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What do children really learn from doing homework?

NOTE TO READER: You may find it necessary to take notes on this article. There is a short self-test at the end.



Well, that was a turn-off, wasn’t it?

I just finished reading a book entitled “The Homework Myth” by Alfie Kohn. ( Lifelong Books, 2006.) It was interesting, though heavy reading. The book targets academia, not parents, and so I had to slog through it to understand its principles.

Why would I do that? Well, at first, I thought it might give me some insight on the problems I have with getting my kids to do homework. After reading the book, however, I suppose its greatest value is in CE (continuing education) hours.

It isn’t that the book is off-base, it is only that it is an idealistic view of a complex issue.


Do we learn anything from homework?

That depends. Are we discussing the kids or the parents? How often have you told your kids, “I just don’t know how to communicate this concept to you”?  The translation of that phrase is “ I haven’t got a clue what this means. Ask your teacher.”


I had a foster child who came home with a math assignment to compute the area of a circle sector in congruent planes. Or was it to figure out the area of a plane flying over congruent crop circles? I didn’t have a clue. I asked him where his textbook was and he had not brought it home. Evidently, he believed that without the guidebook we wouldn’t venture into the forest.


According to Mr. Kohn, Most studies show only an associative relationship between homework and learning, not a causal one. Or, in terms I’m more comfortable using, studies show that kids who do a lot of homework sometimes perform better when their learning is assessed than kids who do no homework, but it cannot be shown that they do better BECAUSE they do the homework.

A lot of other factors enter into the results. Did some teachers do a better job of teaching the skill in the classroom? Are the grades used to measure progress skewed? Are the teachers too subjective? (Okay. If I show up to teach a class of 7th graders and I have a migraine headache, I might not be as effective as I would if I felt fine. AND teaching a class of 7th graders could result in a migraine, a factor that should NOT be overlooked.)

And Kohn points out that many studies that support the idea homework fosters learning rely on faulty data. That is, they ask the kids how much homework they do and they get one answer, another answer comes from the parents and still another from the teacher of how much he or she assigns.


In fact, in the National Assessment of Educational Programs, kids who did little or no homework fared as well as those who did.


And Kohn cites a teacher named Phil Lyons who taught social studies. According to Lyons, in the beginning of his teaching career he gave out homework, but as he himself mastered the subjects less homework was necessary for the class to learn. Finally, he stopped giving homework at all. The results? His students scored higher on advanced placement tests and had more enthusiasm for learning.

In other words, Kohn raises the question of whether the amount of homework a teacher assigns might be inversely related to that teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom. 


The National education Association uses a term called Time On Task. They say that the more TOT there is, the greater the learning that occurs.  But, Kohn says, all time is not quality time.  Spending much time on a subject is useful only if we want the student to repeat a specific behavior, not understand a concept.

He compares the TOT concept to practicing skills. Practice is important to train our minds and bodies to respond without thinking. Consider playing the piano or learning wrestling moves. But time is NOT a factor in understanding concepts.

Kohn says students given a lot of math problems to practice, for instance, are less likely to consider what makes sense in solving a problem and more likely to concentrate on what they should do.

Okay. Back to my foster son.  I sent him back to school to retrieve his text book ( we live half a block from the school)  and read the section myself. I could conceive of no way to relate the information to him in a way he would understand. Finally, I resorted to doing the problems the way I had learned to do them eons ago when the only writing tools we had were charred sticks we plucked from the fire (once we had mastered making fires.) In steps. 

He refused to even consider that I might be right. I did not use the same procedure his teacher did. I did not understand the concept. In short, although I could prove to him that my answers were right, he would not accept them because I hadn’t arrived at them the way his teacher did. Now, understandably, his perceptions would differ from a child who was not delayed, but the idea is the same. He was not taught why the problem was solved the way it was, how it might apply to him in later life (arguably it will NOT be of use to him) or even shown how to think the process through.  He was simply told to repeat a formula over and over. And that’s okay if the student understands when the formula applies in life. But without that understanding, it is no more than a bit of useless trivia he’ll forget as soon as the class is beyond that chapter.

So to this child, the homework was nothing more than an irritant between him and me; a source of conflict over him “getting it done.”

To be honest, I have been concerned over studies which show the US is ranked with 3rd world nations in science and math. Many educators seem to feel more time in school

 ( longer days, more homework, fewer and shorter holiday breaks) would even the playing field. But an international study found that the top-ranked country was Japan, and students there spend less time studying than American kids.


So, if homework is not effective in teaching concepts ( which Kohn says should be done in the classroom) what is its value?


There are some homework advocates who say that homework teaches study skills. But if, as Kohn says, learning is not related to the amount of homework a child does, are those study skills useful only for learning how to do more homework? Or how to perform well on tests ( by rote.)


HERE is the first conflict I find with Mr. Kohn. I believe his idea is sound. BUT in an ideal world.

To get into college, a student must have a good high school transcript. That translates into grades. Grades that the child must accumulate throughout junior and senior high.  Financial aid is based on tests, as well. Cramming may not net us lifelong learning, but it gets us high enough scores to get in to a university. Grades are a reality.

And Kohn feels that if adults trusted kids to manage their own learning, they would be more interested and learn more.  Maybe your kids. Not mine. Kohn says they would tire of video games and TV and spend more time out shooting hoops or reading books about things which interest them, and which would pique their interest in furthering that learning.

Some kids, maybe most, would. Ideally. But our system doesn’t give them that kind of time. It demands performance today. Now. On demand.

And kids who have been in the foster system for a while would probably be slow to make that move, if they ever did. We also have to factor in the concepts of entitlement and low self-esteem and lagging skills. Many long-term foster children have been disrupted from their educations many times. They read and reason at a level several years behind their peers.

For those children, homework does serve a purpose. It is an underscoring of the boundaries we must put around them. It brings an interaction (though admittedly not always a good one) between foster parent and child.

But it can become a power struggle, too.

My foster son hates homework. He would rather go without privileges for a week instead of doing ten minutes of reading. And he will say you cannot make him do the work. He’s right. I can take away his privileges, but he is a fatalist who will then just think, “My life is terrible, now I don’t have TV” or “Now I’m grounded.”  It will not occur to him to change his behavior to alter his circumstances.


What do you do?

Well there are some homework helps on another page in this site.


And, reassured by Mr. Kohn’s insight, I resolve not to stress over homework. I ask my foster son to put out some effort. If he really doesn’t understand it (or if I don’t) I tell him to put it away and then I have him read for a while. This way he hasn’t “gotten out of” anything. He can ask his teacher for help and she will understand the difficulty in  teaching this child one-on-one ( as opposed to lecturing a classroom of kids) besides using her expertise to teach him the skills. And he still has to spend his “homework time” doing something profitable.

Oh, that’s another of Mr. Kohn’s theories. Children will manage their own learning in time. They will not always choose video games over a good book about a subject that interests them. They will not opt to watch TV instead of being physically active.

Hey. Mine do. Do always opt to watch TV or play videos. That’s why we have a rule that, in summer, the TV goes off at 9 A.M. and stays off until it gets dark.

Because I believe what Mr. Kohn says. I believe that in a perfect world kids would choose the right from the wrong and the profitable from the worthless. But the world hasn’t been perfect since God threw Adam and Eve out of Eden. And I KNOW KIDS. I was one once.



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