages required. What impact does this have on the terms chosen and the clarity of the question vis-a-vis the raw wording? How about the way a question is composed and understood culturally? How are questions transliterated (I hope that is the right term, please let me know if it is not) to ensure the meaning and underlying spirit/vibe/focus of the question are retained across cultures with different understandings and interpretations of different events and contexts?

These tests are initially developed in the English language and are then translated into the other languages required. What impact does this have on the terms chosen and the clarity of the question vis-a-vis the raw wording? How about the way a question is composed and understood culturally? How are questions transliterated (I hope that is the right term, please let me know if it is not) to ensure the meaning and underlying spirit/vibe/focus of the question are retained across cultures with different understandings and interpretations of different events and contexts? Alfie also told the audience that the modest correlation disappeared altogether when multi-variables are taken into account.

Alfie’s next point is an interesting one. He commented that cross-cultural tests, such as PISA and TIMMS show a negative correlation between tests and the amount of homework given. I want to believe this, and it feels instinctively true partly because I want to believe it (confirmation bias?) because a quick Google Scholar search returned a few articles that allege to have found positive relationships between the amount of homework given and general test scores (such as here, here and here), though that is based on reading the abstract only as they are all hidden behind pay-walls. The SmithsonianMag website has one very brief article which indicates that some homework has a positive impact on test scores.

The above image was sourced from a well-written blog by Darren Kuropatwa (@Dkuropatwa) (though it appears to have been sourced from a PIRLS document) examining the value of homework based upon the Assessment Matters! publications by The Council of Ministers of Education Canada examining the data using The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP), PISA,  PIRLS and TIMSS. The results, it seems, are still inconclusive when looking at this data.

Another reason that is often touted for the ongoing assignment of homework is that it builds character, self-discipline, organisation and other similar non-academic benefits, which I have recently seen referred to as soft-skills. Alfie remarked that no study has ever validated this belief, and to my mind, it is not even particularly logical, and even if it were, there are far better ways of teaching children those characteristics. I do not see it as logical due to the fact that the student has to do the homework, whether that is enforced at home by the parent/s or at school by the teacher and therefore no learning of such characteristics is going to occur. If it those type of soft-skills (are we really using that term?) that you want to teach your child/student, then look into having them take up a team sport to teach them getting along, collaboration and teamwork. Or a martial art for resilience, organisation and focus. Or have them complete minor age appropriate chores, involve them in conversations about organising the grocery list or the household budget.

The next argument for homework Alfie indicated he hears regularly is that it creates a window into the class which seems completely nonsensical to me. If you genuinely want to develop a relationship or connection between home and school, invite the parents to visit and help out with reading or maths groups, set up a class Twitter account for students to share what they are learning, or a class blog so they can publish their writing, art or audiovisual creations and reflections.

The final argument for assigning homework that Alfie spoke about was what he called the Beguti argument; better get used to it. This is, again, illogical and is used to justify a range of tools such as competitions, marks and group-work and, remarked Alfie, developmentally inappropriate. It seems silly to me, to use that argument. Because you will have to complete this task which is dreary and you will dislike it later in life, to prepare you for that dreariness, it will be inflicted upon you earlier than necessary. Children do not get better at dealing with negative things by having negative things happen to them at a younger age and using the beguti argument is, Alfie noted, akin to giving up the game.

Parents are often sent home a homework letter that states something along the lines of your child will receive homework on x days or is required to complete the following tasks each week. This sends home the message that the individual needs of the child do not actually matter. Further to this, the audience was told that where schools advertise as teaching the whole child, but then assign homework, that they are paying the whole child lip service by assigning additional academic tasks.

We did hear some of the arguments against homework that Alfie has heard regularly. Parents opposing it on a value basis; that school work is for school and the family home is for family time, not school work. Additionally, homework exists, he has been told, because we do not trust children to occupy themselves without wasting time on Facebook, computer games etc and as an argument, implies that homework is merely busy work anyway. I find that an intriguing statement as I know that I, and every other adult I know, likes and needs to spend some time doing nothing, or, wasting time, to relax and unwind after being at work or to deal with stress.

Alfie qualified his dislike of homework by indicating that he can see some occasions when homework should be assigned, but that there should be some criteria for it:

  1. The homework will help students think more in-depth about the topic;
  2. The homework helps students become more excited about a topic;
  3. The task cannot be completed in school for some genuine reason other than we did not have time.

Assigning homework should be done after a class discussion with all students and the teacher agreeing that the homework is genuinely needed and that the default setting for homework should be no homework. Students who can complete a task and understand the task and how they completed it initially do not need to complete the homework, and those students who need the homework are likely unable to complete it and having to try and complete it will result in frustration, Googling the answer or a parent/guardian completing it for them.

What are your thoughts on homework in general and what I have written about Alfie’s lecture in particular? What are your thoughts on how this relates to cognitive load theory and the completion of basic tasks? I have reached out to Jon Bergmann for his thoughts on how Flipped Learning and the research which Alfie spoke about are related and I have also reached out to Alfie for feedback on both this article and the previous article and to check the accuracy of my interpretation of what he said.

I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this topic and I thank you for reading through both this and the previous article which are both rather lengthy.

 

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