Unnecessary Evil

Alfie Kohn, one of the smartest voices in the education reform discussion, has an interesting article about new research into the value of homework, one that includes a reminder of the important of reading studies carefully “rather than relying on summaries by journalists or even by the researchers themselves”.

Kohn, who literally wrote the book on the subject, the wonderful The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, starts by noting the significant lack of support for the instructional value of homework found in previous studies.

First, no research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school.

Second, even at the high school level, the research supporting homework hasn’t been particularly persuasive.

Third, when homework is related to test scores, the connection tends to be strongest — or, actually, least tenuous — with math.

This latest study focuses on math and science homework in high school, an area that Kohn says is one “where you’d be most likely to find a positive effect if one was there to be found”.

And the result of this fine-tuned investigation? There was no relationship whatsoever between time spent on homework and course grade, and “no substantive difference in grades between students who complete homework and those who do not.”

This result clearly caught the researchers off-guard. Frankly, it surprised me, too. When you measure “achievement” in terms of grades, you expect to see a positive result — not because homework is academically beneficial but because the same teacher who gives the assignments evaluates the students who complete them, and the final grade is often based at least partly on whether, and to what extent, students did the homework. Even if homework were a complete waste of time, how could it not be positively related to course grades?

Beyond the value of homework, or the lack thereof, Kohn’s discussion of the research process itself, and especially how the researchers “reframe these results to minimize the stunning implications”, is well worth your time to read the whole article, footnotes and all.

Comments

  1. says

    While I totally side with the abuse and misuse of homework one problem that makes this conversation and research irrelevant to me is that the measure of the effectiveness of homework, technology or anything in education always comes back to achievement defined by tests and grades. I’d be interested in what homework does to increase enjoyment, wonder or joy as opposed to higher grades.
    As long as we continue to measure and research based on testing, we’ll either continue to go around in circles or continue to miss the point.

  2. says

    The two areas I would expect to see homework make a difference are in math and foreign languages, because it’s been my personal experience in those areas that I get better in them as I practice them, and with homework there is more time for practice. So I’m really surprised by these results. I guess I need to read the actual study :).

  3. says

    My own observation on stupid homework: My daughter (6) was tasked to colour some pictures for two hours as a part of homework on …English!
    PS.
    I like your comment “Wasting…” high level of irony and good sense of humour! :-)

  4. says

    While I agree with comments about busywork or rote learning being possibly harmful as homework, I still wonder if we are throwing away the baby with the bathwater. When homework is used as a control tool, or as a tool for teaching it can never become the simple and positive thing it should be. When homework becomes a tool for learning the situation changes dramatically: it is okay for students to have different, individualized homework, or even for students to choose their own homework.

    From research we know how our brain makes better/deeper/long lasting memories when we visit the same idea several times during consecutive days. So, my question is: Why would you deny your child/student an opportunity to revisit the topic they learned about at school, and thus make their learning easier? One simple 2-3 minute long piece of homework does this, and automatically enhances learning.

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