The New York Times ran an opinion piece last weekend titled "The Trouble With Homework," in which author Annie Murphy Paul posited that the trouble with kids these days is neither that they are "overworked, stressed-out children bent under backpacks stuffed with textbooks and worksheets" nor that they're "glassy-eyed, empty-headed teenagers sitting before computer screens, consumed by video games and social networking sites" because they don't have enough homework. Rather, she says that teachers should look to Mind, Brain and Education methods to improve the quality of homework that kids bring home. Citing techniques such as "spaced repetition" and "retrieval practice," Paul asserts that "Enriching children’s classroom learning requires making homework not shorter or longer, but smarter."
Two authors with Beacon Press connections wrote to the Times in response to Paul's piece. Etta Kralovec is the author of The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning. Alfie Kohn is the author of Feel-Bad Education: And Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling as well as The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing (Da Capo, 2006). Kohn co-wrote his letter with Vicki Abeles, director of The Race to Nowhere. The authors have agreed to share their unedited letters here, which outline their objections to the idea that kids need better homework.
In her Sept. 10 plea for better homework, “The Trouble with Homework”, Anne Murphy Paul reminds us that there has been a revolution in learning theory, spawning the new field of Mind, Brain and Education (MBE). Citing research that this new approach to instruction significantly increases test scores, Paul shares her excitement that if homework assignments were to be based on the principles of MBE, we would see academic achievement soar. Paul fails to acknowledge that in order for teachers to implement this new approach to instruction, they will need intense professional development and support. For many of us opposed to homework, the promise of MBE-based instructional practices is that they eliminate the NEED for homework.
There is no shortage of research-based programs that promise increased student achievement, what there is a shortage of is the public will to make the investments in our schools that are needed to turn education around in this country.
co-author of The End of Homework
Associate Professor of Teacher Education, University of Arizona South,
Is "The Trouble With Homework" (opinion, Sept. 11) more a matter of its quality than its quantity? Yes and no. Homework can be pointless or counterproductive even in limited amounts, but a lot of it -- or, worse, a pattern of loading kids down with homework day after day -- can be enormously damaging even if we approve of the assignments themselves.
To suggest, as Annie Murphy Paul does, that the only relevant question is "How effectively do children's after-school assignments advance learning?" is unfortunate for several reasons. First, it begs the question of what's meant by "learning." The research she cites, concerning techniques like spaced retrieval and retrieval practice, are primarily intended to increase the number of facts students can memorize. Anyone with more ambitious intellectual goals -- for example, helping students to understand ideas from the inside out, to analyze them critically, to make sophisticated connections and distinctions, and, above all, to want to continue to do these things -- will be less than impressed by memorization-oriented studies. [On the study dealing with retrieval practice in particular, see this blog post.]
In any event, none of this research makes a case for homework, per se, and Paul's single-minded focus on the quality of homework ignores the question we believe is more important: Must children really be made to work a second shift after they've spent a full day at school?
The available data simply do not support an affirmative answer to that question, particularly with students below high school age. Corroborating what the research tells us are the many anecdotal reports we've collected of teachers and entire schools that have eliminated homework altogether -- with encouraging results in almost all cases.
Moreover, if we look beyond academics, then the question is no longer how to tweak homework assignments to maximize the number of facts retained. Rather, we'd want to know the effect of homework on children's social, emotional, physical, artistic, intellectual, and psychological development. We worry not only about the other activities that homework displaces but the frustration, exhaustion, and family conflict that homework so often causes. And we fear that homework may be the single most effective way to destroy children's curiosity.
Even if the quality of homework did improve -- and it's not clear that assignments based on the studies Paul cites would really bring about meaningful improvement -- that wouldn't address these deeper and wider concerns about what is really best for kids.