Alfie Kohn Rethinking Homework Time

The debate over how much schoolwork students should be doing at home has flared again, with one side saying it's too much, the other side saying in our competitive world, it's just not enough.

It was a move that doesn't happen very often in American public schools: The principal got rid of homework.

This past September, Stephanie Brant, principal of Gaithersburg Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Md., decided that instead of teachers sending kids home with math worksheets and spelling flash cards, students would instead go home and read. Every day for 30 minutes, more if they had time or the inclination, with parents or on their own.

"I knew this would be a big shift for my community," she says. But she also strongly believed it was a necessary one. Twenty-first-century learners, especially those in elementary school, need to think critically and understand their own learning — not spend night after night doing rote homework drills.

Brant's move may not be common, but she isn't alone in her questioning. The value of doing schoolwork at home has gone in and out of fashion in the United States among educators, policymakers, the media, and, more recently, parents. As far back as the late 1800s, with the rise of the Progressive Era, doctors such as Joseph Mayer Rice began pushing for a limit on what he called "mechanical homework," saying it caused childhood nervous conditions and eyestrain. Around that time, the then-influential Ladies Home Journal began publishing a series of anti-homework articles, stating that five hours of brain work a day was "the most we should ask of our children," and that homework was an intrusion on family life. In response, states like California passed laws abolishing homework for students under a certain age.

But, as is often the case with education, the tide eventually turned. After the Russians launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, a space race emerged, and, writes Brian Gill in the journal Theory Into Practice, "The homework problem was reconceived as part of a national crisis; the U.S. was losing the Cold War because Russian children were smarter." Many earlier laws limiting homework were abolished, and the longterm trend toward less homework came to an end.

The debate re-emerged a decade later when parents of the late '60s and '70s argued that children should be free to play and explore — similar anti-homework wellness arguments echoed nearly a century earlier. By the early-1980s, however, the pendulum swung again with the publication of A Nation at Risk, which blamed poor education for a "rising tide of mediocrity." Students needed to work harder, the report said, and one way to do this was more homework.

For the most part, this pro-homework sentiment is still going strong today, in part because of mandatory testing and continued economic concerns about the nation's competitiveness. Many believe that today's students are falling behind their peers in places like Korea and Finland and are paying more attention to Angry Birds than to ancient Babylonia.

But there are also a growing number of Stephanie Brants out there, educators and parents who believe that students are stressed and missing out on valuable family time. Students, they say, particularly younger students who have seen a rise in the amount of take-home work and already put in a six- to nine-hour "work" day, need less, not more homework.

Who is right? Are students not working hard enough or is homework not working for them? Here's where the story gets a little tricky: It depends on whom you ask and what research you're looking at. As Cathy Vatterott, the author of Rethinking Homework, points out, "Homework has generated enough research so that a study can be found to support almost any position, as long as conflicting studies are ignored." Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth and a strong believer in eliminating all homework, writes that, "The fact that there isn't anything close to unanimity among experts belies the widespread assumption that homework helps." At best, he says, homework shows only an association, not a causal relationship, with academic achievement. In other words, it's hard to tease out how homework is really affecting test scores and grades. Did one teacher give better homework than another? Was one teacher more effective in the classroom? Do certain students test better or just try harder?

"It is difficult to separate where the effect of classroom teaching ends," Vatterott writes, "and the effect of homework begins."

Putting research aside, however, much of the current debate over homework is focused less on how homework affects academic achievement and more on time. Parents in particular have been saying that the amount of time children spend in school, especially with afterschool programs, combined with the amount of homework given — as early as kindergarten — is leaving students with little time to run around, eat dinner with their families, or even get enough sleep.

Certainly, for some parents, homework is a way to stay connected to their children's learning. But for others, homework creates a tug-of-war between parents and children, says Liz Goodenough, M.A.T.'71, creator of a documentary called Where Do the Children Play?

"Ideally homework should be about taking something home, spending a few curious and interesting moments in which children might engage with parents, and then getting that project back to school — an organizational triumph," she says. "A nag-free activity could engage family time: Ask a parent about his or her own childhood. Interview siblings."

Instead, as the authors of The Case Against Homework write, "Homework overload is turning many of us into the types of parents we never wanted to be: nags, bribers, and taskmasters."

Leslie Butchko saw it happen a few years ago when her son started sixth grade in the Santa Monica-Malibu (Calif.) United School District. She remembers him getting two to four hours of homework a night, plus weekend and vacation projects. He was overwhelmed and struggled to finish assignments, especially on nights when he also had an extracurricular activity.

"Ultimately, we felt compelled to have Bobby quit karate — he's a black belt — to allow more time for homework," she says. And then, with all of their attention focused on Bobby's homework, she and her husband started sending their youngest to his room so that Bobby could focus. "One day, my younger son gave us 15-minute coupons as a present for us to use to send him to play in the back room. … It was then that we realized there had to be something wrong with the amount of homework we were facing."

Butchko joined forces with another mother who was having similar struggles and ultimately helped get the homework policy in her district changed, limiting homework on weekends and holidays, setting time guidelines for daily homework, and broadening the definition of homework to include projects and studying for tests. As she told the school board at one meeting when the policy was first being discussed, "In closing, I just want to say that I had more free time at Harvard Law School than my son has in middle school, and that is not in the best interests of our children."

One barrier that Butchko had to overcome initially was convincing many teachers and parents that more homework doesn't necessarily equal rigor.

"Most of the parents that were against the homework policy felt that students need a large quantity of homework to prepare them for the rigorous AP classes in high school and to get them into Harvard," she says.

Stephanie Conklin, Ed.M.'06, sees this at Another Course to College, the Boston pilot school where she teaches math. "When a student is not completing [his or her] homework, parents usually are frustrated by this and agree with me that homework is an important part of their child's learning," she says.

As Timothy Jarman, Ed.M.'10, a ninth-grade English teacher at Eugene Ashley High School in Wilmington, N.C., says, "Parents think it is strange when their children are not assigned a substantial amount of homework."

That's because, writes Vatterott, in her chapter, "The Cult(ure) of Homework," the concept of homework "has become so engrained in U.S. culture that the word homework is part of the common vernacular."

These days, nightly homework is a given in American schools, writes Kohn.

"Homework isn't limited to those occasions when it seems appropriate and important. Most teachers and administrators aren't saying, 'It may be useful to do this particular project at home,'" he writes. "Rather, the point of departure seems to be, 'We've decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week). … This commitment to the idea of homework in the abstract is accepted by the overwhelming majority of schools — public and private, elementary and secondary."

Brant had to confront this when she cut homework at Gaithersburg Elementary.

"A lot of my parents have this idea that homework is part of life. This is what I had to do when I was young," she says, and so, too, will our kids. "So I had to shift their thinking." She did this slowly, first by asking her teachers last year to really think about what they were sending home. And this year, in addition to forming a parent advisory group around the issue, she also holds events to answer questions.

Still, not everyone is convinced that homework as a given is a bad thing. "Any pursuit of excellence, be it in sports, the arts, or academics, requires hard work. That our culture finds it okay for kids to spend hours a day in a sport but not equal time on academics is part of the problem," wrote one pro-homework parent on the blog for the documentary Race to Nowhere, which looks at the stress American students are under. "Homework has always been an issue for parents and children. It is now and it was 20 years ago. I think when people decide to have children that it is their responsibility to educate them," wrote another.

And part of educating them, some believe, is helping them develop skills they will eventually need in adulthood. "Homework can help students develop study skills that will be of value even after they leave school," reads a publication on the U.S. Department of Education website called Homework Tips for Parents. "It can teach them that learning takes place anywhere, not just in the classroom. … It can foster positive character traits such as independence and responsibility. Homework can teach children how to manage time."

Annie Brown, Ed.M.'01, feels this is particularly critical at less affluent schools like the ones she has worked at in Boston, Cambridge, Mass., and Los Angeles as a literacy coach.

"It feels important that my students do homework because they will ultimately be competing for college placement and jobs with students who have done homework and have developed a work ethic," she says. "Also it will get them ready for independently taking responsibility for their learning, which will need to happen for them to go to college."

The problem with this thinking, writes Vatterott, is that homework becomes a way to practice being a worker.

"Which begs the question," she writes. "Is our job as educators to produce learners or workers?"

Slate magazine editor Emily Bazelon, in a piece about homework, says this makes no sense for younger kids.

"Why should we think that practicing homework in first grade will make you better at doing it in middle school?" she writes. "Doesn't the opposite seem equally plausible: that it's counterproductive to ask children to sit down and work at night before they're developmentally ready because you'll just make them tired and cross?"

Kohn writes in the American School Board Journal that this "premature exposure" to practices like homework (and sit-and-listen lessons and tests) "are clearly a bad match for younger children and of questionable value at any age." He calls it BGUTI: Better Get Used to It. "The logic here is that we have to prepare you for the bad things that are going to be done to you later … by doing them to you now."

According to a recent University of Michigan study, daily homework for six- to eight-year-olds increased on average from about 8 minutes in 1981 to 22 minutes in 2003. A review of research by Duke University Professor Harris Cooper found that for elementary school students, "the average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement … hovered around zero."

So should homework be eliminated? Of course not, say many Ed School graduates who are teaching. Not only would students not have time for essays and long projects, but also teachers would not be able to get all students to grade level or to cover critical material, says Brett Pangburn, Ed.M.'06, a sixth-grade English teacher at Excel Academy Charter School in Boston. Still, he says, homework has to be relevant.

"Kids need to practice the skills being taught in class, especially where, like the kids I teach at Excel, they are behind and need to catch up," he says. "Our results at Excel have demonstrated that kids can catch up and view themselves as in control of their academic futures, but this requires hard work, and homework is a part of it."

Ed School Professor Howard Gardner basically agrees.

"America and Americans lurch between too little homework in many of our schools to an excess of homework in our most competitive environments — Li'l Abner vs. Tiger Mother," he says. "Neither approach makes sense. Homework should build on what happens in class, consolidating skills and helping students to answer new questions."

So how can schools come to a happy medium, a way that allows teachers to cover everything they need while not overwhelming students? Conklin says she often gives online math assignments that act as labs and students have two or three days to complete them, including some in-class time. Students at Pangburn's school have a 50-minute silent period during regular school hours where homework can be started, and where teachers pull individual or small groups of students aside for tutoring, often on that night's homework. Afterschool homework clubs can help.

Some schools and districts have adapted time limits rather than nix homework completely, with the 10-minute per grade rule being the standard — 10 minutes a night for first-graders, 30 minutes for third-graders, and so on. (This remedy, however, is often met with mixed results since not all students work at the same pace.) Other schools offer an extended day that allows teachers to cover more material in school, in turn requiring fewer take-home assignments. And for others, like Stephanie Brant's elementary school in Maryland, more reading with a few targeted project assignments has been the answer.

"The routine of reading is so much more important than the routine of homework," she says. "Let's have kids reflect. You can still have the routine and you can still have your workspace, but now it's for reading. I often say to parents, if we can put a man on the moon, we can put a man or woman on Mars and that person is now a second-grader. We don't know what skills that person will need. At the end of the day, we have to feel confident that we're giving them something they can use on Mars."

Read a January 2014 update.

Illustration by Jessica Esch
Illustration by Jessica Esch
PRINCIPAL
January/February 2007

Rethinking Homework

By Alfie Kohn

[For a more detailed look at the issues discussed here — including a comprehensive list of citations to relevant research and a discussion of successful efforts to effect change– please see the book The Homework Myth.]

After spending most of the day in school, children are typically given additional assignments to be completed at home.  This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few people ever stop to think about it.

It becomes even more curious, for that matter, in light of three other facts:

1.  The negative effects of homework are well known.  They include children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities, and possible loss of interest in learning.  Many parents lament the impact of homework on their relationship with their children; they may also resent having to play the role of enforcer and worry that they will be criticized either for not being involved enough with the homework or for becoming too involved.

2.  The positive effects of homework are largely mythical.  In preparation for a book on the topic, I’ve spent a lot of time sifting through the research.  The results are nothing short of stunning.  For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school.  For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement.  At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied.  Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.

3.  More homework is being piled on children despite the absence of its value.  Over the last quarter-century the burden has increased most for the youngest children, for whom the evidence of positive effects isn’t just dubious; it’s nonexistent.

It’s not as though most teachers decide now and then that a certain lesson really ought to continue after school is over because meaningful learning is so likely to result from such an assignment that it warrants the intrusion on family time.   Homework in most schools isn’t limited to those occasions when it seems appropriate and important.  Rather, the point of departure seems to be:  “We’ve decided ahead of time that children will have to do something every night (or several times a week).  Later on we’ll figure out what to make them do.”

I’ve heard from countless people across the country about the frustration they feel over homework.  Parents who watch a torrent of busywork spill out of their children’s backpacks wish they could help teachers understand how the cons overwhelmingly outweigh the pros.  And teachers who have long harbored doubts about the value of homework feel pressured by those parents who mistakenly believe that a lack of afterschool assignments reflects an insufficient commitment to academic achievement.  Such parents seem to reason that as long as their kids have lots of stuff to do every night, never mind what it is, then learning must be taking place.

What parents and teachers need is support from administrators who are willing to challenge the conventional wisdom.  They need principals who question the slogans that pass for arguments:  that homework creates a link between school and family (as if there weren’t more constructive ways to make that connection!), or that it “reinforces” what students were taught in class (a word that denotes the repetition of rote behaviors, not the development of understanding), or that it teaches children self-discipline and responsibility (a claim for which absolutely no evidence exists).

Above all, principals need to help their faculties see that the most important criterion for judging decisions about homework (or other policies, for that matter) is the impact they’re likely to have on students’ attitudes about what they’re doing.  “Most of what homework is doing is driving kids away from learning,” says education professor Harvey Daniels.  Let’s face it:  Most children dread homework, or at best see it as something to be gotten through.  Thus, even if it did provide other benefits, they would have to be weighed against its likely effect on kids’ love of learning.

*

So what’s a thoughtful principal to do?

1.  Educate yourself and share what you’ve learned with teachers, parents, and central office administrators.  Make sure you know what the research really says – that there is no reason to believe that children would be at any disadvantage in terms of their academic learning or life skills if they had much less homework, or even none at all.  Whatever decisions are made should be based on fact rather than folk wisdom.

2.  Rethink standardized “homework policies.”  Requiring teachers to give a certain number of minutes of homework every day, or to make assignments on the same schedule everyweek (for example, x minutes of math on Tuesdays and Thursdays) is a frank admission that homework isn’t justified by a given lesson, much less is it a response to what specific kids need at a specific time.  Such policies sacrifice thoughtful instruction in order to achieve predictability, and they manage to do a disservice not only to students but, when imposed from above, to teachers as well.

3.  Reduce the amount – but don’t stop there.  Many parents are understandably upset with how much time their children have to spend on homework.  At a minimum, make sure that teachers aren’t exceeding district guidelines and that they aren’t chronically underestimating how long it takes students to complete the assignments.  (As one mother told me, “It’s cheating to say this is 20 minutes of homework if only your fastest kid can complete it in that time.”)  Then work on reducing the amount of homework irrespective of such guidelines and expectations so that families, not schools, decide how they will spend most of their evenings.

Quantity, however, is not the only issue that needs to be addressed.  Some assignments, frankly, aren’t worth even five minutes of a student’s time.  Too many first graders are forced to clip words from magazines that begin with a given letter of the alphabet.  Too many fifth graders have to color in an endless list of factor pairs on graph paper.  Too many eighth graders spend their evenings inching their way through dull, overstuffed, committee-written textbooks, one chapter at a time.  Teachers should be invited to reflect on whether any given example of homework will help students think deeply about questions that matter.  What philosophy of teaching, what theory of learning, lies behind each assignment?   Does it seem to assume that children are meaning makers — or empty vessels?  Is learning regarded as a process that’s mostly active or passive?  Is it about wrestling with ideas or mindlessly following directions?

4.  Change the default.  Ultimately, it’s not enough just to have less homework or even better homework.  We should change the fundamental expectation in our schools so that students are asked to take schoolwork home only when a 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 except on those occasions when it’s truly necessary.  This, of course, is a reversal of the current default state, which amounts to an endorsement of homework for its own sake, regardless of the content, a view that simply can’t be justified.

5.  Ask the kids.  Find out what students think of homework and solicit their suggestions – perhaps by distributing anonymous questionnaires.  Many adults simply assume that homework is useful for promoting learning without even 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 desire to learn?  What are its other effects on their lives, and on their families?

6.  Suggest that teachers assign only what they design.  In most cases, students should be asked to doonly what teachers are willing to create themselves, as opposed to prefabricated worksheets or generic exercises photocopied from textbooks.  Also, it rarely makes sense to give the same assignment to all students in a class because 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.  On those days when homework really seems necessary, teachers should create several assignments fitted to different interests and capabilities.  But it’s better to give no homework to anyone than the same homework to everyone.

7.  Use homework as an opportunity to involve students in decision-making.   One way to judge the quality of a classroom is by the extent to which students participate in making choices about their learning.  The best teachers know that children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions.  Students should have something to say about what they’re going to learn and the circumstances under which they’ll learn it, as well as how (and when) their learning will be evaluated, how the room will be set up, how conflicts will be resolved, and a lot more.

What is true of education in general is true of homework in particular.  At least two investigators have found that the most impressive teachers (as defined by various criteria) tend to involve students in decisions about assignments rather than simply telling them what they’ll have to do at home.  A reasonable first question for a parent to ask upon seeing a homework assignment is “How much say did the kids have in determining how this had to be done, and on what schedule, and whether it really needed to be completed at home in the first place?”

A discussion about whether homework might be useful (and why) can be valuable in its own right.  If opinions are varied, the question of what to do when everyone doesn’t agree – take a vote?  keep talking until we reach consensus?  look for a compromise? – develops social skills as well as intellectual growth.  And that growth occurs precisely because the teacher asked rather than told.  Teachers who consult with their students on a regular basis would shake their heads vigorously were you to suggest that kids will always say no to homework – or to anything else that requires effort.  It’s just not true, they’ll tell you.  When students are treated with respect, when the assignments are worth doing, most kids relish a challenge.

If, on the other hand, students groan about, or try to avoid, homework, it’s generally because they get too much of it, or because it’s assigned thoughtlessly and continuously, or simply because they had nothing to say about it.  The benefits of even high-quality assignments are limited if students feel “done to” instead of “worked with.”

8.  Help teachers move away from grading.  Your faculty may need your support, encouragement, and practical suggestions to help them abandon 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.  As the eminent educator Martin Haberman observed, homework in the best classrooms “is not checked – it is shared.”  If students conclude that there’s no point in spending time on assignments that aren’t going to be collected or somehow recorded, that’s not an argument for setting up bribes and threats and a climate of distrust; it’s an indictment of the homework itself.

9.  Experiment.  Ask teachers who are reluctant to rethink their long-standing reliance on traditional homework to see what happens if, during a given week or curriculum unit, they tried assigning none.  Surely anyone who believes that homework is beneficial should be willing to test that assumption by investigating the consequences of its absence.  What are the effects of a moratorium on students’ achievement, on their interest in learning, on their moods and the resulting climate of the classroom?  Likewise, the school as a whole can try out a new policy, such as the change in default that I’ve proposed, on a tentative basis before committing to it permanently.

*

Principals deal with an endless series of crises; they’re called upon to resolve complaints, soothe wounded egos, negotiate solutions, try to keep everyone happy, and generally make the trains (or, rather, buses) run on time.  In such a position there is a strong temptation to avoid new initiatives that call the status quo into question.  Considerable gumption is required to take on an issue like homework, particularly during an era when phrases like “raising the bar” and “higher standards” are used to rationalize practices that range from foolish to inappropriate to hair-raising.  But of course a principal’s ultimate obligation is to do what’s right by the children, to protect them from harmful mandates and practices that persist not because they’re valuable but merely because they’re traditional.

For anyone willing to shake things up in order to do what makes sense, beginning a conversation about homework is a very good place to start.

RESOURCES

We are awash in articles and books that claim homework is beneficial – or simply take the existence or value of homework for granted and merely offer suggestions for how it ought to be assigned, or what techniques parents should use to make children complete it.  Here are some resources that question the conventional assumptions about the subject in an effort to stimulate meaningful thinking and conversation.

Barber, Bill.  “Homework Does Not Belong on the Agenda for Educational Reform.”  Educational Leadership, May 1986: 55-57.

Bennett, Sara, and Nancy Kalish. The Case Against Homework:  How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It (New York:  Crown, 2006).

Buell, John. Closing the Book on Homework: Enhancing Public Education and Freeing Family Time.  (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).

Dudley-Marling, Curt.  “How School Troubles Come Home:  The Impact of Homework on Families of Struggling Learners.”Current Issues in Education [On-line] 6, 4 (2003).

Hinchey, Patricia.  “Rethinking Homework.”  MASCD [Missouri Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development] Fall Journal, December 1995: 13-17.

Kohn, Alfie. The Homework Myth:  Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2006).

Kralovec, Etta, and John Buell. The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning  (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2000).

Samway, Katharine.  “’And You Run and You Run to Catch Up with the Sun, But It’s Sinking.’”  Language Arts 63 (1986): 352-57.

Vatterott, Cathy.  “There’s Something Wrong With Homework.”Principal, January-February 2003: 64.

Waldman, Ayelet.  “Homework Hell.”  Salon.com.  October 22, 2005.

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