Can Homework Backfire?
Over the past two decades, the number of 6 and 7 year olds who report having homework on any given day has risen from one-third to two thirds. Author and educational critic Alfie Kohn believes that the practice of overloading young children with after-school assignments does more harm than good and is urging parents to take a stand against it. Kohn, never afraid to speak his mind, has published a thought-provoking new book about this controversial topic, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. "The real tragedy is that kids may become less interested in learning," says Kohn. "Most kids dread homework. It's only natural that this dread is going to generalize into a negative view of school and learning in general. That's the consequence that disturbs me more than the time wasted." Read on to find out why he thinks most homework is "destructive," and what you can do about it.
Parent & Child: Is there a sense among parents and teachers that homework is a necessary evil?
Alfie Kohn: Yes. But I would go further and make the argument that it's just plain evil, and that it’s actually very hard to justify that it’s necessary. What I'm trying to do is invite parents and teachers to question a practice that's simply not supported by the available evidence.
P&C: How would you respond to the usual arguments in favor of giving homework? For example, that it reinforces learning that happens during the school day?
Kohn: The use of the word "reinforce" should be the first clue that we're uncritically accepting an outdated view of learning — one that assumes that the goal of learning is to train kids to emit responses on cue. That's behaviorism, not learning. The reality is that the drill-and-practice approach found in countless assignments and work sheets doesn't help kids understand ideas. It's a model of learning that doesn't work for all children. In a given class, some of the kids already get it, and don't need more practice. Other kids don't get it — and practice will only frustrate them.
P&C: What about the argument that homework promotes academic achievement and helps children get ahead?
Kohn: By definition, "getting ahead" means defeating other kids, rather than improving learning for everyone. It's about helping one child step on the backs of other kids. I find that enormously objectionable. But if you're talking about the idea that homework can raise achievement overall, well, that is actually a reasonable hypothesis. The problem is that the research doesn't support it. It's never been demonstrated that there is any academic advantage whatsoever of homework, at least in the pre-high school years. There's also the argument that doing homework helps kids develop work skills, practice time management, even build character. Again, it's a nice hypothesis, but no research to back it up.
P&C: What do they miss out on if they're spending so much time on homework?
Kohn: Living. Kids need time to hang out with friends, to play a game, to take a nap, to read a book, to connect with a parent, to be alone. To be a child. The whole point is that kids should get to decide how they spend their down time. Most adults, when they come home from work, want to relax and unwind and do things for pleasure. Yet for children, the second shift begins when they get home from school. Families are stressed out over homework, exhausted, in conflict. Parents turn into homework monitors.
P&C: If there's no research to support its effectiveness, why does the practice of giving homework persist?
Kohn: There's a several-part answer to that question. One is that homework has become part of what I call the "toxic competitiveness of our education system." It's kid against kid, parent against parent, and school against school. The whole tougher-standards movement in American education has turned schools into giant test-preparation factories. Second, we've failed to fully understand how learning really happens. A lot of teachers, and parents, assume a kind of vending machine model: You put more homework into kids, and you automatically get more learning out.
P&C: Are you saying that there should never be any homework?
Kohn: No. I don't believe there should never be a school assignment. I'm suggesting that the burden of proving that any given assignment is worthwhile and that it must be done outside of school should be on the teachers and the schools. The teacher should be able to demonstrate why this assignment is worth taking up personal time. And there are some good examples of homework that can't be done in school. Let's say there's a project that involves interviewing family members about family history or replicating a scientific experiment in one's kitchen. But if that burden of proof can't be met, than it shouldn't be done.
P&C: How do you suggest parents go about making changes?
Kohn: First, parents should educate themselves so that they know there's no academic benefit to homework. Don't blindly assume that all homework assignments are valid; focus on quality, not just quantity. Consider whether assignments are reasonable and valuable. Second, parents should ask teachers and school administrators the probing questions. Not, when is it due? But, will my child be a more efficient learner? And finally I think parents should organize. We need to talk to one another, at birthday parties, in line at the supermarket, at playdates. Share articles and books that debunk misconceptions about homework. One parent with a legitimate concern can be dismissed. But 20 parents expressing that concern are hard to ignore.
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