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Alfie Kohn Weighs in on Homework

Susan Notes:

Alfie Kohn shows why you must be very wary of "research says" statements. You can see the full discussion here.

by Alfie Kohn

On the off-chance that I am indeed the educational speaker referred to in Dana Huffâs post, Iâve been invited to say a word in behalf of my own sobriety. Never a particular fan of mind-altering substances, I think it may be worth pointing out that the act of taking a position that seems to challenge the conventional wisdom is not prima facie evidence of a drug-induced state. Especially when the research overwhelmingly supports that counterintuitive position.

In my book The Homework Myth I sort through the research on this topic very carefully. The findings surprised even me â" and I say âevenâ because I admit to having been skeptical from the outset about the whole idea of making kids work what amounts to a second shift after having spent all day in school. Even folks who acknowledge the unhappiness that homework causes nevertheless take on faith that it has overriding benefits â" at least if itâs assigned carefully, in moderate amounts, etc. But the fact is that there are absolutely no data to show that itâs necessary, or in most cases even particularly useful, to assign any homework before high school. In elementary school, there isnât even a positive correlation between having some homework (vs. none), or more (vs. less), on the one hand, and standard measures of achievement (for what theyâre worth), on the other.

In high school there is a weak correlation with standardized test scores, but it tends to vanish when more sophisticated statistical controls are applied â" and thereâs no evidence of a causal relationship. Even internationally, thereâs a negative correlation between the average TIMSS scores of a given country and how much homework is assigned there. Finally, to the best of my knowledge, not a single study has ever backed up the folk wisdom that homework promotes independence, self-discipline, responsibility, good study skills, or any other nonacademic benefit.

Ms. Huff cites Marzano et al.âs book, which is interesting because I used that in my own book (and in an excerpt that was published in Phi Delta Kappan under the title Abusing Research--as an illustration of the need to be skeptical about claims regarding what studies show. Marzano et al. did indeed announce that five studies showed homework was beneficial for young students. So I looked them up. It turned out that not one of the five showed anything of the kind. It was one of the most extraordinary cases of out-and-out misrepresentation Iâd seen â" that is, until I started looking at the claims Marzano had made on other topics. (A rather pointed follow-up exchange between him and me was published in the March 2007 Kappan.)

Immediately following Dana Huff's paraphrase of Marzano et al.'s (baseless) claim about the benefits of homework to young children was a reference to their citation of a 1982 study by Timothy Keith. Here we have another lesson regarding the need to check out casual assertions. First of all, Keith's study dealt only with high school students. Second, he and a colleague returned to the question ten years later, this time looking at homework alongside other possible influences on learning such as quality of instruction, motivation, and which classes the students took. When all these variables were entered into the equation simultaneously, they pronounced the result "puzzling and surprising": Homework no longer had any meaningful effect on achievement at all â" even in high school.

There's a lot more to be said on the broader question of homework but I donât want to wear out my welcome here ("Alleged Druggie Clogs Blog"). For those who may be interested, I spend a lot of time in the book explaining why, when you think about it, it's actually not so surprising that the research generally fails to find much benefit to assigning homework since many of the underlying pedagogical assumptions are dubious at best. (Hint: when you hear someone talking about how practice homework "reinforces" what's taught in class, it's time to worry.) I also offer some speculations about why homework is assigned (and accepted by parents) despite the lack of evidence, I explore the costs to families and to children's interest in learning, and I cite examples of teachers (including some in high school) and whole schools that have stopped assigning homework altogether â" with fabulous results.

I don't take the position that there should never be homework under any circumstances. In fact, I offer a suggestion that I regard as remarkably moderate, particularly for me: Assign it only when it's really necessary â" that is, when you can make a case that a specific task (a) will help kids think deeply about questions that matter, (b) enhance their excitement about the topic and about learning in general, and (c) really has to be done at home. The default should be no homework â" after-school hours are for children and their parents to spend as they choose â" unless thereâs a powerful reason on a given day to infringe on that time. The idea of regular homework â" which amounts to saying, "This year we're going to make you do more academic stuff just about every night. Later, we'll figure out what to make you do" â" is pretty bizarre when you think about it. It assumes that homework, per se â" irrespective of its content â" is valuable. And of course there isn't a shred of evidence to support that.

I'm glad to see that people here are digging into this issue. It's particularly interesting when teachers â" who uniformly deny ever assigning busywork â" also happen to be parents and are forced to recognize that someone is stuffing kids' backpacks full of busywork day after day. It's also useful to rethink the assumption that kids have to be assigned reading at home. (Have a look at Nancie Atwell's new book, The Reading Zone, which explores the value of using class time for reading, the value of which I also heard from a number of teachers I interviewed.)

Most of all, though, I guess I want to invite folks to move beyond just talking about how much homework is assigned, or even how to improve its content. What interests me are the root questions: How much say do the kids have about whether a given assignment has to be done at home? Why would we persist in a practice whose value isn't supported by research? How can we justify making all the students in a class do the same homework? And, given that almost all kids regard homework as something they can't wait to be done with so they can move on to activities they enjoy, why in the world would we assume it's beneficial? (Do we regard children as so many vending machines, such that you put in an assignment and get out learning?)

Anyway, thanks for letting me crash your party â" even though I didn't bring any drugs.

— Alfie Kohn
Authentic Education


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