Defying Conventional Views of Homework

By Alfie Kohn, Independent School, Winter 2007

[Michael’s Note: I admire those in education who have the courage to go against the grain, regardless of whether I concur. Alfie Kohn is such a thinker. This is one of his classics. For more, see: The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. ]

The difference between a good educator and a great educator is that the former figures out how to work within the constraints of traditional policies and accepted assumptions, whereas the latter figures out how to change whatever gets in the way of doing right by kids…. If research and common sense argue for doing things differently, then the question isn’t whether to change course but how to make it happen….

Lately I’ve been thinking about…the fact that, after spending most of the day in school, students are typically given additional assignments to be completed at home…. [This] becomes even more curious in light of three other facts:

1. The negative effects of homework are well known. They include children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities, and possible loss of interest in learning. Many parents…lament the impact of homework on their relationship with [their children]; they may also resent having to play the role of enforcer and worry that they will be criticized either for not being involved enough…or for becoming too involved.

2. The positive effects of homework are largely mythical. The relevant research…[is] nothing short of stunning. For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework to children under the age of about 14. For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement. At the upper school level, there is a correlation, but it’s weak…. More important, there’s no reason to think that higher achievement was due to the homework even when the two are associated. Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits….

3. More homework is being piled on children despite the absence of its value.

Even if you wanted to argue that certain assignments might make sense for certain kids at certain times, there is absolutely no evidence to support the idea that homework, per se, is beneficial and therefore that there should be a policy of assigning it all the time….

Parents…wish they could help teachers understand how [homework] erodes their children’s love of learning and cuts into family time. Conversely, teachers who have long harbored doubts about the value of homework feel pressured by parents who mistakenly believe that a lack of after-school assignments reflects an insufficient commitment to academic excellence….

The most important criterion for judging decisions about homework…is the impact they’re likely to have on students’ attitudes about what they’re doing…. Let’s face it: Most children dread homework, or at best see it as something to be gotten through. In light of that understandable reaction, doing the homework is unlikely to provide academic benefits. After all, children are not vending machines such that we put in more homework and get out more learning….

Here, then, is what I would suggest:

1. Educate yourself. Make sure you know what the research really says — that there is no reason to believe that children would be at any disadvantage in terms of their academic learning or life skills if they had much less homework, or even none at all.

2. Rethink standardized “homework policies.”  Requiring teachers to give a certain number of minutes of homework every day, or to make assignments on the same schedule every week…is a frank admission that the homework isn’t a carefully considered response to what’s going on with the curriculum at a specific time….

3. Reduce the amount – but don’t stop there….  At a minimum, make sure you’re not chronically underestimating how long it takes students to complete assignments. (As one mother told me, “It’s cheating to say this is 20 minutes of homework if only your fastest kid can complete it in that time.”) Then work on reducing the amount of homework irrespective of such guidelines and expectations…. After all, why should students be required to work what amounts to a second shift after a full day of academics? Quantity, however, is not the only issue…. The question that matters is whether any given example of homework will help students think deeply about questions that matter….

4. Change the default….  The bottom line: No homework except on those occasions when it’s truly necessary.

5. Ask the kids…. Do students find that homework really is useful? Why or why not? Are certain kinds better than others? How does homework affect their desire to learn? What are its other effects on their lives [and] families?

6. Assign only what you design… [not] prefabricated worksheets or generic exercises photocopied from textbooks. Also, it rarely makes sense to give the same assignment to all students in a class because it’s unlikely to be beneficial for most of them…. On those days when homework really seems necessary, teachers should create several assignments fitted to different interests and capabilities. But it’s better to give no homework to anyone than the same homework to everyone.

7. Use homework as an opportunity to involve students in decision-making…. A reasonable first question for a parent to ask upon seeing a homework assignment is “How much say did the kids have in determining how this had to be done, on what schedule, and whether it really needed to be completed at home in the first place?”… The benefits of even high-quality assignments are limited if students feel “done to” instead of “worked with.”

8. Stop grading…. Abandon a model in which assignments are checked off or graded, where the point is to enforce compliance, and move toward a model in which students explain and explore with one another what they’ve done — what they liked and disliked about the book they read, what they’re struggling with, what new questions they came up with. As the eminent educator Martin Haberman observed, homework in the best classrooms “is not checked — it is shared.”

9. Experiment. Even educators who are reluctant to rethink their long-standing reliance on traditional homework should be invited to see what happens if, during a given week or unit, they tried assigning none. Surely anyone who believes that homework is beneficial should be willing to test that assumption by investigating the consequences of its absence….

If we’re serious about raising “well-rounded” kids, we would have to think twice about defining learning in narrowly academic terms — and filling up students’ after-school hours with assignments skewed toward academics rather than those that promote their artistic, social, or physical development. And even if kids just goofed off at least some of the time, is that really so objectionable?… Why shouldn’t they be able to chill out…after spending six or seven hours of school — and just be kids?

Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on education, human behavior, and parenting. (

See also in ClassWise:

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