Tuesday, March 20, 2007

*** The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn

Deep in our gut, I think we all knew from our childhood experiences, that homework was a total crock. Now we have the data to backup our instincts. It's time to challenge the baseless assumption that children need to slave each night for hours to improve the academic achievement sacrificing their childhood on the altar of an unproven myth.

6-8 year olds having homework on a given day has climbed from 34% in 1981 to 58% in 1997, to 64% by 2002. p7

If parents feel pressure to make sure their kids are keeping up, then that pressure is passed along to the kids… A study had 3rd graders and their parents work together on a homework like task. One group of parents was told that their children would be tested on the skills. These parents of these children became more controlling, and worse, when those same children were left alone to tackle a similar problem, they ended not doing as well. P12

More than 1/3 of 5th graders get tense working with their parents on homework. Half of all school age parents report they had a serious argument with their child about homework in the past year that involved yelling and/or crying… The more that parents helped with homework, the more tension children experienced – and without any apparent long term academic benefit from the assistance. P13

There are virtually no exchanges (in a study of families) that deal with the content of the homework. No parent asked ‘Did the assignment help you understand this topic?’ or ‘What’s your opinion of this issue you’re working on?’ As a rule the point of homework isn’t to learn or to derive pleasure from learning. It’s something to be finished. And until it is, it looms large in conversations, an unwelcome guest at the table every night. P15

Homework simply reinforces what is already a terrible problem in America’s archaic educational system; it emphasizes reading because there will be a quiz on the reading, it mandates dozens of identical math problems because the test will contain dozens more just like those, and it asks students to respond to end of chapter questions that are inane. All of these tasks are time consuming, dreary, and uninspiring, and serve only to kill whatever motivation remains in students. P18

The effect of relying on carrots or sticks is to reduce the interest a person has in whatever they were being rewarded or punished for doing. People who rely on these tactics to make kids complete an assignment end up making the learning itself seem less appealing, which then makes bribes and threats seem even more necessary, creating a vicious cycle. P19

Research casting doubt on the assumption that homework improves academic performance goes back to 1897, when a study found that assigning spelling homework had no effect on how proficient children were at spelling later on. P26

In 1989, Harris Cooper conducted the most exhaustive review of the research to date. He performed a metaanalysis of all the past studies… Homework accounted for less than 4% of the differences in students scores (when comparing the amount of homework among students)… In 2006, Cooper updated his review to include newer studies… The overall correlation was about the same as the one found in 1989. p27

Another study confirmed that the time commitment for homework was not associated with higher or lower scores any achievement tests. By contrast, the amount of time children spent reading for pleasure was strongly correlated with higher scores. P28

Cooper concedes that it is equally probable, based upon the correlational data that teachers assign more homework to students who are achieving better or that better students simply spend more time on home study… In addition, being born into a more affluent and highly educated family – might be associated with getting higher test scores and with doing more homework. Again, it would be erroneous to conclude that homework is responsible for higher achievement. Or that a complete absence of homework would have any detrimental effect at all. P29

Several studies have actually found a negative relationship between students’ achievement and how much time they spend on homework… But even if we agreed that doing more homework probably isn’t responsible for lowering students’ achievement, the fact there’s an inverse relationship seems to suggest that, at the very least, homework isn’t doing much to help kids who are struggling. P30

Grades are ‘an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite amount of material. P32

Cooper conducted a study in 1998 on students from grades 2 to 12… Here’s the results:
For younger students Grades 2-7:
Effects on grades based upon amount of homework assigned; no significant relationship.
Effects on test scores based upon amount of homework assigned; no significant relationship.
Effects on grades based upon amount of homework done; no significant relationship.
Effects on test scores based upon amount of homework assigned; no significant relationship.
Older Students Grades 8-12:
Effects on grades based upon amount of homework assigned; no significant relationship.
Effects on test scores based upon amount of homework assigned; no significant relationship.
Effects on grades based upon amount of homework done; Positive relationship.
Effects on test scores based upon amount of homework done; no significant relationship.
Of these 8 comparisons, the only positive correlation – and it wasn’t large – was between how much homework older students did and their grades. P33

Standardized tests are a poor measure of intellectual proficiency. They are however excellent indicators of 2 things. The first is affluence: upto 90% of the difference in scores can be accounted for, statistically, without knowing anything else such as schools, communities, homework, etc. other than the average income and education levels of the students parents. The 2nd phenomenon that these tests measure is how skillful a particular group is at taking standardized tests, and how much class time has been given over to preparing them to do just that. P34

There’s virtually no good research on the impact of homework in the primary grades – and therefore no data to support its use with young children – whereas research has been done with students in the upper elementary grades, and it generally fails to find any benefit… In fact, for 3rd graders, the research showed correlations that were negative: more homework is associated with lower achievement. P38-9

Based upon the results of a 2000 math exam, 4th graders who did no homework got roughly the same score as those who did 30 minutes a night. Remarkably, the scores then declined for those who did 45 minutes, then declined again for those who did an hour or more! In 8th grade, the score were higher for those who did 15-45 minutes a night than those who did no homework, but the results were worse for those who did an hour’s worth, and worse still for those who did more than an hour. In 12th grade, the scores were the same regardless of whether the student did 15 minutes or more than an hour. Results on the reading test, too, provided no compelling evidence that homework helped. P41

In 2005, 2 researchers looked at global test scores on the TIMSS science study based upon test results from students in 50 countries. Here are their findings:
Not only did we find to find any positive relationship, but the overall correlations between national average student achievement and the national average in the frequency, total amount, and percentage of teachers who used homework in grading are all NEGATIVE! If these data can be extrapolated to other subjects, then countries that try to improve their standing in the world rankings by raising the amount of homework might actually be undermining their own success. More homework may actually undermine national achievement. P43

Data suggest that, contrary to American myth, competition tends to hold people back from doing their best work, particularly if what they are doing requires creativity. Study after study has found that when we’re involved in some sort of contest we end up not doing as well on most tasks as we would in the absence of competition. Indeed, cooperation arrangement, in which we work with others rather than against them or apart from them, is often the most productive of all. P49

When children start school, they may still be excited by the idea of homework, but it takes a remarkably short time before many are disillusioned. So what changed? Mostly the fact that the homework is assigned rather than chosen. It rarely occurs parents to ask ‘What role did the kids have in deciding what sort of homework they’d be doing?’… To understand the human need for autonomy and the consequences of thwarting that need is to understand why homework, at least as its typically assigned, is likely to be as unproductive for kids as it is unwelcome by them. P57-8

The assertion that homework is practice for life is a partial truth: it’s really practice for a life spent working in corporations. It’s about inculcating norms, helping to produce workers who are used to, and will not complain about the long working day. P65

Health professionals have begun raising concerns about the weight of children’s backpacks, and then recommend exercises to strengthen their backs!... The real question is ‘What is in the backback, who put it there, and why? It’s not just your kids’ back that is aching. They are also aching for some free, unstructured time to think, play to be kids. P95

Learning depends to a large degree on the interaction among children; it doesn’t lend itself to solitary efforts at the kitchen table… Math is a creative enterprise involving invention… It’s a fact that 82-37 has only one answer that makes such an approach work. Children will eventually get to the truth if they think and debate long enough because in math, absolutely nothing is arbitrary… By contrast, when students are simply told the most efficient way of getting the answer, they get into the habit of looking to the adult or the book instead of thinking things through… Stuck in the middle of a problem, they’re less likely to try to figure out what makes sense to do next and more likely to try to remember what they’re supposed to do next. Lots of practice can help some students get better remembering the correct response, but not get better at thinking. P111-2

What if we made a serious effort to imagine from the child’s point of view what homework feels like and what it actually teaches? Do all those assignments really impress upon kids the importance of responsibility, achievement, and hard work? Or do they send a message that learning has to be unpleasant, that my parents and teachers have formed an alliance against me, that I’m not trusted to decide what to do with my spare time? P117

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on the frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words. When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.” P152 Care to guess when this bon mot was uttered for the first time? 10 years ago in 1997? 30 years ago in 1977? 60 years ago 1947? 160 years ago in 1847? Not even close, try 2700 years ago! This quote is from the ancient Greek poet Hesiod. Has anything changed in all these centuries? No. Generation gaps are a fact of life. Always have been, and always will be. No go do your homework by reading the book yourself.


Dave H. said...

Since you posted about Sam Harris' book 'Letter to a Christian Nation', I thought you'd like to know that he's met his match with a new book coming out. You can find out more at:

GrayEyedScorpio said...

Good synopsis and reflection on an intriguing book.