Skylar Burris's Reviews > The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing

The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn
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Nov 05, 09

bookshelves: sociology, education
Read in November, 2009

I’m always a little bit nervous when I’m the first one to give a book less than three stars. While much better written than The Case Against Homework, The Homework Myth, for me, reeked to an even higher heaven. It’s not that I’m a huge fan of homework (I’d guess 60% of the homework I received in childhood was unnecessary), it’s just that I’m an even LESS huge fan of run-free-in-the-wild, child-knows-best, Rosseauian educational fantasies, which is what ultimately seems to underlie this book.

As I read, I got the impression that the author believes that just about everything about traditional education is awful. We shouldn’t learn anything by rote, not even our times tables. (It’s not as if instant, rapid recall of multiplication tables will ever come in handy. If we ever need a quick answer to 7X7, we can just take five to ten minutes to conceptualize it.) Competition is bad. It makes people perform worse, not better. We should just do collaborative work. (Because it’s not like I’m ever going to have to tie my shoes by myself.) All standardize tests are useless, and “no informed educator” would ever think they are in any way a measure of learning. (I guess that’s why almost all universities use them as part of the admissions process.) What we really need is to nurture creativity and love of learning and critical thinking. (Okay, now that I can agree with! But how exactly do teachers know that kids have actually learned anything if they don’t ever…you know… prove it through, for instance, homework or tests or quizzes or non-group-written papers? And what are they going to think critically ABOUT if they are never exposed to anything so horrifyingly stifling as specific content and curriculum?) He thinks honor rolls, like homework, are cruel, and who needs objective standards? That just weighs the kids down, man. Kids maybe should, he admits, be required to read at home, but they should absolutely never be told what to read or given a minimum number of pages to read or be required to prove, in any way, that they have actually read. Oh, I almost forgot: we should also get rid of AP classes.

Perhaps I’m exaggerating his position, but I found myself recoiling from the hints he sprinkled throughout the book that busywork is not the only thing he’s seeking to abolish. But, for the moment, let’s pretend this is really just a book about abolishing homework and not about abolishing school itself. Does he make a convincing case?

Kohn explains why all of the studies normally used to support a positive correlation between homework and academic performance really can’t properly be used to support the idea that homework increases learning. Yes, homework is shown to have a positive correlation with grades and test scores, but, as we all know, those have NOTHING to do with LEARNING. And besides, even that positive correlation is small. So, since there’s not much evidence that homework improves learning, it must HURT learning, or, if it doesn’t hurt learning, then it must hurt something else – family life, creativity, the psychological well being of our cherubs.

The problem is, Kohn doesn’t offer any statistical data or detailed studies that actually prove that homework hurts. (The evidence he offers falls prey to the same criticisms he makes of the evidence used in support of homework.) So, ultimately, his arguments are no stronger than the ones he knocks down. He seems to take the absence of scientifically verifiable evidence in favor of the virtues of homework combined with anecdotal complaints as proof that homework is bad. You might as well take the absence of scientifically verifiable evidence in favor of the vices of homework combined with anecdotal praises as proof that homework is good.

From reading these two homework books, it seems to me the data is highly inconclusive and supports neither a pro- nor an anti-homework position. I think there are good arguments to be made both for and against homework, which I summarize in my article on the anti-homework revolution.What keeps me from joining the “Down with homework!” chant, I will admit, is probably nothing more than the woe-is-me, my-poor-baby, my-children-are-entitled-to-better, traditional-educators-are-so-backwards tone of these two books. Like The Case Against Homework, The Homework Myth smacks of frequent and suspicious whining. Take this: homework assignments “sometimes carry directions that are difficult for two parents with only” (yes, ONLY) “advanced graduate degrees to understand.” Huh? You have a master’s or a doctorate and you can’t understand the homework directions on your 6th grader’s assignment? Someone explain this difficulty to me with an actual example.

Both of these homework books seem to suggest that homework damages the fragile psyches of children and overtaxes them and their families beyond ordinary endurance. The solution, of course, is to get rid of homework altogether. But the anecdotal woes these books record seem to me to be either highly exaggerated or hardly new (i.e. my generation had the same issues with homework and somehow got through it all largely unscathed).

Many of the things these authors bemoan that children miss out on because of homework they actually do get to do from time to time in school itself, including playing games, drawing, singing, free reading, even watching videos, and, most especially—socializing. The idea that kids don’t get to socialize with their friends because of homework…what do you think they are doing on the way to school, before school starts, between classes, during classes, on the playground, and at lunch time? A 6.5 hour day of school is by no means a 6.5 hour day of ceaseless, unending study and drill. Time isn’t just whiled away with “teaching to the test.” It’s also consumed by the kind of “collaborative projects” Kohn favors and with the latest educational fads (an example from my own motherly experience: having kids write sentences the way they “think they sound” before actually teaching them phonetics or reading, and then not bothering to tell them they’ve just written absolute gibberish). Additionally, neither of these books that bemoan the end of childhood brought by the bludgeon of homework seem to make any note of the fact that there are at least 165 days a year that kids aren’t in school AT ALL.

I’m not a major proponent of homework. (Some assignments are useful and some are not. In my experience, projects in general, and especially group projects, tend toward the asinine. Practice drilling with math problems, writing sentences in foreign language, writing papers, and reading books, however, are very useful for maintaining and honing one’s skills.) But I don’t see the point of attacking homework as the source of any major modern ill, educational, psychological, or sociological, instead of attacking the REAL roots of such problems. Homework may be an annoyance, but it isn’t an evil that, if eradicated, will make our kids smarter, healthier, happier, internationally competitive, creative, and more in love with learning. It will, however, give me, as a parent, more time to post witty status updates on Facebook, and my children more time to watch Sponge Bob Square Pants. And that’s worth fighting for.
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Reading Progress

11/05/2009 page 90
35.16% "Hmmm...more "academic" than the other book, but not much more persuasive. Really anti-traditional education and not just anti-homework."

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by rivka (new)

rivka Excellent review!

Skylar Burris Yes. I think I left a review of it. I liked it. Not scientific or anything, but it validated the feelings/ideas I was already having. LOL.

message 3: by rivka (new)

rivka Abigail wrote: "In this, as in so many other issues, it feels as if the very concept of balance has been lost! Isn't it possible that in some limited circumstances, too much homework is given, and in others, not enough?"


message 4: by Skylar (last edited Nov 13, 2009 04:39AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Skylar Burris "In this, as in so many other issues, it feels as if the very concept of balance has been lost! Isn't it possible that in some limited circumstances, too much homework is given, and in others, not enough?"

Exactly! Especially in the U.S., where education is still largely a local issue, and methods and curriculum can vary widely from state to state (and even from classroom to classroom).

Chandra, I don't think Free Range Kids, as much as these two books, made a single issue the source of all modern childhood woes. It wasn't so much "not letting your kids be free range causes stupidity, irresponsibility, obesity, lack of discipline, drug addiction, ADHD, etc..." as it was, "Really, it's okay to let your kids be free range. It doesn't make you a horrible parent. Hey, it might even be good for them!" But there was a little bit of that going on in the book - a little bit of saying that this or that problem might be alleviated if you didn't lock your kids up in the house all day; just not to the degree I feel I saw in The Case Against Homework (the other homework book). I slammed this one here, the Homework Myth, more becuase he's pretty extreme in his views about education as a whole.

Skylar Burris All these parenting books to some degree, though, judge other parents who parent differently for not doing it the right way, i.e. "my way." So I am with great interest reading "The Nurture Assumption" now, which argues that it doesn't really much matter what way you do it. You are less powerful than you think you are...If true, there's good and bad to that. Review forthcoming in about a week!

I think I liked Free Range Kids so much only because of the validation aspect, though, if I'm honest - I like to give my kids more freedom and allow them to take more risks than most parents are comfortable with, and yet they are still far fewer than the risks I (and all my friends) were routinely allowed to take as a kid, so I don't get why people sometimes look at me like I'm crazy to be allowing this or that...I wonder if I went back and read it with a more critical eye if I'd like it as much. It was pretty funny though too.

message 6: by Amy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amy This review seems misleading to me. There are no "run-free-in-the-wild, child-knows-best, Rosseauian educational fantasies" in the book. On the contrary, he is proposing that schools follow techniques that are supported by research.

Skylar Burris He does not introduce much research to support the benefits of abolishing most of the components of traditional schooling in this particular book, though I understand he has written many other works and may present that research in those titles. I would have to read them to critique them individually. The brief smatterings of ideas he places here certainly came off to me as child-knows-best educational fantasy in this particular book. This book itself does not offer the actual data regarding even its main topic of focus (which is not the host of anti-traditionalist theories he hints at, but specifically homework) and instead offers only his interpretations of studies that were largely inconclusive, so I admit that I would not expect his other writings and research supporting those anti-traditionalist techniques to be overly convincing. From this book, it would seem his "techniques" include the abolition of all grading, all academic competition, all homework, all Advance Placement courses, all specifically content-based curriculum, all objective standards, all rewards, and all punishments. I don't think any research has ever supported such an education scheme because no such education scheme has ever been carried out on large enough a scale for large enough a time to be studied. It seems he is against almost everything, so I'm not exactly sure what he's FOR, unless it is child-knows-best dance in the halls and roam free from the shackles of all things traditional in the world of education.

message 8: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Vegan Wow, Skylar. When you put it like that (in your last message) it comes across even more clear than in your review proper. Sounds nuts to me.

message 9: by Amy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Amy The point of the book is to debunk the myth of homework, not outline an alternative. Further, he does point to some promising alternatives that are being implemented successfully in schools in Chapter 11, "Making Change," which starts on page 183.

Skylar Burris Yes, that is the primary point of the book. That's why he doesn't develop arguments about the other things he mentions in the book. I think he makes some good points about the "myth of homework," but I think he goes too far in considering all homework to be either useless or damaging, and I don't think the studies support such an extreme position.

message 11: by Ben (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Kavanaugh I think you misrepresent his viewpoint. His thesis is we assign children hours upon hours of homework with little to no evidence that it has a positive effect and with some evidence it may be harmful. Yet we continue to follow the status quo. Sounds like madness to me.

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