The homework myth?

This past school year, I cut back on the amount of homework that I was assigning to accommodate some students who were taking more time to do the homework than I anticipated. At the end of the year, I was also realized just how little free time students have at home, given homework, sports, and arts activities. This coming year, I’d like to respect my students’ time outside of school and only make demands on it that are reasonable and educationally sound.  Therefore, I read Alfie Kohn’s The Homework Myth. While the tone of this book is very anti-homework (with often frustrating rhetoric), I began reading the book from a pro-homework stance.

These are the ideas that I have taken away from Kohn’s book, or at least his major arguments:

  • Opinions about assigning homework and the benefits of it are rarely critically examined.
  • Homework causes stress for students, causes stress for parents who are put in the roles of enforcers or confused aides, strains family relationships, results in less time for other activities, and diminishes students’ interest in learning (partly because it is often extrinsically motivated).
  • Studies about the effectiveness of homework for academic learning are faulty due to how the effectiveness is assessed: student grades and/or standardized tests. The benefits of homework are minimal or less significant according to studies examining multiple variables and their effects on grades and test scores. All studies suggest that homework does not help (and often is harmful) in elementary school. Some studies suggest that standardized test scores are higher if a student spends 15-45min on homework/night, but gains disappear or negative effects appear after 60min of homework. These relationships are often associations, not correlations.
  • Studies show that homework does help students perform better on unit tests that are similar to the homework. Kohn seems to treat this finding with skepticism–a subjective teacher creates both, and assignments of memorizing facts (which he sees of questionable value) will certainly help students regurgitate facts (which tests he also doubts). I, however, find this finding more promising, assuming the homework is well designed and a test provides a fair assessment of a students’ abilities related to the learning objectives and goals of the course (e.g. reading Latin).
  • In its most common form, homework often teaches students grit and how to persevere, alone, through undesirable tasks. If we want to teach students how to be emotionally healthy, curious lifelong learners who are responsible members of a democratic society (as Kohn says are common goals of American education), students should be intrinsically motivated, work in a collaborative environment, and have real responsibility for their education. This responsibility would involve some element of choice about homework: its content, how long it takes, etc.
  • Assigning less homework often is accompanied by an increase in students’ intrinsic desire to learn.
  • Assigning less homework also requires teachers to more thoughtfully and carefully craft effective lesson plans that provide students with practice in class.
  • Homework is often justified as being extra practice for students–though it may just lead to more confusion or practice of the wrong methods. This idea, characteristic of a behaviorist approach to learning, assumes that students have learned “the proper methods,” that they practice using “the proper method,” that there is a “proper method,” and/or that there are things that need to be memorized. Instead, Kohn argues that students should be guided in constructing meaning out of the activities that they are doing and in integrating that meaning with their prior knowledge. This guidance is often better done in class, Kohn argues.

Kohn provides some ideas for how to improve the homework situation, but I think they tend to work better for lower grade levels. They are:

  • Make the default policy to assign no homework, or very little homework.
  • Assign as little homework as possible. This can be done incrementally or even temporarily.
  • Make sure the homework that is assigned is high quality. He suggests that teachers design the assignments more than take the assignments from textbooks.
  • Make homework activities well-suited to home, like interviewing parents or replicating experiments.
  • Make homework activities family activities.
  • Have students read, but don’t tell them how much or how long to read.
  • Give students a choice in the homework they do at home.
  • Design assignments so that they are as meaningful as possible. Kohn’s hobby-horse is to attack worksheets and assignments that are pure memorization of facts.
  • Do not make homework “one size fits all.” Differentiate assignments for your students and offer them choice.
  • Stop grading because it provides an extrinsic motivator and assumes developing skills are learned already. Checking for completion is better, but it is still an extrinsic motivator for compliance.
  • Address inequities by making sure that all students have the opportunity and resources to complete all assignments that are assigned.
  • Fight to eliminate homework policies and requirements.
  • Convince parents about the limited value of homework.

While I hesitate to fully join Kohn’s crusade against homework, the book does make me more hesitant about homework. My experience reading the book has also encouraged me to make sure that my homework assignments are as meaningful as possible. Here are some of my current thoughts about how I might restructure my homework assignments for some or part of the school year:

  • Flip the classroom when possible.
  • Offer students a “menu” of homework options for a unit. They get so many points for studying vocabulary, so many points for declining nouns, so many points for reviewing past items, so many points for translating more sentences, etc. Some of them could be repeated. In order to get a certain grade for the unit, they need to earn a certain number of points. This idea is encouraged by Weimar in her book Learner-centered Teaching.
  • This past year, I was frustrated by the number of students who were not memorizing their forms or vocabulary. Due to how I had structured my assignments, this was extra work on top of what they were already doing for me. That no longer seems fair. Since the memorization of vocabulary and morphology are so crucial to understanding Latin, this is not busy-work but a crucial knowledge that students need in order to read Latin. I plan to make many more assignments focused on memorizing vocabulary, conjugating verbs, and declining nouns. I will also design activities around making sure students see the value in what may initially seem to them as drudgery.
  • I was also frustrated in class when we reviewed the translation of homework. Additionally, students also seemed frustrated or to feel insecure. Not only were they doing the hard work and struggling more at home than in class, but I also probably seemed to hope they already knew how to translate sentences. This skill of translation is what I heard that they felt least secure about. Therefore, we should practice translating more sentences in class, collaboratively before alone.

To put these ideas together, a sample unit about purpose clauses may start like this:

  • Before Day 1: Student read about purpose clauses in a textbook.
  • Day 1: I introduce present subjunctive forms. We discuss the reading: what purposes clauses are, how to recognize them in Latin, and how to translate them.
  • Homework due on Day 2: Correctly conjugate the present subjunctive forms of all verbs in the vocabulary list.
  • Day 2: Warm-up by conjugating present subjunctive verbs [This checks to make sure they did the homework, but no grade or mark of completion will enter the gradebook for it]. Students explain purposes clauses to me: what they are, how to recognize them in Latin, and how to translate them. Students practice translating purpose clauses in groups.
  • Homework due on Day 3: None or maybe a vocabulary exercise.
  • Day 3: Warm-up by conjugating present subjunctive verbs and reviewing purpose clauses. Students practice translating purpose clauses in groups. Students practice translating purpose clauses alone.
  • Homework due on Day 4: None, but students know a quiz is on Day 4.
  • Day 4: Quiz on present subjunctive forms or vocabulary. Continue practicing purpose clauses. Mini-cultural discussion.



One thought on “The homework myth?

  1. Interesting approach and ideas. But, there may have to be some standardization so as to achieve a core competency in all the pupils.

    “If we want to teach students how to be emotionally healthy, curious lifelong learners who are responsible members of a democratic society (as Kohn says are common goals of American education), . . . ”

    It seems then that there is a conflict between the “common goals of American education” and the present system of public education in actual practice in the US. One would think that developing the critical thinking skills of the pupils would be a goal of education. Sadly, today, that worthy goal has been replaced by the indoctrination in the currently predominant paradigm of political correctness (where dissenting views are not tolerated).


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