Super job with the moderating of this group. Allowing Alfie to speak off the cuff allowed us to hear his authentic voice. I note that he is given to the rant at times (especially at the end. His comments regarding Duncan were spot-on).
I thought his most powerful arguments - his closing comments about NCLB - will sadly have the least impact. Politicians don't want to hear that they aren't qualified to make the decisions they do. That's akin to telling the emperor he has no clothes. They make decisions solely based on how the decision will add to their individual and collective power. Period. You can stand in the same room with Arne Duncan and shout in his face that he's not qualified to lead America's education reform movement, and he'll hear something completely different. Sad.
On the policy end of the discussion, it makes me wonder if this wonderful PLN couldn't become a strong voice for reason and real edreform. Maybe Obama would like to hear from the PLN "grass roots"! Perhaps a followon PLN webcast could be something of a "community organizing" meeting - bring in someone who can help us know how to join and guide the national discourse on education "innovation". How 'bout you invite Jim Shelton next? :)
Very impressed! My first using elluminate. I really appreciate the PLN giving us opportunities such as this. Powerful talk about what is going on in the world of education. I could really relate to what Alfie was saying--but in the back of my mind--still thinking about how Tennessee is going to start using teacher's TVAAS (value-added from TCAP testing) as a percentage of their overall evaluations. Thanks for the opportunity to join in. Really admire my PLN for their effort in involving us in such important conversations as this.
Very much enjoyed my first Elluminate session. I have heard Alfie before as a speaker at a Teacher's Federation PD Day (the board would never get him but the union loves him). I enjoyed this perhaps even more because he could respond to questions. Our board insists that we use the "five high-yield strategies" (Rubrics, Exemplars, Graphic Organizers, Non-fiction writing, and Critical Questions). One of those I really love -- can you guess which one? As long as my principal is doing "5-minute walk-throughs" to make sure I am using these strategies, what can I do? Hearing Alfie's wisdom frustrates me so much because I feel that I, as a lowly teacher in the classroom, have no authority to dispense with grades and Alfie says that as long as we give grades, all the other modifications we make to assessment mean nothing. Big sigh! I will still press on. Thanks to all who organized this!
I loved this opportunity. Thank you to all behind the scenes who made this happen!
I am a huge Alfie Kohn fan and I have tailored my pedagogy to his work. I have taught Middle School for 9 years and the last 5 have been VERY different than the first 4. I owe Alfie Kohn for saving my
career, as I was close to quitting.
I write everyday about some of the very topics that we discussed today www.joebower.org
thanks to all. And I look forward to our next session. How about Dan Pink or Sir Ken Ribinson or Deb Meier or Linda Darling-Hammond or Pasi Sahlberg or Dennis Shirley or Andy Hargreaves or Todd Farley. Just some random suggestions!
For me, the most important question he asks is this one: do we really want a society populated by people who have experienced all of the positive effects of a powerful, ambitious, progressive education? I'm not sure that we do- and I go back to the fact that we live in a country (U.S.A, for international readers) that can't even decide that access to healthcare is a civil right. How can we have ambitious expectations for our schools?
Recently, I've interviewed for school leadership positions here in my home town, Chicago. There are now two distinct categories of leadership interviews: the independent school interview, and the public (and publicly privatized charter) interview. In the independent interview, you get to talk about ideas. In the public/charter interview, you are asked about how you will move kids into "meets and exceeds" on the state test. Schools are into multiple years of not making "AYP" with their ELLs and IEP kids, and they don't have time to hear about the mountain of research that Alfie Kohn talks about, how there's no data supporting homework, how the best teachers actually don't test, etc. We're way past the tipping point in the destruction of the schools-- we're in the furious final moments, when every hire, every policy decision contributes to the unraveling.
When was the last time a sitting President's children attend public school? Was it Amy Carter? I really don't know. It would be a nice research project to survey the school choices of the Congress, and then figure out how many of these schools are up against the inevitable wall on AYP.
Thanks for setting up that webinar; I've learned so much from my colleagues here.
Sorry, I think he is such a dangerous voice. Everyone has the right to free speech in this country but I worry that people will take his message seriously, much like I worry that people will take Glen Beck and Sarah Palin seriously.
Writing a book about how bad practice is makes me angry as an educator. He spends his time trying to undermine the very things that are essential to higher-order thinking and mastery. It is so discouraging to see the positive response to his message from some (thankfully not all) educators that I know.
Help! What is on p. 13 of HIrsch's article that is endangered by Kohn's arguments? I'm missing it. I see there's some explanation of the "chunking" idea, and an explanation of the idea that prior knowledge is important-- Hirsch explains its importance as being necessary for fluency, which is he connects to speed.
I'm usually wrong, but my hunch is that you might want to make an argument for homework, because homework is practice, and practice leads to automaticity, and automaticity is an underlying feature of "chunking," and that efficient chunking is the basis of increasing a greater breadth of knowledge. Am I anywhere close? If I'm in the ballpark, let me also say that my experience learning music and languages tells me that practice does indeed make perfect, so I don't entirely disagree.
It's just that I've tutored enough kids through homework assignments that were utterly useless and kept kids away from reading, hobbies, and exercise. And there's that mountain of research... It may not be your practice to waste kids' time, but it's a common one.
Having not read the first thirteen pages and only skimmed the last fifteen, let me quote the conclusion:
"A good, effective language-arts program that is focused on
general knowledge and makes effective use of school time
will not only raise reading achievement for all students, it
will, by virtue of the Coleman principle, narrow the reading
gap—and the achievement gap—between groups."
(The Coleman principle is the idea that it's better to use time well than waste it.)
I've never heard Kohn disagree with this. And I've never seen Hirsch take on the research on homework that Kohn addresses in The Homework Myth. Indeed, I think the two men would probably sit through the same ten randomly chosen classes and agree strongly on which ones were brilliant and which were dreadful.
(Might be wrong about that too.)
I think they part company on the question of homework, the whole universe of assessment and the centralization of "standards." I don't find either man dangerous, but I'd rather live in the world Kohn is describing than the one that the testing industry is going to get fatter on after the Core people get their way. Because at the end of the day, you're still going to have a very stunted notion of assessment driving billions of curricular decisions every day, and all that gets you is yet another map of where the concentrations of poverty are, and where the totally-focused-on-the-test schools are.
Apologies in advance for incorrect assumptions; I'm just not seeing the thing on P. 13.
Thanks for engaging me on this. Your comment:
"I'm usually wrong, but my hunch is that you might want to make an argument for homework, because homework is practice, and practice leads to automaticity, and automaticity is an underlying feature of "chunking," and that efficient chunking is the basis of increasing a greater breadth of knowledge. Am I anywhere close?"
First of all, based on your disposition and analysis of the issue, I somehow doubt that you are usually wrong. Secondly, I think you summed it up almost exactly. The "chunking" part is an extension of the idea and not necessarily central to the issue, but you nailed it right on the head.
I think where we part ways is on our underlying assumptions about homework. My experience (which is obviously not the same as everyone else's) is that as a kid I certainly hated doing homework. The homework I was required to do, and the only types of homework I ever see assigned by teachers at my school and from other educators I know basically falls into two categories:
1- Practice of a skill they are learning
No one in their right mind could argue against these two things, in my opinion, but that is exactly what Kohn is doing. That leads to to a few conclusions which I will address in a minute. I would like to make the case for why the two categories I enumerated above are worthwhile uses of time.
I think it is borderline condescending to explain why this is important, and I am sure you already know this (as does any adult) but practice is vital to improvement. That statement is so obvious to me that it shouldn't even need to be part of a defense of homework. Do you know anyone besides Kohn who disagrees with this notion? Anyone who has ever gotten better at anything did so through practice. Granted, some people are naturally gifted and require less time practicing than others, but everyone understands this concept as a fundamental truth. The article above gives a jargony explanation for what any adult knows through experience.
To extend the analogy in the study about chess players- we, as educators, want our kids to have such a deep understanding of "chess" that they don't have to think about where the pieces go. Their minds should be free to use higher order thinking skills. We want kids to be thinking about gambits or the merits of castling, not "how many spaces can the horsey move?"
Training our minds to understand things so deeply that they become "second nature" and are automated actions that require no thinking is vital because it frees us to expend mental energy on other, more complex things. Peyton Manning doesn't have to think about how high to hold the ball before delivering it, so he can think about whether the safety is going to be out of position after a fake blitz and based on that, Reggie Wayne can then fill the void in his vacated zone and get the first down. Fundamentally sound football players are no different than fundamentally sound mathematicians or fundamentally sound poets. Practice of fundamentals and the ability to achieve automaticity is vital to improving and growing. Higher order thinking skills do not emerge from out of nowhere- they emerge out of the growth achieved only through many hours of practice at the fundamental levels.
The flip side to the story is that practice usually stinks. It takes a very mature person (child or adult) to really appreciate the value of practice and repetition while they are doing it. If I am training for a race, I dread having to get up early and run 5 miles, but I understand that the training is vital to my ultimate success.
Like I mentioned the idea that practice improves a skill is undeniable. If you want to play the piano, learn to dance, learn a language, become a carpenter, play a sport, etc. you will not improve without practice.
Learning multiplication tables and learning to read are no different. If we try to teach kids multiplication tables in class for 45 minutes and just stop there, how many kids will be able to perform the task the next day, month, year? Probably none of them. However, if we teach them how to multiply in class, then tell them to go home and practice 30 multiplication problems at their own pace in their own home, they will improve. If we ask them to do this every day for a week they will improve even more. After months and years of practicing multiplication, students can achieve the automaticity that will enable them to perform linear equations and other higher level math. Achieving automaticity in linear algebra will enable them to be better rocket scientists and engineers.
Sure, there is such a thing as too much work/burnout, but that is a classic straw man argument. If Kohn's stance was "Homework is obviously good for students, but we should be careful to not give them so much that they have no time to play sports, talk to their family, relax, etc" I would agree- but that is not his message. That message is not provocative enough. His message is "Homework is bad." Period. This is the worst type of pandering. This is a message aimed at the 11 year old inside of us who doesn't understand the consequences of quitting. If you told me when I was 11 that I didn't need to eat vegetables any more and I could have cake for every meal, I would probably do it. This is exactly what he is doing and it bothers me that highly educated people fall for this trick.
There is a place for reading during school time. Some students need help learning how to read and guided reading, or reading aloud can be good modeling for those students. Many students do not come from homes where parents have books or read books and school can be the only time they hear the message that reading is important and worthwhile.
Having said that, schools are not libraries. Any student who knows how to read can read at home-- you don't need a teacher around for that. Students do need teachers around for instruction, however. This is the main reason why reading is assigned as homework. If I am a history teacher and I have 1 hour to teach kids about the Treaty of Versailles, most of that time should be spent on lecture, discussion, questions and answers, multimedia, etc. If reading the chapter is assigned as homework the night before, children will have some idea what the Treaty was about and the teacher can then answer their questions, put events into context, and supplement the text. If, on the other hand, the teacher does not assign the reading as homework, but chooses to have the kids do the reading in class while they grade papers or text their girlfriend or something . . . the difference should be obvious at this point.
Guided reading is important. Some time for quiet reading is important, but to do all the reading that a student needs to do during class is an ineffective use of instructional time and is cheating not only the students, but the teacher as well.
Along that same line, students need to practice multiplication problems during school as well, but the majority of time doing repetitive practice and drill should be at home. Aside from the logistical issues and the fact that some students may need 1 hour to read the chapter and others may need 30 minutes, it is an inefficient use of educational time.
So, those are the defenses of the two types of homework I know. I can not think of what other types of homework there might be. What other types have you seen? Reviewing what was covered in any subject is a form of practice and repetition (by definition) so even looking over notes at home is hugely beneficial.
You hinted in your response that you have seen examples of "bad homework". I would honestly be interested in know what types of things you mean because I can't think of a real-life example from my own experience. However, even if you have seen some type of homework I have not, it doesn't change the fact that Kohn says all homework is "bad". If you can explain an example of "bad homework" I would agree that "bad homework" is not as good as "good homework" (by definition) but I don't think it is possible to make the case that "good homework" is somehow "bad."
If Kohn's message was "We need to put more thought into what we assign for homework and make sure we are maximizing that period of time for students" fine. That is perfectly reasonable. Maybe some teachers give too much- that I have seen. That is an argument about diminishing returns. That is also reasonable. That is not what Kohn's argument is though.
So my question is, why not argue a rational opinion about homework? Maybe it is because no one will buy a book that is entitled "Too much homework can lead to diminishing returns". That message is not provocative enough. No one will pay you to speak at a conference with that message- much like no one will put you on a cable news show if you are objective and reasonable.
That is why I think he is dangerous. He is pushing a message that is over the top and provocative so that he can get people to buy his book, pay money to see him speak. No one could possibly think that practice is bad for students.
Thanks for the thoughtful response. I'm glad to have a chance to participate in an important conversation. You've given me a lot to respond to, and unfortunately I'm booked pretty solidly for the couple of days, so this response is going to be a bit abbreviated, but, MacArthur-like, I shall return to it.
First of all, yes, I disagree, if you are asking me if I think he is dangerous. If you are asking me if I disagree with the idea that practice is bad for students, then no, I don't disagree with that. Clearly, the oft-cited instructions on how to get to Carnegie Hall cannot be disputed with a great deal of evidence from research. I'm not aware of any body of evidence that suggests that practice decreases learning, although I can say from years on the piano that there comes a time when yet another run-through of a difficult piece does more harm than good. So for me, there's an intuitive feel that practice is a good thing until it becomes a bad thing.
Anyway, or as the kids say, "anyhoo," let me now ask you to read this little clip from a Kohn interview with Parent and Child, back when his book was hot off the press:
"P&C: Are you saying that there should never be any homework? Kohn: No. I don't believe there should never be a school assignment. I'm suggesting that the burden of proving that any given assignment is worthwhile and that it must be done outside of school should be on the teachers and the schools. The teacher should be able to demonstrate why this assignment is worth taking up personal time. And there are some good examples of homework that can't be done in school. Let's say there's a project that involves interviewing family members about family history or replicating a scientific experiment in one's kitchen. But if that burden of proof can't be met, than it shouldn't be done."
I believe that's the underlying suggestion of The Homework Myth, although you wouldn't get the nuance of it from the brief time we had with him on the recent Elluminate session, which I believe is the problem with time limits, which I believe is something he said a few times during the session. So do you agree with Kohn's position in the Parent and Child interview? I bet you do.
Rats, I'm running out of time. I'm going to type faster now, which will lead to ridiculous spelling errors, so apologies in advance. It will also lead to oversimplifications of things you've written, so bear with me.
I think there's something going on in your last post that Kohn mentioned briefly in his time with us. I think you might possibly be arguing from anecdote, which (as in the case of my lame piano example) certainly has its place but also needs to be buttressed with data. I've seen you point to the Hirsch article, but I haven't seen the data point that clearly says, "X, Y, and Z support my anecdotal evidence that homework is good because practice leads to automaticity which is an underpinning of knowledge." George, I have no doubt that you yourself assign useful, productive assignments that are brilliantly conceived and that meet the students' learning objectives. In fact, whatever it is that you teach, I only wish I could have learned that subject from a teacher like you. However, while I see Hirsch and the Core people arguing for rigor, I don't see them even attempting to refute that data that link the tidal wave of pre-high school homework with hugely adverse effects, including direct links to increased drop-out rates in high poverty populations. If I could only remember how to link to a specific anchor on a page! My kingdom for a little html automaticity!
Anyway, that was a long paragraph taking you to task in a fun and collegial way for essentially making this argument: Kohn is wrong because the homework assignments of which I am aware and especially the ones I assign are good assignments that offer practice in my content as well as reading practice.
And I don't dispute that at all (although I would like to ask: do you ever survey your classes with questions regarding the value of your assignments?) The main thing I take issue with is that you haven't yet talked about a study or a meta-study on homework. Maybe we could agree to do a public close-reading of one. That would be an interesting use of this forum, perhaps.
Here are the generalizations I can make from my own observations, and I think many of them are supported in quality research:
1. There's a ton of packets being assigned that do nothing but go after comprehension subskills, which is something even Hirsch warns against in the article you linked to earlier. I can't tell you how many reading comprehension packets I've helped kids endure. Teachers- enough with the store-bought study guides already!
2. There are a billion projects being assigned that go nowhere near automaticity. If I have to deal with another child who has to design a board game that teaches the thing the social studies teacher should be teaching, I will go out of my mind. I exaggerate. Given the right context, designing a board game can be an enjoyable, authentic thing with a purpose. It's just that people are busy. Is designing a board game really the best use of an evening?
3. Group projects. Look, I believe that a good teacher can make almost any task into a hugely rewarding experience, but the truth is, there are a heck of a lot of group projects being assigned that for whatever reasons require a huge amount of quarterbacking by parents and tutors. Yes, yes, it's the kids' responsibility but don't even get me started on this issue.
4. Various posters that might be conceived with the best backwardly-designed intentions, but when folded into the mix of five other nightly assignments, just turn into another chore. In fact, this is the whole thing: there's just too much. Too many posters, too many packets, yes, too many required blog-postings to do any of these things thoughtfully.
5. Poorly conceived, explained, and justified Accelerated Reading requirements. I know AR has a legion of happy teachers, but I have not seen a lot of them publishing compelling material in peer-reviewed journals. Now here's a thing that might have appeal to you, this Accelerated Reading thing, because it has the look and feel of your practice-is-a-good-thing argument. I have seen great teachers use parts of AR in good ways, and I have seen truly horrendous teachers use AR with fidelity, like a cudgel.
Even I can hear what a crank I sound like, so I would suggest that we get away from the preceding litany and go over a research article or two. As far as I can tell, we don't really disagree on anything.
I'm just proposing this: there's been a sea-change in pre-high school homework; it's largely destructive and counterproductive, and that Kohn is right. He's right even to the extent that if a dictator came and abolished all homework, we would have a net gain in this country, even if we lost the contributions of your good homework assignments.
And finally, this. There are a lot of people out there who think Mr. Hirsch is dangerous. They started to think so when Cultural Literacy came out, primarily because of the whole "here's-the-canon-of-what-an-American-needs-to-know" idea. I've seen him attacked from the right and the left as some kind of menace, wrong about Vietnam, wrong about American Revolution, wrong about the importance of reading The Jungle Book, etc. So I guess I want to ask, do you really think Kohn is dangerous?
I extend a thousand apologies for the stream-of-consciousness quality of this writing, and of course, if there's anything in here that seems offensive or ad hominem, it is unintended. I have nothing but respect for your ideas and the thoughtful way you advance your arguments.
I won't be able to see any follow-up for a couple of days. Take care.
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