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THE HOMEWORK MYTH: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing by Alfie Kohn

I just finished reading this book and despite the fact that is a heavy, in depth book (43 pages of end notes should give you the idea) I couldn’t put it down. It just blew all of my preconceived ideas about homework out of the water and made me really re-evaluate the purpose of what this whole thing called “school” really is.

To be honest, I never was much of a fan of homework because I remember all too clearly how stressful and time-consuming it was for me when I was in school and how so much of my self-esteem was based on getting the right grade and the subsequent praise and attention that went along with it. My parents never pushed us to get good grades, I always pushed myself, because it seemed to be the clearest route towards external praise (usually from the teacher). In fact, when I think about school now, all I think is, Thank God I Don’t Have To Do Homework!!!

So now that I have my own children, I’ve been thinking a lot about homework and I was so happy to find out that my daughter’s teacher doesn’t assign homework, except for doing 30 minutes of reading of your choice. And that is nothing compared to other friends of mine whose children get one and a half hours of homework. In Grade One. Grade One! But as I’ve discovered over this last year, even finding 30 minutes after school to do something focused like that is next to impossible. This whole year I keep thinking to myself, There’s just not enough time.

MISSING OUT ON THEIR CHILDHOODS

These are some of the negative impacts that homework creates:

  • A burden on families

Parents often take on the pressures of making sure their child completes the homework, otherwise they often feel that it will reflect negatively on them as a parent and create trouble for their child at school. Schools dictate how family’s should spend their time and the results usually create overwhelming family conflict during the brief moments that family’s share together – trying to force children to do something that they don’t want to do, often times resorting to bribes, money, consequences or grounding, which create even greater family conflict.

  • Stress on the child

Homework trains children to become workaholics.

“What other job is there where you work all day, come home, have dinner, then work all night, unless you’re some type A attorney? It’s not a good way to live one’s life. You miss out on self-reflection and community.” p.189

Future corporations are the only ones who benefit from homework in the long run because they help produce “workers who are used to, and will not complain about, the long days.” p.65

Do you want your child to be a workaholic? Or do you want your child to live a balanced, healthy life where they are happy, honest, caring, ethical, sensitive, passionate, socially responsible, appreciative and life long learners? What are your long term objectives for your child?

  • Less time for other activities

Children’s backpacks are so weighted down with books that they get back aches. “They are also aching for some free, unstructured time to think, to play, to be kids.” p.95

School also teaches a very narrow range of subjects, so if your strength and interest is dancing, swimming, music, bike riding, astronomy, spirituality, meditation, yoga, or any number of the wide range of things that are generally not taught in school, you probably will not have any time or energy left at the end of the school day and after doing homework to pursue these things.

  • Less interest in learning

“As students, we’re trained to sit still, listen to what the teacher says, run our highlighters across whatever words in the book we’ll be required to commit to memory. Pretty soon we become less likely to ask (or even wonder) whether what we’re being taught really makes sense. We just want to know whether it will be on the test.” p.88

  • Lost sleep

Recently we hired a really sweet 15-year-old to babysit for us. We chatted with her about her school and life and she said that most nights she is up until midnight or 1am doing homework.

On another note (not from this book) research has shown that teenagers go through such rapid brain and body development that they need as much sleep as a newborn baby.

DOES HOMEWORK IMPROVE LEARNING?

Would you believe it if you knew that every single academic study that has been conducted about homework actually shows that homework not only is NOT beneficial, but actually has negative effects? Alfie Kohn did an extensive review (43 pages of end notes) of all of the studies on homework that have been done and illustrates that no studies prove the benefits of homework.

Homework is the most harmful for elementary students, but even in high schools students academic scores raised 20-30% once homework was NO longer given. All of the research shows that homework is associated with lower achievements. Ironic, right? We’re all lead to believe the opposite.

DOES HOMEWORK PROVIDE NON-ACADEMIC BENEFITS?

Even I can admit to the fact that while I didn’t like homework, I was ingrained to believe that homework was the place where you learn study skills and things like independence, self-discipline and responsibility. Alfie Kohn does a wonderful job of demonstrating how none of that is true.

Responsibility, defined as making decision’s on one’s own, cannot be learned from homework where the only decision that you can make is either thoughtless conformity to the school’s rules or else punishment.

Self-Discipline does not mean primarily learning that life is tough and that one must generally  do what one is told. It means learning to manage freedom…[by having] gradually expanding opportunities…[to] be responsible for free time.” John Buell  p.64

Study Skills. “Few of us today believe that tossing kids into the deep end of a pool teaches them how to swim. Why, then, do we believe that giving children a set of tasks to do in a limited amount of time somehow provides them with the wherewithal to accomplish this?”

Independence. Parents are discouraged from becoming too involved in homework, setting up a situation where students are judged at how well they can do things alone. If they didn’t need help, then they don’t need the extra practice of homework. And if they do need the practice, then they also need the extra help.

WHY DOES HOMEWORK PERSIST?

  • A disregard for research findings.

A lot of research is flawed and we all know statistics and numbers can be swayed in any direction; however, when the truth shines forth in an area of research, it frequently gets ignored. Take research on spelling, for example. Even as far back as 1897, a study found that assigning spelling homework had no effect on how proficient children were at spelling later on.

  • A reluctance to ask challenging questions about common practices and institutions

Most of us have a passive belief when confronted with things we don’t like that, “That’s just the way it is,” rather than examine them critically and change the things that are not right. Granted, there are many things in life that we can not change as the 12 Steps mantra says:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

  • Fundamental misconceptions about the nature of learning

“George Leonard once defined lecturing as the best way to get information from teacher’s notebook to student’s notebook without touching the student’s mind.” p.114

“Excellence tends to follow interest.” p.116

“Excitement about an activity is the best predictor of competence.” p.116

We assume the hardest must mean the best, but we confuse rigor with quality.

  • An emphasis on competitiveness and “tougher standards” in education

Competition holds people back from doing their best work, particularly if what they’re doing requires creativity. We’ve been place into a competition in school, not only against each other, but also against the whole world. We want to be King of the Mountain and we believe that homework will somehow make us come out on top.

“The pathological impulse to create artificial scarcity and turn learning (along with just about everything else) into a contest is at the heart of the tougher standards movement. That movement, in turn, helps to explain the assignment of homework in ever-greater quantities. If our primary objective was not winning but learning – helping kids to become deep thinkers who love exploring ideas – then education policy would play out very differently, and it might be possible to question the value of things like homework. But people  are not likely to question premises or think carefully when they’re in the middle  of a race. The prospects for critical thought are particularly bleak if we’re told the race never ends.” p.138

  • The belief that any practices students will encounter later, however unproductive, should be introduced earlier by way of preparation.

“People don’t really get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. In fact, it is experiences with success and unconditional acceptance that helps one to deal constructively with later deprivation. Imposing competition or standardized tests or homework on children just because other people will do the same to them when they’re older is about as sensible as saying that, because there are lots of carcinogens in the environment, we should feed kids as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they’re still small in order to get them ready.” p.146

“Life isn’t always interesting and kids had better learn to deal with that fact. The implication of this response seems to be that the goal of education is not to nourish children’s excitement about learning but to get them acclimated to doing mind-numbing, if not downright unpleasant, chores.” p.64

  • A basic distrust of children and how they choose to spend their time.

Mandatory homework assumes that children are naturally lazy and will do as little as possible. However, boredom is, “a state where the imagination is forced to take over and create entertainment.” p.157

WHAT DO I DO NOW?

Alfie Kohn suggests trying to make a change in schools so that the default setting, instead of always assigning homework, is to not assign homework unless it is free reading (choose your own book), or quality assignments that are suited to the home and that the child can choose.

When I was getting my Bachelor of Education, training to become a high school teacher, we never once examined the real purpose of homework. Instead, while preparing our lesson plans we were always taught to: “make sure you have prepared what homework you will give them at the end of the class.” So the default setting is always to give homework.

 

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