In his online column last week, Jay Mathews rises to defend the concept of homework against two recent books which argue against the time-honored assignments.
While I’ve only read one of the two books, The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn, it’s clear that Mathews is up to his old tricks in trying to make his case.
For one thing, he cherry picks a couple of minor points in the two books as evidence that the authors’ premises are flawed.
I can’t speak to the other authors’ claim of the amount of homework in elementary grades “skyrocketing”, but his complaints about the statistics in Kohn’s book are groundless.
Kohn does offers numbers showing that the amount of homework given in elementary grades has doubled on average.
However, his larger point is that the assignments are increasing without any valid research showing that the work improves student understanding of the material in the first place.
As is his style, Mathews then goes on to present some anecdotes from his personal experience as proof positive his position is the only possible conclusion anyone can come to.
Their biggest problem, which neither book addresses, is the common sense reaction of parents like me to their anti-homework interpretation of the experimental data. The formal research interests me, but it does not influence my thinking as much as my own personal experiments, conducted frequently over the 15 years or so of my own schooling. I remember what class was like on days when I had not done my homework. I remember what it was like on days when I had. The latter was a much more engaging and useful educational experience than the former. Neither book explains why that practical and personal research should be ignored.
I love how education “experts” take their memories of school from a different period (I’m guessing Mathews graduated from high school at least 30 years ago) and extrapolate those experiences to apply to all kids today.
Actually, Kohn doesn’t ignore “practical and personal research”. He simply presents his own versions which are equally as compelling as Mathews.
He presents teachers, parents and education “experts” who anecdotally show that most homework assigned is a waste of time, or worse.
What Kohn also does, however, is analyzes a large amount of research data, most of which is inconclusive at best, that studies whether homework has any educational value.
He’s also correct in saying that we shouldn’t be asking “How much time should students be spending on homework?”. We need to ask “Is the homework they’re doing worth the time and effort?”.
While I’m not ready to buy everything Kohn has to say, his arguments are something every educator should read (parents and kids too). (A summary of his ideas were published a few months ago in Education Week.)
It’s possible the nightly homework assignment is one of those “traditions” of American education that should be dumped along with the agrarian-based school calendar.