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Why Homework?

The Atlantic, which does a better job of reporting on American education than most of the major news organizations, recently published an interesting article reviewing The Cult of Homework.

The writer says that the debate over homework falls into two “camps”.

In the first camp is Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Cooper conducted a review of the existing research on homework in the mid-2000s, and found that, up to a point, the amount of homework students reported doing correlates with their performance on in-class tests. This correlation, the review found, was stronger for older students than for younger ones.

In Cooper’s eyes, homework isn’t overly burdensome for the typical American kid. He points to a 2014 Brookings Institution report that found “little evidence that the homework load has increased for the average student”; onerous amounts of homework, it determined, are indeed out there, but relatively rare. Moreover, the report noted that most parents think their children get the right amount of homework, and that parents who are worried about under-assigning outnumber those who are worried about over-assigning. Cooper says that those latter worries tend to come from a small number of communities with “concerns about being competitive for the most selective colleges and universities.”

All of which says a lot about how Cooper and others view the purpose of both homework and school in general. It’s all about the tests, getting into college, and the “right amount”.

On the other side are people like Alfie Kohn, who literally wrote the book on the subject: The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.1

Kohn calls homework a “reliable extinguisher of curiosity” and has much more to say about the research cited by Cooper and others.

Kohn notes, among other things, that Cooper’s 2006 meta-analysis doesn’t establish causation, and that its central correlation is based on children’s (potentially unreliable) self-reporting of how much time they spend doing homework. (Kohn’s prolific writing on the subject alleges numerous other methodological faults.)

Kohn also takes issue with the way achievement is commonly assessed. “If all you want is to cram kids’ heads with facts for tomorrow’s tests that they’re going to forget by next week, yeah, if you give them more time and make them do the cramming at night, that could raise the scores,” he says. “But if you’re interested in kids who know how to think or enjoy learning, then homework isn’t merely ineffective, but counterproductive.”

That issue of the “right amount” and parental expectations is probably one big reason why homework is still such a fundamental part of K12 school for most students. One “parent and professor” quoted in the article calls this “generational inertia”, the fact that most parents views on the matter are largely shaped by their experience in school. I got lots of homework so my kids should as well.

But more important than the quantity of homework is the quality of the work students are asked to do. Far too often it is repetitious and meaningless.

“In general, we have no imagination when it comes to homework,” Stengel [Barbara Stengel, an education professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College] says. She wishes teachers had the time and resources to remake homework into something that actually engages students. “If we had kids reading—anything, the sports page, anything that they’re able to read—that’s the best single thing. If we had kids going to the zoo, if we had kids going to parks after school, if we had them doing all of those things, their test scores would improve. But they’re not. They’re going home and doing homework that is not expanding what they think about.”

Although I am now firmly in the second group that would like to see homework cut way back or eliminated (especially in elementary school), I evolved to that view over the many years that I taught middle and high school students to understand mathematics.2

When I started teaching, I assigned lots of problem sets and worksheets. Very much the same format as I dutifully completed as a student, and which my advisors and the teacher’s guide recommended. As I gained more experience, it became clear that students were gaining little, if anything, from the work. And I was learning very little about their understanding.

Those observations led me to experiment with different amounts and approaches to that out-of-class work. By the time I left the classroom, I was assigning almost no written homework. And saw almost no difference in how well students did on both the assessments I gave and the end-of-course test administered by the district.3

Of course, my experience is just one person, teaching in a couple of high schools, in one affluent suburban district, many years ago. I’m not suggesting that every teacher should eliminate homework from their practice.

Only that every teacher should take a long, hard look at what they are asking students to do at home and why. Does the work really benefit the kids? Are those assignments valuable to their learning?

And please don’t talk to me about “flipping” your classroom. Watching those videos is still homework and not by default a good use of student time.

The photo comes from the National Archives by way of the Wikipedia Commons. It shows a high school freshman from Harlan County, Kentucky in 1946 doing his homework. The description says that the boy and his father are “determined that he will finish high school and not work in the coal mines”. So, what has changed with homework in 70 years?

1. I highly recommend every teacher read that book. It’s one of the few paper editions that I keep on my shelf and re-read every few years.

2. Or attempted to do so. It was never clear how much “understanding” I was able to impart.

3. I did get pushback from some parents who were concerned about the possibly diminished chances of their kids getting into an Ivy League school. Fortunately, I had a very supportive administrative staff who backed me completely.

Kids Just Need a Simple Adjustment

A couple of years ago, “Mindset” was all the rage here in the overly-large school district. Many principals lead their staff in reading and discussing the book and the author’s concepts started popping up in everything from admin slide shows to professional development planning.

Her thesis, based on “decades of research”, basically claimed that a person’s native talent and abilities were not enough for success, or even the most significant factor. Instead how well we do in life was more determined by whether we had developed a “growth mindset”.

And, as with other pop psychology (think “The Tipping Point”) and business books (“Drive”, “The World is Flat”), many educators quickly tried to apply the concept to kids in school. It’s that application, or more often misapplication, of complex theories to teaching and learning that bothers me.

Alfie Kohn also finds “something disconcerting about how the idea has been used – and about the broader assumption that what students most need is a “mindset” adjustment” and explains it so much better.

The problem with sweeping, generic claims about the power of attitudes or beliefs isn’t just a risk of overstating the benefits but also a tendency to divert attention from the nature of the tasks themselves: How valuable are they, and who gets to decide whether they must be done? Dweck is a research psychologist, not an educator, so her inattention to the particulars of classroom assignments is understandable. Unfortunately, even some people who are educators would rather convince students they need to adopt a more positive attitude than address the quality of the curriculum (what the students are being taught) or the pedagogy (how they’re being taught it).

That happens a lot in the process of education reform: politicians and ed “experts” call for the application of current popular fad thinking while completely ignoring the fundamental structures of school.

The whole essay is worth a read but I especially like his statement “kids themselves are seldom consulted about what they’re doing”, a point that deserves far more emphasis. Kohn goes on to remind us that kids are often aware of manipulations like the one being worked on them with mindset.

The more serious concern, however, is that what’s really problematic is praise itself. It’s a verbal reward, an extrinsic inducement, and, like other rewards, is often construed by the recipient as manipulation. A substantial research literature has shown that the kids typically end up less interested in whatever they were rewarded or praised for doing, because now their goal is just to get the reward or praise. As I’ve explained in books and articles, the most salient feature of a positive judgment is not that it’s positive but that it’s a judgment; it’s more about controlling than encouraging. Moreover, praise communicates that our acceptance of a child comes with strings attached: Our approval is conditional on the child’s continuing to impress us or do what we say. What kids actually need from us, along with nonjudgmental feedback and guidance, is unconditional support – the antithesis of a patronizing pat on the head for having jumped through our hoops.

Kids also need to be substantially involved in all parts of their education, especially the curriculum and pedagogy.

Reflective Rebels

In a new essay, Alfie Kohn, one of the sharpest and most rational voices in the ed reform discussion, says he wants students to become “reflective rebels”.

His starting point is the “tangle of deeply conservative beliefs” which says that parents are too permissive and as a result, kids are spoiled and narcissistic. Kohn points out that there’s no evidence for this contention and that adults have had a similar view of young people for “approximately forever”.

However, let’s assume the grumblers are correct. What should we do differently so that children are less self-centered and will look beyond themselves?

The answer, I think, is to help them become people who are not only empathic and compassionate but skeptical and courageous. It’s one thing to offer a kind word or a dollar to an individual in distress; it’s something else to address the systemic causes of that distress. The latter requires a willingness to question authority and challenge unjust features of the status quo – to stand up to power. In short, the real alternative to egocentricity is what might be called reflective rebelliousness.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that the same people doing the complaining really don’t like the idea of “rebellious” kids, reflective or otherwise. Society, especially the formal education part of it, is not at all receptive to rebelliousness.

Whether or not it’s stated explicitly, compliance remains the central goal of most classroom management programs, character education initiatives, and parenting resources. Sure, we stress the virtues of independent thinking and assertiveness, but mostly in the context of getting kids to resist peer pressure. If a child has the temerity to resist unreasonable rules and demands imposed by adults, well, then, bring on the “consequences” (read: punishments) to “hold them accountable for their behavior.”

We certainly do talk a lot about wanting our students to learn to be creative, innovative, independent thinkers. But when it comes to their relationship the process of school and the educational system that’s been laid out for them, it’s pretty much all talk. We really don’t know what to do with truly creative kids.

In the end, Kohn says that if we really want kids to develop into “reflective rebels”, to think for themselves, “we ourselves must be rebels” and push back “against the dominant tendency to focus on producing children who do whatever they’re told.”

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