Before I get to a rebuttal, I'd like to say thank you for being not only kind, but so open-minded and articulate. As a frequent debater of various issues, I notice that debates often deteriorate into a sort of negative spiral. I am probably as guilty of this as my debate partner, but you have a very disarming and charming way to deliver your feelings and I thank you for that. Your professionalism is overwhelming and humbling.
That said, you are so so wrong. (Just kidding!)
Seriously though, I agree that we probably don't have a very big gap in our views. If you will allow me an aside about the meta processes involved in any debate, it may serve to bring our viewpoints into an even closer relationship.
When I analyze different exchanges I have with people, I frequently try to cut through certain specific elements to get to the root of the disagreement. It is my feeling that usually the issue breaks one of three ways.
1- We are operating from a different set of assumptions
2- We are defining the same terms in different ways
3- Neither 1 nor 2 is true, we just have a genuine disagreement
Part of what I was unconsciously attempting in my previous reply was to address the second way things go wrong. Meaning, I was looking to split apart the definition of "homework" into "bad homework" and "good homework". In reading your response, I think I can safely say that we would define "good homework" in much the same way, and we would both agree it is beneficial. I believe we would also define "bad homework" in much the same way and agree that at the very least it is not beneficial. I would tend to side with you that bad homework can indeed be detrimental.
It seems to me that we are in agreement that homework itself is not the problem. The problem is mainly about the quantity of homework. I mentioned earlier that my personal experience as a student informed much of my feeling about homework, but as many of the studies show, the quantity of homework since I was in grade school has increased considerably.
I would agree with you that this is a problem, and I believe that there is reliable research to prove this. This is the point I was trying to make earlier about "diminishing returns".
This is an instance where different definitions can lead to disagreements. Meaning, everyone would agree that "too much" homework is bad. At what point do we define a certain amount to be "too much" though? We can agree on a concept, but not on the definition of that concept. I am comfortable conceding the point to you and deferring to the research that puts a certain time limit on homework. Obviously that time would vary depending on the capacity of the child in question, but in general there are certain benchmarks that act as tipping points for the downward slope of diminishing returns.
No argument there.
The other issue you bring up is the quality of the homework. I think we are probably in sync on this issue as well. I outlined what I believed to be effective uses of homework time and I don't see any major disagreement between us on the issue.
One point of lingering divergence between our positions is our interpretation of Kohn's views. I read the quote from the interview above and I feel that this does not represent his viewpoint accurately. When directly confronted, he may have to slink away from his more radical views because he doesn't have much justification for them in the first place.
When you read about the studies he sites, even his own conclusions are that the evidence is "inconclusive." If you read his book carefully, you find many statements like this:
Even so, the researchers’ main conclusion was that “high amounts of homework time did not guarantee high performance.”
He was trying to deconstruct a study that "proved" that homework helped students and because the study concluded that it did, he needed to continue to find a way to attack it by citing that there was "no guarantee" of high performance. This type of language is exactly what I caution my students to look for when reading an article or watching TV. The motives of the writer here are clear- he is trying to persuade someone to ignore a positive result because it doesn't fit his preconceived feeling that homework stinks.
He has spent hours and hours looking for justification that homework stinks and even with his fervent mission driving him to unearth studies from like-minded people, he still comes to the conclusion that the evidence doesn't support either a pro or a con position about homework. What he then does is ignore his own findings and continue to preach that homework is bad for kids. His bias oozes out of his statements. If he was asked if he thought homework was bad, based on his own conclusions of the research, he would have to truthfully say,"I don't know."
He doesn't say that though. His message isn't "I don't know if homework is good or bad" his message is that homework is bad.
Asking him to interpret data about homework is like asking Rush Limbaugh how President Obama did with his State of the Union Speech. He may not actually lie about what occurred, but we know his view is a preconceived package already so his objectivity is non-existent. Limbaugh will highlight every misstep, every gaffe, and ignore all the positive. Kohn is cut from the same cloth.
In the quote from P&C above he starts by saying "No" then proceeds to construct a test for whether or not any specific assignment is worthy of being given as homework. Part of the criteria he suggests we use is that the assignment has to be something "that must be done outside of school".
The examples I gave earlier about practicing 30 multiplication problems or pre-reading the history chapter clearly do not fit into his definition of acceptable. So my argument is that you yourself disagree with Kohn. In addition to that, I would argue that many more of his statements are quite full-throated and more radical than the one above which, although troubling to me, is still somewhat watered-down for Kohn.
Another way to see his bias is how he deals with studies that offer evidence that homework is worthwhile. In his book, he cites studies that show that time spent on homework correlates with improved test scores. What Kohn does when faced with this reality is move the measuring stick to attack another target. His response, which he even used in the webcast the other day was to say "so what if it increases test scores, tests stink". This is a dodge and it shifts the debate to another arena. In addition, it undermines any study that shows that there in no improvement on test scores related to homework. He can't use flat test scores to prove that homework stinks, then discard the measuring stick when things don't support his claims.
Kohn spins results the way he wants them to appear and often cherry picks what he chooses to discuss and what he doesn't. Here is a quote from a rebuttal of Kohn's spin:
All students received daily homework assignments and received the same tests of mathematics facts. At the end of the study, the researcher observed an uneven effect on students' mathematics achievement. For some students, homework produced positive results; for others, it did not.
However, Rosenberg also noticed a relationship between the proportion of homework completed and whether or not homework had a positive effect on student achievement. This led him to design a second experiment, which Kohn does not mention in the body of his article. This time, Rosenberg designed and assigned the homework in such a way as to ensure high completion rates for students. His subjects were four different LD elementary students. As predicted, homework was found to have a positive effect on mathematics achievement. About these two studies Rosenberg comments:
Taken together, the results of the two studies indicate that homework, when planned, assigned, and implemented in a structured and responsible manner, can be successful in maximizing the effectiveness of direct instruction sequences with students diagnosed as LD. Clearly, supplemental homework can serve as a vehicle for additional practice opportunities and thus provide an additional source of learning time for the important practice component in direct instruction sequences.
This is an example of his bias in action. If someone wanted to look at studies objectively and they came across data that demonstrated the flaw in using "homework assigned" versus "homework completed" that difference in and of itself acts as evidence. Meaning, that is a sort of sub-study of value. Students who are assigned homework and do not do it should obviously be put in the same category as students who were not assigned homework. The big question at stake is whether doing work at home helps improve a students knowledge and I do not feel that Kohn is honestly trying to answer this question.
I believe he started out with the feeling that homework stinks and he works very hard to plead his case, much more like a prosecuting attorney and much less like a judge or a jury member reviewing the evidence.
Even by Kohn's analysis, the evidence doesn't give us a clear picture as to whether homework helps improve learning or not. This actually is interesting, because one thing we do know is that practice does improve performance. So this leads us to the following syllogism: if practice improves performance and homework may not necessarily improve it, then not all homework is practice. Am I correct in assuming that statement's truth value?
I am not sure that you personally would need any proof that practice improves performance, but in case someone else reads this, they may demand proof for whatever reason. So here are a few links to support that claim:
This is obviously a small general sample, but like I mentioned earlier, I believe this is essentially common sense stuff. Anyone who has ever gotten better at any skill did so through practice.
So, if we know that practice is beneficial and we also know that it remains unclear that homework is beneficial, our logical conclusion is that not all homework is practice.
If Kohn were to come out and say, "I overstated my assertions about homework. Repetitive practice of skills is vital to mastery. My only remaining warning is that we need to keep aware of the time spent doing this practice- too much has been proven to be, at best, a waste of time" I would agree completely. What he actually says is this: "The negative effects of homework are well known. The positive effects of homework are largely mythical."
Parent & Child: Is there a sense among parents and teachers that homework is a necessary evil?
Alfie Kohn: Yes. But I would go further and make the argument that it's just plain evil, and that it’s actually very hard to justify that it’s necessary.
"It's never been demonstrated that there is any academic advantage whatsoever of homework."
I do think he is dangerous, not in the same way a serial killer or a terrorist is dangerous, but dangerous nonetheless. His arguments speak to the child in us. His arguments say "tests are bad" "homework is bad" "competition is bad" etc. I would bet you could get a whole group of 4th graders to cheer at his speeches. I would also bet that you could get a whole group of 4th graders to cheer if you said "reading is bad, TV is good!" or "being caught is bad, getting away with stealing is good!" or "vegetables are bad, cookies are good!"
Just because we want something to be true because it seems easier and nicer and less stressful doesn't mean it is true. In fact, it is advisable to spent extra time examining messages that we have a natural inclination to want to believe because we often disregard facts and ignore our own biases in favor of these messages.
As to Hirsch, I agree that there is plenty there to criticize. His views on cultural literacy are flawed and his views on some other topics are controversial to say the least. This does not change the fact that he sides with the cognitive scientists on how higher-order thinking emerges and he understands that people who use phrases like "mere facts" don't understand the connection between automaticity and critical thinking.
I am not sure if I can add any more to this discussion, but I'd like to invite you to have the last word. If there is anything specific that you'd like me to expand on or flesh out, I'd be happy to. I have essentially expressed my thoughts, but I enjoy discussing this (especially with someone so level-headed and gracious as you) so I have no problem extending the discussion further if need be.
I look forward to reading your response.
Thanks for being who you are, Tim.
Thanks for the overwhelmingly kind response. It's really an honor to have a dialogue of this quality with a colleague. I'm going to ask for another night to respond. Still busy with deadlines.
I have scanned your response, though, and I'll just relate this anecdote. Last evening I met with a very intelligent colleague (whom I am trying to persuade to join this community) and she deconstructed Kohn in much the same way you have above, only she basically destroyed my argument without rebuilding me as a person! I may have to re-think my positions, but I promise I will give your response a the careful reading it deserves by Saturday at the latest.
Meanwhile, have a good end of the week. I really appreciate this discussion.
I appreciate this discussion. I lean towards Kohn's views and have been looking for a critique of them. I like the fact that this argument is factual with out resorting to name-calling or absurd arguments.
Alas I still find myself undecided, but something tells me the answer is in the middle. Radical approaches usually over-react to previous problems. I.E. "no homework" is an overreaction to poor homework that has been assigned for years.
I’m back. Did you ever notice that when you let a little time elapse during a debate, you lose all the momentum you previously thought you had?
First of all, thank you for inviting me to have the last word. Indeed, I will now avail myself of the opportunity: “I win.”
I jest, of course. I’m now going to simply say that we agree on the question of the value of well-designed homework, as you have pointed out. We still disagree on the danger level Kohn represents as a voice in the conversation, although I will begrudgingly admit that the Kappan article on the Rosenberg follow-up does rather remind me of climate-change deniers who clip a passage here or there from a study (or an email) but omit the study’s conclusion. So, you have made a persuasive case that Kohl’s public message on homework is a simplification of his own findings, and that the simplification appeals to emotion rather than reason. I’ll leave it up to others to decide how they will evaluate the conclusions of a person who appeals to emotion in the face of conflicting data.
The reason I’m less willing to go near the idea that Kohn and Limbaugh are cut from the same cloth is because I basically disagree with this idea. Although here we may have a case of what I will now refer to as “the Haines Situation #2,” in which people who seemingly disagree are merely defining terms differently. I may have a different idea of what, “cut from the same cloth” means than you do, although I accept the idea that there may be a definition of this phrase that would allow the Kohn/Limbaugh comparison to be made.
I would like also to agree that your syllogism ending with, “Not all homework is practice” is an interesting one, and it might be the most useful take-away from this discussion because it’s a good focal point for teams of professionals to have when discussing the value of the homework they assign.
I noticed that further down in the comments, Jane St. Pierre has pointed out that Robert Marzano is still listing homework as #9 on his list of effective instructional strategies, so there’s clearly a story in the data. I’m going to hear Marzano speak next week; maybe I’ll get a chance to ask him about the characteristics of effective homework. I have little doubt that he will also criticize the scourge of ill-conceived, test-prep homework that I’ve seen so much of and that I believe is behind Kohn’s tendency to cherry-pick, as you have, I believe, described accurately.
On that note, let’s move on to the next discussion. I’m going to continue to keep an eye on Kohn—I noticed that he tweeted recently about Core standards and writing. I haven’t followed the link yet, but I’m predicting that I will agree with it!
Thanks for the debate. Any young person following this dialogue will find a good example of how to use evidence effectively in support of an assertion. And he/she can also see my arguments! As always, it’s an honor to debate with a scholar- I’ve certainly been asked to think deeply in this conversation, and that’s a gift.
Thanks Tom, Shelly, and Steven for organizing this.
I've been in public education for 27 years and so sometimes I get lulled asleep by "what is." Kohn's remarks were a "shake up call" to cause me to rethink some of the givens of K-12 education in the US.
Especially appreciated his comments on testing ("Tests measure what matters least.") and NCLB ("If I had the president's ear, I'd ask him what he loves best about Sidwell Friends." NCLB is antithetical to what Sidwell Friends offers Obama's daughters.).
Thanks for the opportunity for some lunchtime reflection.
It is truly powerful what you are doing here- bringing a range of people together for these conversations- teachers, parents, students and community members- to hear from someone who has thought long, hard and well about key issues in education- and then to give all a chance to regularly participate in the important idea exchange that underlies true reform. Thank you for providing the space for this very important conversation.
Alfie says some things that make me cheer and others that make me shake my head. One of those topics that made me shake my head was on homework. There is research that says appropriate homework can be beneficial if used wisely.. In my 30+ years of experience in an elementary school, I found that homework gave children a chance to reflect and discuss new ideas with other people, It also was a wonderful way to get them thinking about their own personal questions and learning goals when we began a new unit. Homework can be preparation for students, giving them an opportunity to "prime the pump" when thinking about new topics and/or it can serve as a time for students to practice what they have recently learned. Often I would send home a math game for students to play with siblings, a grandparent or a parent. Students would then tell me about the game the next day. If I take a class in new technologies and do not go home and practice, then I will never be able to master the skills necessary to effectively use those new technologies. Additionally, homework and practice is one of nine effective teaching strategies that Marzano, Pickering and Pollack write about and I have found their work to be very meaningful for me and for my students.
I love reading the discussion between Tim Furman and George Haines because it shows the passion and intellect these men have for their teaching careers. Your discussion got me looking around for the fairly recent ASCD publication by Cathy Vatterott called Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs. Of course it is in one of my many stacks of books that I cannot put my finger on right now, but I believe that it had some very good information that both of you would enjoy. In addition, research over the years has pointed towards an overall positive effect of homework on student achievement. In chapter 3 of The Art and Science of teaching Marzano gives careful consideration to this question based on meta studies done over time. I found homework gave my students much needed processing time. When students were given a preview and some think time about a topic we would be studying, students always had much better inquiry questions for our units of study. Being a parent myself, I have also seen examples of homework that were time consuming and ineffective. Many times my children would tell me that they never even reviewed the homework in class. Homework is like so many other things - it is not all good, However, when homework is thoughtfully assigned and reviewed it can enhance student learning. George, I envy you the opportunity to hear Marzano. Enjoy the conference. Tim, thanks for taking the time to think "out loud" for so many of us.
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