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Why Homework?

In his writings, Alfie Kohn has always been fearless in pointing out both the problems of American education and the stupidity of many of the proposed solutions.

You can tell he’s at it again just from the title of his latest book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.

I haven’t read the book yet (it’s on my Amazon wish list), but Kohn outlines his thoughts on the subject in an Education Week opinion piece.

The dimensions of that last disparity weren’t clear to me until I began sifting through the research for a new book. To begin with, I discovered that decades of investigation have failed to turn up any evidence that homework is beneficial for students in elementary school. Even if you regard standardized-test results as a useful measure, homework (some vs. none, or more vs. less) isn’t even correlated with higher scores at these ages. The only effect that does show up is more-negative attitudes on the part of students who get more assignments.

He goes on to note that the correlation between homework and learning in high school is better but still very small.

Plus Kohn finds “there isn’t a shred of evidence to support the widely accepted assumption that homework yields nonacademic benefits for students of any age”.

“Nonacademic benefits” would be the things like good study habits, self-discipline, and independence.

While I’ve dispensed my share of after-school assignments over the years (math teachers are good at that), I have to agree with Kohn that much of what is assigned is of little worth.

However, it’s not necessarily because the concept of doing school work outside of the classroom is a bad one.

The problem is that the assignments are often as Kohn notes “focused on rote recall as opposed to problem-solving”.

Kohn also makes an excellent point about the oft repeated justification that kids need lots of “practice” in order to learn.

The answer is behavioral responses. Expertise in tennis requires lots of practice; it’s hard to improve your swing without spending a lot of time on the court. But to cite an example like that to justify homework is an instance of what philosophers call begging the question. It assumes precisely what has to be proved, which is that intellectual pursuits are like tennis.

There’s a whole lot more in Kohn’s piece that’s well worth the time to read. I’m looking forward to reading the details of his ideas in the book.

alfie kohn, homework, benefits

1 Comment

  1. Doug Johnson

    The September issue of Phi Delta Kappan leads with Kohn’ s article “Abusing Research: Homework and Other Examples.” So if you don’t want to do the whole book…

    I’ve long been a fan of Kohn’s. His _Punished by Rewards_ is a must read for every educator.

    Looking forward to reading your insights on Kohn’s book.


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