Posted: Feb 21, 2014 8:00 AM
Alfie Kohn makes a compelling argument for rethinking homework in The Homework Myth. Drawing on research (or lack thereof), Kohn claims that our known practice of too much homework is unnecessary and detrimental. Teachers and parents weigh in on this hot (school-age) topic.

Alfie Kohn is an author and speaker about human behavior, education and parenting. He was described in Time magazine as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades [and] test scores." So it comes as no surprise that one of his hottest — and most debated — topics is homework, and why teachers should stop assigning it. Yes, stop. Or at the very least change what the assignments look like.

The way it's always been

Some teachers assign homework out of habit, district guidelines or parent demand. In an article about his research, Kohn says, "[There are] parents [who] 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." The problem is this isn't the case. Kohn examines what he calls these homework myths.

He found that parents and teachers who are pro-homework want students to have extra skill practice, get into the habit of studying and receive better grades and test scores. Sarah Pelinka, a mother of two who has been a classroom teacher for 14 years, says, "When homework is used to offer students extra practice on something already covered in class... this extra practice provides opportunity for kids to feel successful and more confident on a given skill or concept being taught because it reinforces the important skills you hope your students will master."

The elephant in the {after-school} room

But the elephant in the (after-school) room is that some families spend hours upon hours glued to their kitchen tables completing homework assignments nightly. This differs greatly from the little bit of extra practice that Pelinka describes. And the kicker about those hours spent is that Kohn's own and cited research shows that they don't necessarily translate to higher scores. They do, however, lead to exhausted kids and parents whose quality time with their children is more frustrating than not.

I don't believe in busy work and I don't believe in learning new concepts on their own, so my homework is usually a reinforcement of something we did in class.

Best educational practice has offered a shift in curriculum and teaching methodology in classrooms, but traditional homework assignments have stayed the same. Katie Sluiter, who has been teaching English and Spanish at the high school level for 13 years and Composition at the college level for three years, explains the difference in the kinds of homework that are — and are not — beneficial. Sluiter says, "I don't believe in busy work and I don't believe in learning new concepts on their own, so my homework is usually a reinforcement of something we did in class. For instance, we are reading Macbeth right now. I would never ask my students to go home and read that on their own. They wouldn't get it. I would ask them to re-read a part we did together (that they have notes written in their margins about) and paraphrase or look for language things that we have been already talking about in class." Kohn believes that these kinds of meaningful assignments do what they're supposed to do: reinforce skills learned.

Time for a change

But why are some kids still coming home with backpacks full of nightly worksheets? Kohn explains via his analysis that the reasons boil down to, "A mistrust of children, a set of misconceptions about learning and a misguided focus on competitiveness." By taking a look at parents who have fought back — and schools that have proved educational excellence is possible without homework — Kohn shows how we can rethink homework and the myths behind it.

Kohn says that rethinking homework means looking at each homework assignment for why it's being assigned, what the assignment actually is and how long it truly takes kids to complete it.

Tick tock

timerParents and teachers agree that a little bit of meaningful after-school homework time is necessary and helpful. Pelinka says, "Homework [does] provide [a] great opportunity for students to learn time management, organization and — most importantly — responsibility. Understanding due dates and timelines is a life skill essential in all aspects of their lives. Also, the task and responsibility of completing homework and returning it to class, builds a level of respect between teacher and student and shows a sense of pride in their accomplishments." Kohn agrees and explains with these skills as the objective of the homework, the goal can be achieved with short assignments. So in this case, teachers need to assess how much homework they're really assigning, Kohn says that one mother told him, “It’s cheating to say this is 20 minutes of homework if only your fastest kid can complete it in that time.”

About that worksheet

Teachers should be invited to reflect on whether any given example of homework will help students think deeply about questions that matter.

Besides pointing out that the purpose of homework shouldn't be teaching new skills, Kohn has strong opinions about the quality of the homework tasks given and that busy work is not the same thing as learning. He says, "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?"

{Re}thinking the homework myth

Kohn tasks principals and teachers with asking these questions of themselves — and of parents and, most importantly, of kids. His main point is that we all need to do some (re)thinking about the homework we're demanding and assigning.

Share with us! What has your homework experience been? Do you see a need to rethink homework? Leave us a comment below!

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