Reflections on The Homework Myth with Alfie Kohn

Education is like a tapestry. Wiggle one thread and many others will move as well.
Alfie Kohn

Following on from his lecture on The Case Against Competition, which I reflected upon here, and a break for dinner, Alfie Kohn delivered a lecture on The Homework Myth, As much as I struggled to reconcile some of what Alfie said during his Competition lecture, much of what was said during this lecture mirrored a lot of my own thoughts on homework.

The lecture was introduced using the above quote and then Alfie spoke about what would happen if we abolished grades. Students, we were told, would question the point of why they attend school and completed the tasks they are assigned. This means that we, the teachers, need to reconsider what and how we teach; to reexamine the curriculum and the pedagogy. This is an interesting challenge and one that seems to fail on the curriculum front. The Australian curriculum is not remotely national, with NSW, Victoria and Western Australia implementing their own curriculum, which encompasses the Australian Curriculum. We also, connecting it to the lecture topic, need to consider the purpose of homework and what it is connected to.

funny-quote-about-late-homework
Retrieved from tinyurl.com/hulsdex on 20 November 2016

Alfie’s next point was interesting. He pointed out that we as adults have all been on the receiving end of homework and typically the vast majority of us as students neither liked nor wanted (and often did not complete) the assigned homework. Why, therefore, does homework persist? We do it because of rather than in spite of that history. I do wonder why so many parents continue to want their children to have homework. I had a few parents asking me about homework this term as I had not sent any home in the first two weeks and I responded with a message to all my parents via Class Dojo that I wouldn’t be assigning any homework other than some reading of interest and perhaps some SumDog, which they love. The students were relieved and I had a few messages from parents who were relieved as well.

So why does homework persist?

Homework has the capability to cause stress and frustration in students, frustration in parents; it can cause conflict between parents and their children, loss of time to other activities that a child would rather be doing and is passionate about.

So why does homework persist?

For those students who are interested and passionate about a topic,  homework or a unit around that topic has the potential to cast a pall over it and kill the passion and desire for learning (there is still mixed evidence for this either way from what I could see of a very quick search). When even those students who consider themselves academically inclined are pleased to have completed their homework and would rather be doing any one of a number of other things, often involving friends we need to ask ourselves why homework still exists. Alfie singled out reading logs as being particularly harmful. There is no better way, stated Alfie,  of killing a passion for reading than the enforced use of a reading log to monitor how much a child is reading. It becomes a thing  that must be done to get a reward from their teacher of a sticker or a stamp. If you are not sure about rewards and why they are potentially bad, read the previous article in this series.

homework-thumb-480x480-390662
Retrieved from tinyurl.com/nytp98d on 21 November 2016

One of the alleged reasons that support homework is that it supposedly improves achievement. Before going into what Alfie had to say on the matter, the definition of achievement here is very important to this statement. In conversations that I have had, the achievement that is typically being referred to is testing scores. Testing scores are useful in many ways, but they are an indicator only of how well a student answered a specific set of questions at a particular moment in time. The familiar adage that goes something like what is tested is not important and what is important is not tested comes to mind here, though I do not doubt that there are those who would argue that testing is a valuable source of data.

Alife stated that no controlled study demonstrates any measure of improvement before a student reaches the age of fifteen and that even then, there is only a correlation not a causative relationship of statistical significance. Furthermore, at the High School level, the correlation between increased levels of homework and increased test scores is only a very modest correlation and explains very little of the growth.

6
An amusing example of how correlations can be meaningless and not explain a phenomenon. Retrieved from tylervigen.com/spurious-correlations on 21 November 2016

Including the above graph is perhaps a tad facetious, but the website provides some laughs at the bizarre correlations that can be made between unrelated data. Alfie continued by commenting that the relationship between homework and improved achievement is only measurable in standardised tests which do not measure anything other than a student’s ability to answer that set of questions. An additional factor that needs to be considered is an interesting one, particularly in the case of internationally administered tests such as The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). These tests are initially developed in the English language and are then translated into the other languages required. What impact does this have on the terms chosen and the clarity of the question vis-a-vis the raw wording? How about the way a question is composed and understood culturally? How are questions transliterated (I hope that is the right term, please let me know if it is not) to ensure the meaning and underlying spirit/vibe/focus of the question are retained across cultures with different understandings and interpretations of different events and contexts?

These tests are initially developed in the English language and are then translated into the other languages required. What impact does this have on the terms chosen and the clarity of the question vis-a-vis the raw wording? How about the way a question is composed and understood culturally? How are questions transliterated (I hope that is the right term, please let me know if it is not) to ensure the meaning and underlying spirit/vibe/focus of the question are retained across cultures with different understandings and interpretations of different events and contexts? Alfie also told the audience that the modest correlation disappeared altogether when multi-variables are taken into account.

Alfie’s next point is an interesting one. He commented that cross-cultural tests, such as PISA and TIMMS show a negative correlation between tests and the amount of homework given. I want to believe this, and it feels instinctively true partly because I want to believe it (confirmation bias?) because a quick Google Scholar search returned a few articles that allege to have found positive relationships between the amount of homework given and general test scores (such as here, here and here), though that is based on reading the abstract only as they are all hidden behind pay-walls. The SmithsonianMag website has one very brief article which indicates that some homework has a positive impact on test scores.

grade2b42breading2bhw2beffects2bpirls2b2011
Retrieved from tinyurl.com/jaohm9m on 21 November 2016

The above image was sourced from a well-written blog by Darren Kuropatwa (@Dkuropatwa) (though it appears to have been sourced from a PIRLS document) examining the value of homework based upon the Assessment Matters! publications by The Council of Ministers of Education Canada examining the data using The Pan-Canadian Assessment Program (PCAP), PISA,  PIRLS and TIMSS. The results, it seems, are still inconclusive when looking at this data.

Another reason that is often touted for the ongoing assignment of homework is that it builds character, self-discipline, organisation and other similar non-academic benefits, which I have recently seen referred to as soft-skills. Alfie remarked that no study has ever validated this belief, and to my mind, it is not even particularly logical, and even if it were, there are far better ways of teaching children those characteristics. I do not see it as logical due to the fact that the student has to do the homework, whether that is enforced at home by the parent/s or at school by the teacher and therefore no learning of such characteristics is going to occur. If it those type of soft-skills (are we really using that term?) that you want to teach your child/student, then look into having them take up a team sport to teach them getting along, collaboration and teamwork. Or a martial art for resilience, organisation and focus. Or have them complete minor age appropriate chores, involve them in conversations about organising the grocery list or the household budget.

The next argument for homework Alfie indicated he hears regularly is that it creates a window into the class which seems completely nonsensical to me. If you genuinely want to develop a relationship or connection between home and school, invite the parents to visit and help out with reading or maths groups, set up a class Twitter account for students to share what they are learning, or a class blog so they can publish their writing, art or audiovisual creations and reflections.

The final argument for assigning homework that Alfie spoke about was what he called the Beguti argument; better get used to it. This is, again, illogical and is used to justify a range of tools such as competitions, marks and group-work and, remarked Alfie, developmentally inappropriate. It seems silly to me, to use that argument. Because you will have to complete this task which is dreary and you will dislike it later in life, to prepare you for that dreariness, it will be inflicted upon you earlier than necessary. Children do not get better at dealing with negative things by having negative things happen to them at a younger age and using the beguti argument is, Alfie noted, akin to giving up the game.

calvinhw
Retrieved from tinyurl.com/gueue8b on 21 November 2016

Parents are often sent home a homework letter that states something along the lines of your child will receive homework on x days or is required to complete the following tasks each week. This sends home the message that the individual needs of the child do not actually matter. Further to this, the audience was told that where schools advertise as teaching the whole child, but then assign homework, that they are paying the whole child lip service by assigning additional academic tasks.

We did hear some of the arguments against homework that Alfie has heard regularly. Parents opposing it on a value basis; that school work is for school and the family home is for family time, not school work. Additionally, homework exists, he has been told, because we do not trust children to occupy themselves without wasting time on Facebook, computer games etc and as an argument, implies that homework is merely busy work anyway. I find that an intriguing statement as I know that I, and every other adult I know, likes and needs to spend some time doing nothing, or, wasting time, to relax and unwind after being at work or to deal with stress.

Alfie qualified his dislike of homework by indicating that he can see some occasions when homework should be assigned, but that there should be some criteria for it:

  1. The homework will help students think more in-depth about the topic;
  2. The homework helps students become more excited about a topic;
  3. The task cannot be completed in school for some genuine reason other than we did not have time.

Assigning homework should be done after a class discussion with all students and the teacher agreeing that the homework is genuinely needed and that the default setting for homework should be no homework. Students who can complete a task and understand the task and how they completed it initially do not need to complete the homework, and those students who need the homework are likely unable to complete it and having to try and complete it will result in frustration, Googling the answer or a parent/guardian completing it for them.

What are your thoughts on homework in general and what I have written about Alfie’s lecture in particular? What are your thoughts on how this relates to cognitive load theory and the completion of basic tasks? I have reached out to Jon Bergmann for his thoughts on how Flipped Learning and the research which Alfie spoke about are related and I have also reached out to Alfie for feedback on both this article and the previous article and to check the accuracy of my interpretation of what he said.

I would very much like to hear your thoughts on this topic and I thank you for reading through both this and the previous article which are both rather lengthy.

 

2 thoughts on “Reflections on The Homework Myth with Alfie Kohn

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