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A FICTIONAL Conversation with Alfie Kohn

September 29, 2013

A Dialogue WIth Alfie Kohn

I want to continue to focus on homework by taking a look at Alfie Kohn’s essay, “Rethinking Homework”.  In 2006, Kohn wrote the book Homework Myth.  This essay was published in the January-February edition of the journal, Principal and exhorted administrators to change their schools’ homework policies.

I really enjoyed giving myself an assignment earlier this week, (I’m on sabbatical, so I must be going through withdrawal) because it helped me to gain a better understanding of the material.  That’s why I assign homework – because I want to give students an additional opportunity to think deeply about the concepts we are studying.  Let’s try something different today.  One of my favorite assignments is to have my students write a dialogue as if they were having a conversation with a historical figure.  Not only does it help make the history more relevant, it also forces them to slow down and analyze and synthesize the information.  So in the following conversation with Kohn, the dialogue in quotes will be from the article and mine will be my own thinking.

AK: You know Dave, “ “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.”

DQ: Alfie – I am willing to agree that too much homework can have a negative effect on students.  However, I believe that with enough thought, teachers can assign homework that will not only help students learn but that will also improve academic skills such as reading and writing.  Furthermore, when teachers challenge students and force them to think, the completion of homework will also increase the students’ self-esteem.  And when teachers, despite their best intentions, assign work that students don’t understand or that they can’t do, students have the opportunity to practice their self-advocacy skills.

AK: Those teachers are not the norm.  “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.” So based upon my experience, meaningful homework is the exception rather than the rule.

DQ: Perhaps.  But the majority of the teachers I’ve taught with put a lot of effort into creating meaningful homework assignments.  They see it as an additional opportunity to assess student understanding and proficiency with skills.

AK: That is where I must disagree. “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.”

DQ: But I have seen with my own eyes the benefits on homework especially in the area of building skills.  For example, I had a 6th grader last year who made remarkable gains in her ability to write thanks to the creative homework assignments that she completed.  I never gave her anything she couldn’t do and as her self-confidence increased so did her output.  Sure, we worked on her writing in class but it was at home where she made real progress.

AK: She may be an exception to the rule because “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.”  Take for example that blog you wrote on Monday about the 8th grader who spent three hours on homework each night.

DQ: How ‘bout that?  We finally agree on something.  I would agree that our educational system needs to examine the way that teachers assign homework and reduce the amount of homework so that it doesn’t interfere with family life and cause students unneeded stress..  Part of the problem is that teachers don’t communicate, and there are times when students have to study for multiple assessments because there is no coordination between teams and departments.  If teachers assign work thoughtfully, it changes everything.

AK: David, you live in a dreamworld.  The reality is “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. “

DQ: I haven’t done the research but I have read somewhere recently that homework amounts increase on a 30 year cycle.  We may be at the end of that cycle now.  So, I agree with you about the amount of homework but the fact is that parents are part of the problem.  I spoke to a parent yesterday who signed his child up to have piano and violin lessons, cross country and boy scouts.  I’m willing to concede that we need to reduce the amount of homework, but the fact is that kids are overscheduled as it is.

AK: These “tiger moms” and other parents are reacting to the competitive world we live in. “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.”

DQ: As much as we might want to, there is nothing we can do about over zealous parents.  So what would you do to improve the quality of homework?

AK: I believe you would need to follow a top-down approach.  Frankly, “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).”

DQ: That’s interesting… I had a thought the other day about how homework does reinforce what happens at school.  In my opinion, reviewing the material on a nightly basis can really help students remember more of the material.  But the internet really decreases the need to build up students’ cultural literacy because they can just look up the facts.  With iphones those facts are at their fingertips.  However, when students practice skills like writing, active reading, note taking, etc, I have to think that practice makes perfect or at least more proficient.  And this is especially true in middle school when students are cultivating and developing these academic skills. If students are willing to spend 2 hours after school in practice to improve their jump shot, I think it makes sense that the same is true for academic skills.

AK: David, may I suggest that you question the “long-standing reliance on traditional homework to see what happens if, during a given week or curriculum unit,” you “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?”

DQ: That would be an interesting experiment, but I’m not willing to forego homework because I believe in it so strongly.  What other ideas do you have?

AK: Dave, you need to “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.”

DQ: But Alfie – the research is mixed.  There have been studies that show the value of homework.  In the same year that you published your book, researchers at Duke published a study that reviewed the research data from more than 60 studies published between 19 and 2003 and found there to be a correlation between homework and achievement especially in secondary school. In a more recent student published by Britain’s Department of Education, researchers found evidence that two hours of homework improved their work in English, math, and science.

AK: I do not concur.  “Quantity 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.”

DQ: Those are all great questions for teachers to ask before assigning homework. I’m not going to try to change your mind about the majority of homework assigned to students because I agree with many of your points.  However, based upon what I have witnessed during my nearly twenty years as a teacher, I know that homework, when designed to meet the learning styles of my students can help guarantee that 100% of the students learn 100% of the material.

* To avoid angry emails – just a reminder that this conversation never actually happened.

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2 Comments
  1. Tim permalink

    Brilliant post, Dave. What a thoughtful way to engage your readers with AK’s–and DQ’s–take on the issues. Here’s my beef with HW as the parent of two teens: the amount. I don’t question the value or quality of what my kids’ teachers assign, but I hate the late nights!

  2. Thanks Tim… I totally agree with you about the amount of homework that teachers assign. I don’t know about your kids – but it often takes my two middle schoolers more than 1.5 hours per night to finish theirs. In fact, my son is working on his as I type this,

    So, the question is: How do you meet the needs of all your learners? Kids with strong skills and fast processing speeds will finish long before those students who need extra time to complete their work. One of the things that I loved about Carroll (my former school) was the fact that they assigned homework by time. As a sixth grade history teacher, I was able to assign 20 minutes per night, and we alternated with science so that students only had one to one and a half hours of homework per night max.

    But what do you think the solution is?

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