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Breaking the Homework Habit

The ideas that homework reinforces classroom lessons, helps children develop good work habits, and improves student achievement have no basis in fact, according to Alfie Kohn. Homework, he says, should be assigned selectively rather than automatically. Included: A look at common homework myths.

The homework debate most often focuses on issues of frequency, amount, and grading. Rarely is the deeper question examined, according to internationally-known educator and researcher Alfie Kohn: Is homework even necessary?

In his book Kohn notes that current research shows homework provides no benefits to younger children, may not even help older children, and in contrast to popular belief, does not reinforce what students learn in school. Rather than automatically assign homework, Kohn argues, teachers only should give homework when it is truly necessary, and when assignments can be crafted to meet different students needs. Spending less time on homework, according to Kohn, gives children more time to learn outside of school.

Kohn talked with Education World about why homework has become such an accepted part of American education, why those views need to change, and the lack of research supporting the benefits traditionally attributed to homework.

Alfie Kohn
Alfie Kohn

Education World: Why has homework become so entrenched in our idea of a good education?

Alfie Kohn: Well, one explanation we can reject straight away would be that homework is popular because its beneficial. In fact, the available research fails to show that homework has any advantages at all, certainly before high school. In elementary school there isnt even a correlation between homework and standard measures of academic achievement. At the high school level there is a weak correlation that tends to evaporate when you use more sophisticated statistical controls, but theres no evidence that homework causes the higher achievement. Nor are there any data to support the claims that homework builds character, promotes self-discipline, teaches good study habits, and so on. Were all familiar with the drawbacks of homework, of course: the frustration that kids experience, the exhaustion, the family conflict, the lack of time for doing things they enjoy, after having just spent six or seven hours in school, and even possibly a loss of interest in learning. But the more you sift through the research, the more you come to realize that there really isnt any demonstrable gain to compensate for the pain.

So why does homework continue to be assigned and accepted? In The Homework Myth I offer half a dozen possible explanations, of which the most compelling are probably these: First, many of us simply dont trust children. Were suspicious about what theyd do with their free time: Theyd just watch video games, yknow So we make sure they have as little of it as possible. Homework on this rather cynical view is, quite literally, busywork -- a way to keep the young ones moral after school.

"My view is that we shouldnt just have less homework or even better homework. Rather, we should change the default to no homework except on those occasions when its really necessary.

Second, theres the whole accountability fad that has schools in its grip these days, the mindless emphasis on tougher standards as measured -- and measured, and measured again -- by standardized tests. Interestingly, it doesnt appear that more homework even raises test scores, if thats something you care about. But apparently theres symbolic value in filling kids backpacks with homework packets; it shows we value rigor, dont you see, that were determined to raise the bar -- which of course doesnt mean better schooling, just schooling thats more difficult, more time-consuming, and less engaging.

Third, I think homework persists because of a lack of understanding about the nature of learning. The more that outdated conceptions, such as more time on task produces better results or simple folk wisdom, practice makes perfect are accepted on faith, the more likely that children will be made to work what amounts to a second shift. Take the simple, undeniable fact that most kids dislike homework. Even if they dont become anxious or depressed over it, theyre apt to see it as something they want to finish as quickly as possible.

So why in the world would we expect that theyll benefit by doing something they regard that way? Wed have to ignore what matters most according to psychological research: students attitudes and goals, their motives and experiences. The only way we could believe that homework helps kids despite their understandably negative attitudes about it is if we thought they were like vending machines: Put more assignments in, get more learning out. Because thats so clearly untrue, its actually not so surprising to find that, in fact, the research generally doesnt show any benefit to making kids do homework.

EW: But doesnt homework reinforce what students learned in school?

Kohn: Well, lets look carefully at that claim. What does it mean to reinforce something? And what is it that can be reinforced? The term is a throwback to B. F. Skinner and his acolytes; its based on a model of learning that was developed on lab animals and that reflects an emphasis on producing behaviors, not promoting understanding.

Barbara E. Oehlberg

The kind of homework thats supposed to reinforce cant do anything more than make a behavior occur automatically. So, for example, after finishing umpteen worksheets, the stimulus of being asked to divide one fraction by another triggers the response of flipping the second fraction upside-down and multiplying the two fractions together. At best, this does nothing to help kids think, to grasp the mathematical principle involved. At worst, it actually discourages thinking.

EW: Who needs the most convincing about the questionable value of homework -- educators, parents, or politicians? Why?

Kohn: I cant tell you how many parents have complained to me about the piles of dreary assignments that come home, about watching their childrens enthusiasm for learning drain away, about going in to share this with teachers only to be met with closed minds, hollow slogans such as homework reinforces what weve done in class, and unsubstantiated claims; homework teaches students good study skills."

But for every such parent, Ive heard from a teacher who realizes that homework isnt necessary but feels pressured to assign it . . . by parents. There are actually moms and dads who feel vaguely reassured when they see their kids hunched over a worksheet at the kitchen table -- without even knowing whats on the worksheet! They seem to believe that if a child is sweating, he or she must be getting something out of it. My point here isnt to attack parents or teachers. Well save the politicians for another day. Most folks have never been invited to rethink the conventional wisdom, to question the value of something thats so pervasive that we come to think of it as an inevitable part of schooling. I have to believe that once any reasonable person learned that no research has shown a benefit to assigning homework in elementary school, he or she would have to act differently, or at least begin asking questions.

EW: What has been missing in the debate about the value of homework?

Kohn: Well, as Ive suggested, knowledge about what the data actually show has certainly been missing. Otherwise, how could we let folks get away with saying Studies show that homework is academically beneficial when studies show no such thing? On a deeper level, though, I think whats missing is a willingness to get to the heart of the matter. So often we confine ourselves to the incidental questions: How much homework should be assigned? When should it be due? How can we get kids to do it? What we ought to be asking is whether it needs to be done at all.

"In fact, the available research fails to show that homework has any advantages at all, certainly before high school.

Most of all, we should be discussing the idea of regular homework, which is a bizarre idea when you stop to think about it. Its one thing to say that certain assignments really are so valuable to most of the students in a class that its OK to ask that they be done in the evening. I happen to think that such assignments do exist, and that this burden of proof can be met from time to time. But what were doing now is saying to kids, Were going to make you do homework just about every night. Later on, well figure out what to make you do. The premise here is that the very idea of homework -- regardless of its content -- is valuable. And of course there isnt a shred of evidence to justify a position as extreme as that.

My view is that we shouldnt just have less homework or even better homework. Rather, we should change the default to no homework except on those occasions when its really necessary. To me, thats just common sense.

EW: If a teacher does give homework, what are some of the characteristics of an ideal assignment?

Kohn: First off, its rare to find any single assignment thats appropriate for most kids in a given classroom. Even if you thought that practicing skills was more important than helping kids to understand ideas from the inside out, and even if you thought that this had to happen after school, the reality is that one size doesnt fit all. The kids who already understand the concept are wasting their time after one or two problems, while those who dont understand are cementing in their misconceptions or just feeling stupid. If teachers gave homework only when it was necessary, they would have the time to create different assignments for different kids, which is virtually a prerequisite for realizing any benefit.

Second, we should be asking two questions about any proposed assignment: Will this help students to think more deeply about the topic, as opposed to merely cramming facts into short-term memory, and: Will this help them to become more excited about the topic, and to love learning in general? That last question is the crux of the matter as far as Im concerned. Any educational practice or policy should be judged according to the effect its likely to have on kids desire to learn.

Third, students should play an active role in thinking together, with the teacher, about the assignment: how ambitious it should be, how it can be made more engaging, when it should be due, and whether it really needs to be done after school. I can tell you from visiting and hearing about a lot of terrific classrooms that kids who are involved in the decision making are really juiced up about what they end up doing and they end up doing it better. Even cleverly designed assignments are much less likely to have any positive impact if theyre unilaterally devised by an adult and then imposed on kids.

EW: What about the idea that students who dont have homework in high school will be unprepared to tackle the mountain of out-of-class assignments in college?

"The only way we could believe that homework helps kids despite their understandably negative attitudes about it is if we thought they were like vending machines: Put more assignments in, get more learning out.

Kohn: To begin with, lets not forget that not all high school students go on to college. It would be terribly unfair to make the other kids bear a daily burden of dubious intrinsic value merely in order to prep their classmates for what theyre going to be doing next. But put that aside. We have two kinds of real-world counterexamples to the claim that homework is necessary to help students get ready for college: First, many kids lucky enough to go to K-12 schools where theres very little, if any, traditional homework and who then go on to college end up succeeding fabulously, even by conventional terms. Conversely, many kids who are buried in homework throughout high school -- or, appallingly, even before high school -- end up falling apart when they get to college.

Clearly, homework is neither necessary nor sufficient for preparing kids for college, which, lets remember, is a very different experience from what comes before, in large part because only a few hours a week are spent in class. A certain set of skills is useful for succeeding there, and many of those skills can be taught during the school day rather than in the evenings. But possibly the best predictor of an exciting and successful college experience is not a matter of skills but of disposition: the desire to learn, to question, to explore, and discover. Not only do you not need traditional homework to nourish those attitudes; homework may actually serve to extinguish the flame of curiosity that defines great thinkers in college and beyond.

This e-interview with Alfie Kohn is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Originally published 01/10/2007; updated 05/09/2008