August 24, 2006


The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. By Alfie Kohn. Da Capo. $24.

     Might as well start the new school year with a provocation.  Alfie Kohn’s latest book is a shot across the bow of traditionalists, standardized-testing and standardized-education advocates, and all those who believe in BGUTI: “Better get used to it” – meaning that life contains necessary unpleasantness, and the sooner children learn that, the better.

     The author of Punished by Rewards here argues, with considerable research backing him up, that homework is a tradition whose time has long since passed.  He says that there is no evidence that homework helps students learn better, retain information longer, or even prepare for the less-than-enjoyable experiences they are sure to have in the future: “What underlies BGUTI isn’t just preparation, but preparation for experiences that are unappealing. …[Children] need to acquire the self-discipline to slog through what they don’t see as worthwhile. …[But] it is experience with success and unconditional acceptance that helps one to deal constructively with later deprivation.”

     The BGUTI discussion is a microcosm of Kohn’s entire argument against homework.  He is essentially holistic in his view of school.  Merely keeping kids there for seven hours a day is already getting them used to doing something they don’t want to do – why add to it with homework?  If homework is to be assigned, it should be collaborative – students and perhaps even parents should be involved – and it should not be graded when turned in, but shared among classmates so all can benefit from it.  “The most open-ended arrangement would be a situation in which students are given no assignments and are therefore free to choose their own activities, which may continue or be sparked by what happened in class.”  To be sure any homework assigned does not risk increasing the educational gap between “privileged and struggling families,” the solution is “to lengthen the school day slightly, at least for older students, in order to give them time to complete all their assignments before they leave for home, thereby making sure that all kids have access to the same resources.”

     It is fair to characterize Kohn not merely as an idealist but as a utopianist.  He happens to be correct in citing studies that show little or no benefit from homework – certainly not from excessive amounts of it.  And it not just kids who would applaud a lessening or elimination of homework – so would parents, who are supposed to make sure the homework gets done and are expected to discuss issues involving it (including whether there is too much of it) with the teacher.  Try that when you have several children, a single-parent family or one with two parents working long hours, multiple children in different schools, after-school activities, or simply an attempt to keep kids out of trouble and off the mean streets outside.  Homework is a huge burden on many families – perhaps a greater one on less stable, less well-to-do ones than on any others.

     But Kohn’s alternatives would increase families’ burdens, and the burdens on teachers as well – not to mention the burdens on administrators trying to arrange school-bus routes to allow slightly later classes, and the burdens on taxpayers forced to fund the changes.  Freeing children from homework so they can focus more on learning, both in class and outside of it, is an idea sprung from a naïve, middle-class view of the world.  Kohn’s analysis of the inadequacies of homework is far better than his thoughts about how things could be improved.  His anecdotes about individual schools and teachers determined to find a better way are just that: anecdotal evidence that things can be done better without homework by certain people in certain circumstances.  It would have been more intellectually honest for Kohn to state clearly that these experimental alternatives are not universally applicable, and that they require tremendous (and difficult-to-come-by) cooperation among administrators, teachers and families.  Instead, Kohn correctly states that most students are stranded in the homework desert, and he makes the Promised Land beyond seem tantalizingly close.  Alas, as a road map for large-scale change, his proposals are mostly a mirage.

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