The Homework Myth

The Homework Myth

Senior editor Gary Stager talks with Alfie Kohn about his new book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids

Why write a book about homework?

I'm always fascinated-and more than a little disturbed-when our practices are completely out of step with what the data say. Homework, I discovered, is a stunningly clear example of that, because more and more of it is being piled on younger and younger children, even as research continues to find absolutely no benefit to making kids do more academic assignments at home after spending six or seven hours in school. I wrote the book, first, to make it more difficult for anyone to claim with a straight face that "studies show homework is effective" or "homework teaches kids good study skills"; and second, to try to figure out why homework would continue to be assigned and accepted in the absence of evidence that it does much good.

How does this book relate to your previous work?

Well, the same basic question runs through a lot of what I write: "If we say we want this (for kids), then how come we're doing that?" I spent a single page on homework in an earlier book [The Schools Our Children Deserve] and decided recently that the topic warranted a book of its own.

What advice would you give a school leader regarding homework?

Take seriously all the lovely rhetoric we repeat about the need to do what's best for kids. Be willing to question the conventional wisdom, challenge traditional practices, and take some flack for doing so. Be guided by what the research says, not by pressures from people who know less about learning than you do. Ask yourself whether what families do in the evenings should be decided by families or by schools. Ask yourself whether there's any reason to believe that kids who rarely get homework-who don't have to work what is, in effect, a second shift after school is over-will be at any disadvantage

in terms of their intellectual development. And above all, help teachers and parents to remain focused on the overriding question: How does homework affect kids' interest in learning, their desire to read and think? If the effect isn't positive, we should have doubts about assigning it. If the effect is actually negative, then the obligation to question the way things have always been done is even more urgent.

What sorts of homework might you endorse?

I should be clear from The Homework Myth that I don't say there should never be any homework. Rather, I suggest that we change the default. There should be no homework except on those occasions when teachers have good reason to believe that a given assignment is likely to benefit most students. To me, that seems like just common sense and not a particularly radical idea. What's bizarre, I think, is the status quo, in which we say, "We're going to make you kids do school assignments at home just about every night. Later on, we'll figure out what to make you do." That assumes that homework in and of itself, irrespective of the content, is beneficial. There's not a shred of evidence to support that position.

So what homework might meet a standard of probable benefit?

The kind that kids, in conversation with one another and the teacher, decide is important enough to infringe on family time. The kind that logically has to be done at home, such as interviewing parents about family history. The kind that consists of reading books of their own choosing, without a requirement to summarize, analyze, or write reports about what they've read, thus turning reading into a chore.

What has been the reaction to the book?

It's been varied, as you would expect. Lots of people love it because it confirms their own suspicions about homework. Lots of people hate it because they just know kids have to do worksheets and they don't care what the research says. Ironically, neither these lovers nor the haters have to read the book to know what they think about it. The reactions I treasure are from people who were undecided about homework and find themselves convinced after they read it.

What's the silliest criticism leveled towards The Homework Myth?

I'm not sure about "silly," but the most depressing response has been "If kids didn't get homework they'd just sit around playing video games."

And to this you respond ...?

Well, at least with this argument our cards are on the table. We're saying homework may do nothing to help kids become better learners or better people; it's literally busywork, which we give because we don't trust children to decide what to do with their time-or educators don't trust families to make such decisions.

First, I found schools that give little or no homework and discovered that kids often spontaneously extend on what happened in school, taking the initiative to continue learning on their own in a way that they don't have time to do when their backpacks are bulging with packets of worksheets. Second, we're interested in raising well-rounded people, so kids' artistic, social and physical development matter, too. Finally, even if some kids just chill out and do what they enjoy after a day in school, I think that's fine. After all, we adults need time to relax after work, don't we?

Does it grow tiresome bucking educational trends and being dismissed as a contrarian?

Not as tiresome as it would be to give people advice on how to get kids to do whatever they're told, or to figure out how to make teachers conform to moronic mandates. I don't mind substantive challenges to my positions; in fact, I rather appreciate them. What discourages me are people whose instant dismissals, and use of labels rather than arguments, suggest that they're really clamping their hands over their ears and yelling, "La-la-la-la-la! I can't listen to this!" But maybe the second or third time, they'll be more open to hearing, reflecting and rethinking.

Gary S. Stager, gary@stager.org, is senior editor of District Administration and editor of The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate (www.districtadministration.com/pulse).

Related Information

An Excerpt from Alfie Kohn's new book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2006)

Practical Ideas for Educators

1. Educate yourself

When talking with parents or administrators, make sure you know what the research really says-that there is no evidence whatsoever of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school, little reason to believe that homework is necessary even in high school, and no support for the assumption that homework promotes good work habits, independence, or self-discipline.

2. Ask your students

Find out what their experience of homework is and solicit their suggestions-perhaps by distributing anonymous questionnaires. Many adults simply assume that homework is useful for promoting learning without inquiring into the experience of the learners themselves! Do students find that homework really is useful? Why or why not? Are certain kinds better than others? How does homework affect their interest in learning? What are its other effects on their lives, and on their family?

3. Invite students to discuss and help decide

Hold periodic class meetings to think together about whether a given topic is appropriate for homework, how the project should be done, and how much time it should take. The more students participate in decision-making, the more committed they are to learning and the more likely it is that anything they do will be useful.

4. Challenge yourself

Before giving any assignment, ask yourself whether it is truly likely to be beneficial for most students in class-and whether these benefits will likely outweigh the time they're being asked to take away from other things they might be doing. Also ask whether students are likely to become more or less excited about learning-and about the topic-as a result of the homework.

5. Design what you assign

Consider asking students to do only what you're willing to create yourself, as opposed to prefabricated worksheets or generic exercises from textbooks. The likely result of such a commitment on your part is that students will end up getting less homework and better homework.

6. Individualize

If all students are made to do the same assignment, it's unlikely to be beneficial for most of them. Those who already understand the concept will be wasting their time, and those who don't understand will become increasingly frustrated. There is no perfect assignment that will stimulate every student because one size simply doesn't fit all. When possible, work with students to create several assignments fitted to match different interests and capabilities. But remember: It's better to give no homework to anyone than the same homework to everyone.

7. Stop grading

Shift away from a model in which assignments are checked off or graded, where the point is to enforce compliance, and toward a model in which students explain and explore with one another what they've done-what they liked and disliked about the book they read, what they're struggling with, what new questions they came up with, and so on. Homework in the best classrooms is not checked-it is shared. If students conclude that there's no point in spending time on homework that isn't going to be collected or somehow recorded, that's not an argument for setting up carrots and sticks and a climate of distrust; it's an indictment of the homework itself.

8. Experiment

See what happens if, during a given week or lesson, you assign no homework at all. Surely anyone who believes that homework is beneficial should be willing to test that assumption by finding out what life is like without it. What are the effects of this moratorium on students' achievement, on their interest in learning, on their moods and the resulting climate of the classroom?

9. Change the default

Finally, and most importantly, a commitment to assign homework on a regular basis makes sense only if homework, per se-that is, the very fact of having to do it, irrespective of its content-is beneficial. Even a cursory review of the evidence makes it impossible to defend this idea. Try, therefore, to shift the default state in your classroom. Students should be given homework only when there's a reasonable likelihood that a particular assignment will be beneficial to most of them. When that's not true, they should be free to spend their after-school hours as they choose. The bottom line: No homework unless it's necessary.


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