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The Homework Myth

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(December, 2008)

The title of this newsletter article is borrowed from the book by that name written by Alfie Kohn. I had heard that man’s name several times in the past, but I first looked into his work about a year ago, at the recommendation of a seminar participant. She told me that he does for eduction what I do for bullying: shows us that everything we thought we knew about the subject is wrong.

After reading a few of his books, I am convinced Alfie Kohn is a true prophet–a prophet of education. For years he has been warning the public about what’s wrong with the way we educate our children. And he has provided us with an alternative that is based on what our children truly need, not on the needs of our corporate-run profit-motivated society. He truly promotes a world that lives by the Golden Rule. Our world is blessed with Alfie Kohn’s presence. But now let me talk about homework.

I don’t know if you recall, but ten years ago there was a lively, growing public debate about homework. Newspapers and radio shows frequently dealt with the homework problem. I was hoping that finally society would wake up to the fact that it is the worst invention schools ever came up with and decide to get rid of this heinous practice. But then the Columbine shooting happened, and everyone dropped the homework issue for the more sensational issue of bullying, which spawned education’s second worst invention, the war against bullies. This war, like the failing, misguided wars against drugs and terrorism (which are really wars against people), is becoming more and more entrenched in society and, like those other misguided wars, will probably never go away, as the problems they are trying to solve become increasingly serious. The harder we fight bullying the worse it becomes, giving us the illusion that we need to fight it even harder. Unfortunately, I seem to be the only mental health professional/educator in the world that clearly understands what is wrong with the war against bullying and is trying to fight it. Fortunately, far more people understand what is wrong with homework. Getting rid of homework should be much easier to accomplish than getting rid of the anti-bully crusade.

Yes, anti-bully programs are school’s second worst invention. The misery caused by anti-bully policies pales in comparison with the misery caused by homework. In practically every home, at least one child has discovered how easy it is to drive their parents crazy for hours every evening with homework. As though it weren’t bad enough that virtually all parents today have to leave the home to go to work, then come home to shop, cook, clean, and do laundry, they also need to battle with their children to get their homework done. And the teachers who assign the homework that destroys our home lives then have their own home lives destroyed by the homework assigned by their children’s teachers.

An avowed goal of school–especially public school–is to be the great equalizer of society. But homework is the number one destroyer of equality. While all kids in a class have the same teacher, they all have different parents. Parents have different abilities. The students from the most affluent, educated families are most likely to get good help from their parents, or from tutors paid by their parents. But what about children from poor or immigrant families? They are far less able to get help at home? So homework increases the gap between the powerful and the powerless.

Many people insist that homework helps children prepare for the demands of real life. But how many of you bring hours of work home from the office? And if you do, do you like it? Of course not.  Homework does absolutely nothing to prepare kids for the real world. In fact, it is the opposite of life in the real world. The ironic truth is that practically the only adults who bring their work home are teachers. The only real-life occupation for which homework prepares children is teaching!

A few decades ago, schools decided that parents should be responsible for making sure their children get their homework done. After all, a teacher may have 30 or more students, but each child has one or two parents. How can teachers make sure their 30 students do their homework? It seemed obvious to teachers that they need the parents’ help to get the homework done.

But parents are the worst people in the world to be responsible for children’s homework. Parents are the people that children take most for granted. No matter how badly children treat their parents, the parents still feed them, clothe them, drive them around, buy them toys and arrange play-dates for them (yucchh! I hate that term–play-date). Children are far more afraid of their teachers than they are of their parents. What happens when one teacher tells thirty students, “Take out your math books and do page 36?”? Within seconds, 30 students are taking out their books and doing page 36. What happens when a parent tells one child, “Take out your math book and do page 36”? “Leave me alone! I’m busy! Stop bossing me around! I’ll do it later!” When children discover that their parents are responsible for their homework, they discover a phenomenally easy and fun way to make their parents go crazy.

Furthermore, when parents battle with their children over homework, it makes the kids hate their parents for forcing them to do things that were assigned by the school, and it makes the kids hate the school for turning their parents against them at home.

If the hour-or-so of extra practice that homework provides kids were really that important, it would make far more sense to lengthen the school day by an hour and pay the teachers for that extra hour to supervise the assignments they give. The teachers understand their own assignments much better than the parents do, and are more capable of helping their students with any questions or difficulties they may face. Kids work far more efficiently in school than they do at home, where there are endless distractions, not least of which is the battle with parents over homework. What kids drag out for four hours at home they could easily accomplish in one hour in school. Parents would be overjoyed to pay a few extra dollars in taxes per month to be freed of the homework torment, the teachers would be happy to get the extra hour’s pay. Furthermore, those same teachers would be freed of the misery of battling their own children for hours at home over homework.

This, so far, is what I have been arguing for years about homework. But Alfie Kohn has gone much farther than I ever have. His wonderful book, The Homework Myth, provides many more arguments against homework than I ever dreamed of. He shows how homework not only doesn’t improve kids’ education, it makes them do even worse! Even better, he buttresses his arguments with tons of solid research.

If we are truly concerned about our children’s welfare, family life, and education, the single easiest, most inexpensive and effective step would be to get rid of homework! What is better than doing less to get more! We need to stop wasting our time trying to make bullying disappear from our schools–an expensive, time-consuming and counterproductive pursuit–and instead put our efforts into trying to make homework disappear. If you can envision how much more wonderful life would be without the daily scourge of homework, there is a very simple way to make this happen. Buy a copy of Alfie Kohn’s book, The Homework Myth, and present it as a holiday gift to your kids’ teachers. And have your fellow parents chip in to buy a copy for the principal. This book will be a much more practical and treasured gift than a flower pot or a box of candies could ever be. Believe me, not only parents, but teachers and administrators, too, would be happy to be rid of the unnecessary plague of homework. But you need to provide them with the scientific justification for such a radical move, and Alfie Kohn has provided this masterfully in an easy and fun to read book.

So lets restart the anti-homework revolution that was sadly aborted thanks to Columbine.

By the way, in case you think I have some special interest in only pushing the work of Alfie Kohn, there are other recently published books on homework that are probably also very good. I haven’t read them, but their descriptions on Amazon.com are interesting. They should help you reach the same anti-homework conclusions. One, by Sara Bennet and Nancy Kalish, is called The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It. The other is The End of Homework: How Homework Disrupts Families, Overburdens Children, and Limits Learning, by Etta Kralovec and John Buell. You can certainly use these books as ammunition to help your school decide to do away with homework.

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