INTERVIEW

'This view that kids are vending machines, where you put in more homework, you get out more learning, is painfully naive'

September 11 2006
INTERVIEW

'This view that kids are vending machines, where you put in more homework, you get out more learning, is painfully naive'

September 11 2006

'This view that kids are vending machines, where you put in more homework, you get out more learning, is painfully naive'

INTERVIEW

ALFIE KOHN, AUTHOR OF THE HOMEWORK MYTH, TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT HOW ALL THAT HOMEWORK IS HURTING KIDS

Q What’s wrong with homework? I think the general assumption is that it gives kids something to do in the evening instead of watching MTV. It teaches

them a work ethic, and presumably makes them smarter and prepares them for college and for success in an evermore demanding workplace.

A: Let’s start with the assumption that it teaches them a useful work ethic as opposed to teaching them to be mindless drones who follow orders uncritically, and let’s look into whether it helps them to be smarter and to think more critically. The available data flatly failed to prove those last two assumptions.

Q: That it makes them smarter and improves their marks?

A: Right. Overwhelmingly, the research shows no academic advantage to homework, particularly for younger children. In fact, for younger children there isn’t even a correlation between the amount of homework done and any measure of academic achievement.

Q: By younger children you’re talking up to high school?

A: That’s right. At the high school level there is a correlation between homework done and standardized achievement measures, but the correlation is weak. It tends to fall apart when you use more sophisticated statistical methods, and in any case it doesn’t show that homework was responsible for the increased achievement.

Q: What about the other supposed benefits of homework?

A: The idea that it teaches good study skills, or builds character, or provides other nonacademic advantages has never been demonstrated empirically. You could call it an urban myth except that it’s accepted in suburban and rural areas.

Q: But why wouldn’t a couple of hours in the evening spent reading, doing exercises in a workbook—why wouldn’t that help you as a student, make you a little smarter?

A: The assumption that it would is based on a fundamental set of misconceptions about how learning happens. When teachers talk about “reinforcing” what kids are taught in school, they’re borrowing from an outdated view of learning called behaviourism that’s more concerned about producing behaviours than about enhancing understanding. Moreover, there’s a lot of research to show that more time on a task is not necessarily associated with better proficiency at that task.

Q: So teachers have kids for six or seven hours a day, and that’s enough time to teach them what they need to know?

A: Yes. Kids who aren’t assigned homework are not put at any kind of academic disadvantage. The research is pretty clear on that. But then there’s the separate value question: is it justifiable to take kids who have just spent six or seven hours in school and force them to work a second shift, or should they have the right to get some rest, or get some exercise, hang out with friends? The

sumption that kids will be up to no good unless they have their free time structured for them represents a very dark and cynical view of kids and helps to explain why so much busy-work is given to them.

Q: If the research doesn’t support the value of homework, why is it accepted so widely?

A: One reason is because we have this view that kids are vending machines where you put in more homework and you get out more learning, which turns out to be painfully naive, and preferred by people who don’t really understand how learning takes place. Second is this cynical view of kids where we “gotta keep the young moral after school,” and so because we don’t trust children, we assume we have to force them to do stuff their every waking moment.

Q: Is it parents, mostly, who are demanding all the homework?

A Depends who you ask.

The teachers who understand the pointlessness of homework are quick to say they feel that parents— ill-informed parents—are demanding more homework, but I speak to many parents who say exactly the opposite, that they are sick of the battles over homework at home, most of it is pointless busy-work, and they want the family time, but the teachers and administrators wave them away. Q: I’ll play devil’s advocate again. If a father

or mother sits down with a child and they do a homework project together, that’s family time,

isn’t it? And better family time than, say, a trip to the mall?

A: You’re drawing a false dichotomy by suggesting that without doing math problems together parents would be wasting their time with their kids. There’s a value issue here. Who should decide what families do together: the families themselves or the schools? Number two, I hear lots of stories of families who in fact spend wonderful times together learning, and learning about each other, and feeling connected when they watch a TV program together, or cook together, or play catch, or simply talk. Third, much of the homework doesn’t enhance understanding, so having a parent and kid go over 50 math problems that fail to help kids understand mathematical principles is not family togetherness in the best sense of that term.

QIs there empirical evidence that not doing homework makes them happier or leads to closer families or promotes other social or personal benefits?

A: I’m not sure how you prove the negative here—that the absence of homework helps. It may be sufficient to point to the enormous anecdotal evidence of nagging and conflict, of frustration and exhaustion. Most parents understand the downside of homework. What they need a study for is to show them that the benefits are an illusion.

Q: Can you give me an example of what might be considered good or useful homework?

A: Well, the good stuff would be, first, chosen by the students so that the kids have some role in a democratic classroom community of deciding what is so vital that it ought to spill over to the after-school hours. Second, it might simply involve free-choice reading rather than writing those godawful book reports that could destroy anyone’s love of books. Third, it might take the form of activities that logically ought to be done at home, like replicating a science experiment in one’s own kitchen, or interviewing one’s parents about family history, rather than the kind of stuff that could be and should be done at school. I guess my overall point is not, let’s get rid of homework altogether, but that we should change the default state. Right now, the default is to make kids do school work at home almost every day, regardless of whether it’s necessary. If the burden of proof, so to speak, was on educators to say that a given assignment is so useful that we’re going to presume to interrupt family time to ask you to do it, that’s a very different situation.

Q: When we’re giving kids a lot of homework, we think we are preparing them for a more competitive world, and to hear you say

that we’re actually turning them into mindless drones who are going to grow up not to like learning is alarming.

A: As well it should be. One of the other explanations I give for homework’s pervasiveness is a phenomenon I call BGUTI, which stands for Better Get Used To It. Even though there is no demonstrable value of doing this busy-work, people in the future will give you busy-work too, so you’d better start doing it now. It’s remarkable how an absurd view like that drives so much of our educational system, and sometimes our approach to parenting. The idea that the point of school is not to help kids become deep thinkers who love to learn but rather to take standardized tests better than their counterparts in other countries represents a warped set of priorities if I’ve ever seen one.

Q: But for a lot of years in Canada and in the U.S. we’ve had educational systems that did not seem to be accountable, where achievement wasn’t—or didn’t seem to be—measurable, and while standardized tests are imperfect they are at least one measure. Aren’t standardized test scores one of the drivers of homework?

A: Well, point one is that more homework doesn’t even raise standardized test scores. Nor does subjecting kids to lots of standardized tests. Finland tends to place near the top of those international measures, and they give virtually no standardized tests of the sort that Ontario and Alberta and now B.C. are pushing to make kids do. Politicians and corporate executives have sold us a bill of goods by convincing us that turning schools into test prep centres is the best way to hold schools accountable. In fact, those tests tend to measure what matters least, so we undermine the quality of instruction in a desperate attempt to produce higher tests scores.

Q: For those school board members and parents and politicians who want some sort of measure of academic success and achievement, what alternative is there?

A The most important aspects of learning can’t be reduced to numbers. If you want to know whether a school is terrific, you look to how many kids not only can read but do read, how many kids come home chattering excitedly about stuff they figured out that day, how many students continue to argue animatedly about something in class after class is over. But there are ways for folks who want something more routine or quantified to judge the quality of schools. For example, the best schools do not grade students, rather they assess the quality of their learning by having them exhibit in careful ways what they’ve learned and what they’re able to do with what they’ve learned. They

also collect portfolios of their own assignments that reveal the kids’ growing understanding. When you sample a few of those portfolios in a given school, you get a crosssection of what’s going on in the classrooms that allows you to make inferences about the quality of the instruction.

Q: That’s all well and good, but everybody’s got kids that they want to go to university, and universities have entrance requirements that are based on grades and scores.

A: That’s a different challenge. First of all, no standardized test and no grade would ever be necessary before Grade 9 if that was the primary concern, because no university admissions office could care less what kids are doing before high school. Second, within high school, there are universities in Canada and the United States who accept students

`Parents are sick of the battles over homework, most of it pointless. They want the family time.’

who have no grades because of the kind of school that they went to, or in some cases were home-schooled, and those universities have a richer sense of the applicant by looking at interviews and essays, and an annotated transcript demonstrating what the kids are capable of doing.

Q: You’ve got this wonderful quote in the book from an independent school in Colorado —the director of it, I guess—who says that 6 Vá hours a day in school is enough, kids and families need the rest of the days for living and playing. How did we ever lose our on this one?

A: Part of it has to do with the extent to which we are too polite, or too fearful to question the conventional wisdom. We allow folks up on Mount Olympus, far from the real world of classrooms and kitchen tables, to pontificate about tougher standards and raising the bar, compelling us to do what really doesn’t make sense at all to our children. So really this is not just a question of learning what the research says about homework, but of being willing to speak out, to take a stand against what is nonsensical at best and damaging to our children at worst.

The trends are all going against you, it seems. Over the last 10,15 years, kids are getting a lot more homework, not less.

A: More and more homework is being required of younger and younger children as the tougher-standards fad trickles down. This is part of the horrific tendency to remake schools in the image of factories, where kindergarten now comes to resemble the worst first grade classrooms, where the only question that matters is how will this raise the test scores and make the adults look better. But there is a countermovement. I’ve travelled all across North America and I’ve heard heartening stories of a principal in Alberta who actively encourages the parents to boycott the tests, of parents in and around Toronto who are making their voices heard and who are now at least crawling out of the hole that the Tories dug in Ontario for the worst form of American instruction. In the U.S., we have gone farther down this bleak and barren road and thus have a longer distance to traverse in moving back toward common sense. But we can do it.

Q: What are the effects on young kids—especially elementary school kids—of a lot of homework? Does it actively hurt them?

A: It’s not great—in many cases—for their emotional well-being, but what troubles me is the apparent effect on their love of learning. If homework was merely pointless, I could understand why some parents would swallow hard and let it go, but in many cases what we’re seeing are kids who are turned off to reading, to figuring out math problems, to discovering truths about the natural world. Their inborn curiosity is evaporating in the face of backpacks laden with pointless assignments. And that’s where I think parents have to take action, because I think in general homework isn’t merely failing to help, it’s actively hurting kids’ disposition to learn.

Q: If one believes that kids shoidd have time just to play and develop, we just don’t give them any opportunity to do it at all, or very much.

A: I think part of the reason for that comes from an unhealthy push for conventional

success on the part of parents, trying to create little resumés on legs. But I think also this reflects that same distrust of children that I spoke of earlier: they couldn’t possibly do anything constructive if left to their own devices, and God knows what kind of mischief they’d get into if we didn’t tell them that they had a piano lesson at 4:30. Homework has become part of the modern cod-liver oil that we think is going to make them shape up. These are dark views of children—and by extension human nature—that say we have to control their time for them, otherwise only bad things will result. I think it behooves us to at least put those assumptions on the table where we can examine them and see whether they are accurate and productive.

Q: If you’re a parent and you believe your child’s getting too much homework and that the time could be better used, what do you do about it? How do you speak to your teacher, principal or school board trustee?

A: Ideally, you don’t walk in there alone, you start talking to other parents, and you begin to understand that you’re not alone in your concerns about homework. The schools will pay more attention to five parents who come in and say this homework garbage has got to stop. I think all parents have to educate themselves so that they know what the research really says, namely that there’s no evidence of any academic benefit from homework in elementary school, and no support for the assumption that homework promotes good work habits or self-discipline. Parents have to start asking the questions that matter. This drives me nuts, that parents confine themselves to asking piddly questions about whether kids are allowed to use the Internet for a certain assignment, or when it’s due, instead of asking questions like, “What reason is there to think that this assignment is worth doing, what evidence exists to show that traditional homework is necessary for children to become better thinkers?”

Q: Yeah, but if I start asking those questions every time my children see an assignment they don’t like, are they going to ask the same question, “What possible good could this do?”

AI hope so. What worries me far more than a kid who asks inconvenient and impolitic questions is one who grows up thinking that his or her job in life is to mindlessly obey rules, even if they’re not reasonable, and simply to do what one is told.

Q: But as a parent you’re always looking to make things easier for yourself, aren’t you? And having them do homework without question every night does make things a lot easier.

A: You bet it does. Putting yourself on autoparent and avoiding conflict whenever pos-

sible is a lot easier, but does it help kids to grow up into the kind of people we hope they’ll be—independent thinkers who are compassionate, responsible, happy, ethical, and so on? That takes more time and talent on the part of parents as well as teachers. If we want kids to be citizens in a democratic society as well as thinkers, then we’re going to have to encourage them to challenge the stuff that should be challenged, and to be outraged by the outrageous.

Q: If a parent looks at the homework and thinks that it’s not what their child should be wasting his time on and he stops doing it, his marks are going to fall, and you’re going to end up with bigger problems, aren’t you?

A: I wouldn’t start with mere non-compliance, I would begin by inviting the educators to look at the research, perhaps sending them

‘The idea that homework teaches good study skills or builds character has never been demonstrated’

articles, asking respectful but pointed questions. I would have parents start to speak up in public forums, write letters to the editor, ask questions of the principal. And then, if none of this works, some parents will say that as a last resort their final responsibility is to their children, and if their children are losing interest in learning, are weeping, are coming to dread the evenings at home, then parents have to do what’s best for their kids, and lower marks is in the long run perhaps not too steep a price to pay for getting back curiosity and emotional health. M