Courtney Langton

Courtney is an aspiring high school teacher. Her teachables are History and English, but she's happy to teach anything that doesn't involve numbers or formulas. Her particular interest is in promoting gender equity and anti-oppression both in and outside the classroom. She writes a detailed To-Do list every morning, and enjoys nothing more than a good book and a plate of bacon on a rainy Saturday.

Jonathan Wong

Jonathan's primary interest is moral education. His teachable subjects are English and Music. He encourages critical thinking and hopes to teach his students to recognize, and strive for, what is truly important to them without forgetting to be compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded along the way. He likes making analogies and his favourite is one that compares life to jumping on a trampoline.

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The Homework Question
Monday, July 27, 2009

Read this link: "Breaking the Homework Habit"

I've read Alfie Kohn before I think in one of my previous prof classes. He's one of the big names in ultra-progressive education. So it really came as no surprise to me that he's a proponent of the "homework is largely unnecessary" school of pedagogy. Rather than write a long post about "homework" as a general idea, I think it'll be easier if I take some of his points one by one.

"There’s no evidence that homework causes 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."

This, I think, is mostly true. I don't know that there is any intrinsic, non-academic benefit to doing homework. I don't think homework builds character OR teaches good study habits. Good study habits are a unique brand of skills that don't come simply from the fact that you are doing homework. It's also true that it doesn't promote self-discipline since really, self-discipline is the art of doing something because it's good for you, not because it's bad for you NOT to do it (we call that "fear") and for the most part, I seem to recall homework being a product of the fear of failing, not because I, with some sense of heightened grandeur, was getting satisfaction out of "doing the right thing". The higher achievement part, we'll get to.

(On addressing the question, "Doesn’t homework reinforce what students learned in school?")
"The kind of homework that’s supposed to “reinforce” can’t 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."

This, I'm not so sure about. The first part is true: that rote memory - the kind of memory you practice from doing worksheets - does generate a trigger reaction to being asked certain kinds of question. But I think there's a failure here to distinguish between grasping the mathematical principle involved and actually performing the mathematical procedure. Because once you RECOGNIZE the kind of mathematical procedure you need to apply, who wants to spend 10 minutes trying to figure out what to do about it? No, worksheets might not help kids think. But isn't that kinda the point? That's like saying that performing drills during baseball practice is bad because then the kids don't have to think about what they're doing during the game. The whole point is to get them to a point where, when they're given their bill at a restaurant, they don't have to be like "Hmm... so I'm supposed to give 15%... now how do I do this? Well, I know that 10% means I move the decimal point to the left... and then 5% is half of that... so..."

Also, it isn't true that all homework we assign can only help kids do something automatically. Even if I were to stick to "math" that seems to be the subject most suited to this kind of attack, the math textbooks I've seen have always had word problems that required you to think about how to apply the mathematical concept you've just learned. By assigning these problems, you "reinforce" the concept that you're taught in class by applying it correctly to certain hypothetical scenarios. Hardly seems like rote memory to me.

"Most of all, we should be discussing the idea of regular homework, which is a bizarre idea when you stop to think about it [...] The premise here is that the very idea of homework -- regardless of its content -- is valuable. [...] My view is that we shouldn’t just have less homework or even better homework. Rather, we should change the default to 'no homework except on those occasions when it’s really necessary.'"

This is true. I think the idea of having homework for the sake of homework is silly. But I'm not so sure of how many teachers subscribe to this idea. I once had the same teacher teach me both math and computer science. We got homework everyday for math class and practically none for computer science. I really think that when he says we should change the default to "no homework except on those occasions when it's really necessary," that that is already more true than he thinks. It's just that these occasions are more common than he thinks. I mean, take English class as another example. Is he proposing that I give my students time in class to read The Lord of the Flies? Is he proposing that there should be enough class time dedicated to getting the books read in their entirety without having to assign the readings for homework? We're barely given enough time as it is to cover what we need to. In English, it will always be necessary for students to read books for homework. With science? Is he proposing that we give them enough time in class to type up their lab reports? With math? Is he proposing that we give them enough time in class to practice the mathematical concepts until they understand how to apply them? Is he going to amend the curriculum requirements to allow us the TIME to do this?

"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 doesn’t fit all."

There is a sarcastic tone in this statement. As if practicing skills that require the application of a certain idea doesn't help kids understand the ideas from the inside out. As if we were given enough time to do this IN school.

"Any educational practice or policy should be judged according to the effect it’s likely to have on kids’ desire to learn."

This is a rather unjustifiable statement to be putting forth as a maxim. Of course, it would be nice if everything we taught increased our students' desire to learn. I would hardly go as far as to say that we can only judge any education practice or policy based upon whether or not our students take kindly to it. Just because one of my students loves science and isn't driven to learn more about Shakespeare after I've taught Hamlet doesn't mean he didn't learn anything while studying it. Rather than saying "Any educational practice or policy should be judged according to the effect it’s likely to have on kids’ desire to learn," maybe it should read more like "Any educational practice or policy should be judged according to the effect it’s likely to have on kids’ ability to learn." This seems to me to be a much more noble and attainable pursuit.

So you see, homework might be a little more necessary than progressive educators, like Alfie Kohn, think. Now, keep in mind he's not saying that there should be no homework at all. He's merely trying to point out that we shouldn't assign homework just for the sake of it. And I know this and I really do respect this notion of only assigning necessary homework. I'm just of the opinion that homework is actually more necessary than he seems to indicate.

Say the AMOUNT of homework our kids got remained the same but it all suddenly became meaningful. Would that be a justifiable compromise? Or is the very idea of having to do work at home somehow intrinsically bad? That we should be getting all the educating we need during school hours? Something to think about.

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Jonathan posted at 7:00 PM - Comments (1)


Jason, I have to agree with you. While there is a fair amount of unnecessary homework assigned, but at the same time much of it is needed.

When I was in high school the majority of my classes did not have enough time to cover the curriculum requirements. I found that the most effective teachers were the ones that choose the topics most important and covered them with a little more detail. At the same time they would have had to cut a lot more if they did not assign homework.

It seems that Alfie Kohn views homework simply as a tool to review what is covered in the classroom, but to me homework is something that can be used to make class sessions more engaging. It's much easier to make a class understand a book if they do the reading prior to any discussion time given in class. This also gives students a chance to find points that they may not understand which can then be addressed during class (and also give more information to the teacher about each individual student).

As a teacher, how are we supposed to see if students are actually learning what they need if we spend all of the class time teaching what could be learned during homework and leaving less time to discuss what is being taught?

As a final point, I know a few teachers who work at schools that have banned homework and they find the environment to be extremely frustrating (probably for some of the reasons above). Is a teacher under such pressure is more than likely not as effective as they could be.

By Blogger Ashley, at July 27, 2009 at 10:37 PM  

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