August 16, 2006

Alfie Kohn: Dangerous Jackass

This is an interesting, and all too typical, interview with Alfie Kohn on his new book The Homework Myth. Apparently, it's taken Alfie an entire book to tell us that there really is no credible research either way when it comes to the benefits or harms of homework.

See, it only took me a sentence to summarize the state of the research and that's all it should have taken Alfie, so I suspect Alfie has used the homework meme as a springboard to fill his book with his typical crackpot theories on education. No doubt our gullible educrats will eat this stuff up as they normally do.

Let's begin at the beginning with Alfie being asked about what he's found out about homework.
Well, I began with the premise that, as parents know, homework is often responsible for stress and family conflict, that it gets in the way of other things kids would like to do after they finish six or seven hours of school, and that homework is viewed so negatively by children that it may diminish their interest in learning.
Right off the bat, Alfie has has given us a false premise. Homework is not responsible for stress etc. It is the student's inability to do homework, no doubt because they weren't properly taught the underlying subject matter, which leads to frustration and stress. When students are not able to do school assignments, they quickly become disengaged from school work, both in school and outside of school.

Then there's the problem of homework that is tedious make-work. Kids aren't stupid; they know when they're wasting their time that could be better spent on other more kid friendly endeavors.

There is a kernel of truth in Alfie's statement that "homework is viewed so negatively by children that it may diminish their interest in learning" but the solution is to improve homework, not necessarily get rid of it, as Alfie is endorsing.
But teachers continue to assign homework (in ever greater amounts, in fact, at least in the elementary grades) and parents continue to put up with it – presumably because they assume that the benefits outweigh the costs. Specifically, it's assumed that homework helps kids to learn better, or at least raises achievement levels as measured in conventional ways. So that's where I began. And, amazingly, it turns out that the evidence simply doesn't support this belief.
Nor does the evidence support the belief that homework doesn't help kids learn better. We simply do not know at this time because the research sucks. Just because the research doesn't prove x (homework is beneficial) doesn't mean that you can assume that -x is true (homework is not beneficial). No, that proposition hasn't been proven either, but that's never stopped our boy Alfie from prattling on like he's proven his point for a few more paragraphs.

By this point though Alfie has hooked his gullible readers who don't know how the scientific method works. Alfie has proven that homework is bad. Once again Alfie is right. Now Alfie has a license to say whatever he wants like it's true. He wastes no time:
I see homework as a case study, really – one of many possible examples where our practices are strikingly inconsistent with the data. I propose half a dozen answers. One has to do with widespread misconceptions about learning, including a na├»ve belief that more "time on task” produces greater success, and a residual acceptance of behaviorist orthodoxy that leads us to talk about “reinforcing" learning through drill and practice.
Too bad Alfie didn't delve into the merits of this research, because he would have gotten bitch-slapped as the know-nothing poser that he is. Of course, practice and time on task are important for learning any human endeavor, including academic learning. Here's a good article by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham discussing the research and explaining why practice is important. Willingham points out that to become skillful at something, such as at reading or math, you must acquire automaticity in many related skills. And guess how you build automaticity? Lots of practice.
Automaticity is vital in education because it allows us to become more skillful in mental tasks. An effective writer knows the rules of grammar and usage to the point of automaticity--and knows automatically to begin a paragraph with a topic sentence, include relevant detail, etc. The effective mathematician invokes important math facts and procedures automatically. Readers who are able to visualize a map of the world will find various books and assignments easier to read (and learn more from them). In each field, certain procedures are used again and again.

Those procedures must be learned to the point of automaticity so that they no longer consume working memory space. Only then will the student be able to bypass the bottleneck imposed by working memory and move on to higher levels of competence. The development of automaticity for generalized skills depends on high levels of practice (e.g., Shiffrin & Schneider, 1984). There is no substitute. Ensuring consistent, sustained practice is the most reliable way to ensure that a student will become an effective reader, writer, or scientist. Following a complex written argument, writing a convincing essay, or engaging in scientific reasoning are all skills that are enabled by the automatization of each discipline’s basics.

I also like this graph:
Even experts do a whole lot of practicing to increase their skills. Yet Alfie Kohn doesn't want your child to practice. Learning is magical, like riding a unicorn over a rainbow to a pot of gold at the end. According to Alfie, that pot of gold is knowledge. Jackass.

It's not about learning after all, says Alfie, it's about chanting:
Then there's the whole Tougher Standards mindset that still has education in its grip, with an emphasis on intensification, test scores, and competitiveness. It's not about helping kids to understand ideas; it's about being able to chant “We're number one!”
It's also about selling books and giving paid speeches around the country to criticize standards and the like, apparently. I guess Alfie forgot to mention that point.
Interestingly, schools that have eliminated traditional homework tend to find that their students are freed up to pursue challenging and deeply gratifying learning activities in the afternoons and evenings. And that's to say nothing of organized extracurricular activities.
I wonder if there's any practice going on when these kids "pursue" these "learning activities" and "organized extracuricular activities." I guess not; practice is a waste of time. No one practices when they pursue organized sports, learn how to play a musical instrument, or learn to draw, sculpt or paint, or play games, such as chess, to name but a few of the more popular extracurricular activites. In fact, even playing video games takes quite a bit of practice to beome good.
The case for letting kids play ball or surf the Internet is strengthened, I think, by the failure to find any research showing that homework is necessary for intellectual growth, to say nothing of its effects on social or emotional development.
Er, actually it's not. It's just a common misuse of the null hypothesis. One of Alfie's favorite tools in his bag of dangerous tricks.

Actually, Alfie likes some homework:
An in-depth project that helps students understand ideas from the inside-out is a hell of a lot better than a packet of worksheets or a requirement to read another chapter of a dull, committee-written textbook and answer the questions at the end. An experiment that needs to be conducted in a kitchen makes more sense than something that could just as easily be done at school. An assignment that the kids together have decided, during a class meeting, ought to spill over to the evening is probably going to have more beneficial effects than an assignment that the teacher unilaterally comes up with and imposes on them. (Or worse, an assignment that the teacher didn't even come up with but just photocopied.)
The usual bromides: Project based learning. Constructicism. Discovery learning.

Un-proven quackery the whole lot of it.

Luckily, we're coming to the end of the interview so the pain will soon stop.
What drives me crazy is the absence of discussion, the reluctance to challenge the status quo, the tendency to fall back on folk wisdom ("practice makes perfect") rather than examining the data
He has absolutely no shame.


Instructivist said...

How about starting a Jackass Gallery. There are quite a few ed charlatans who could make the list.

Here is one of those:

After listening to US academic William Spady - the father of outcomes-based education - at last month's Australian Primary Principal Association 2006 conference in Alice Springs, I can see no doubt about Spady's views on education. The more traditional approach to education is labelled as educentric by Spady and he condemns it for being competitive, academic, having right and wrong answers, being rational and logical and, as a result, instilling fear and an either-or mentality. In Spady's words: "The curriculum box, time box, grade-level box, opportunity box, testing box, marking box, achievement box, school box and classroom box all severely constrain how teachers and learners function and think about outcomes."

In opposition to the more conservative approach, Spady argues in favour of what he terms transformational outcomes-based education, described as a paradigm that embraces empowerment, divergent, lateral thinking, holistic and spiritual unity and a win-win approach imbued with love and synergy. While acknowledging it is difficult to properly implement OBE, Spady argues that teachers and educational leaders should strive to embrace an "inner realisation" paradigm of educational reform, involving "expanded consciousness of one's spiritual nature-potential", "one's intuitive connection to universal wisdom", "meditative exploration by quietening the conscious mind" and "learner-controlled timing group-enhanced experience".

allen said...

Yeah, I was about remark that what public education needs is a quietening the conscious mind but ol' William Spady beat me too it.

I just came to the realization that having a good explanation for the inevitability of this edu-crap doesn't lessen the pain of it's gum-inflaming bombast.

Anonymous said...

First off, I assign homework, quite a bit actually, so I start from a position that apparently is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Kohn. Then again, I also think it is important for all of us as teachers to really think about the kind of homework we assign, why we assign it and how well we prepare our students to be succesful with it.

However, none of that is really why I'm commenting. I just couldn't let the following go: "Too bad Alfie didn't delve into the merits of this research, because he would have gotten bitch-slapped as the know-nothing poser that he is."

"Bitch-slapped!?!" Ahh, okay, you certainly have every right to use the term...just why here? On a k-12 education policy blog? On a post about conflicting views on the merits of homework? Is it street cred you want (the biggest bad ass ed blogger in the hood)? Really, just who is the bigger poser here? Pathetic.

KDeRosa said...

Lori, you must not have heard[ it's sweeps week in the edusphere, it was either potty-mouthed humor or tasteful nudity. I guess I picked wrong. Did you like the title?

Anonymous said...


...And I didn't give you enough credit: obviously always best to avoid nudity on a k-12 ed blog, although it would indeed spike the ratings. I think it's in everyone's best interest here to avoid the attention of FOX News. (The kinkiest bad ass ed blogger in the hood? Okay, let's not even go there.)

Here's to keeping one's perpective.


Mike in Texas said...

tasteful nudity

Wow, something we can finally agree on? (I'm assuming you mean tasteful female nudity)

KDeRosa said...

MiT, we both know that there is no such thing as tasteful male nudity.

Anonymous said...

From the interview:

"And even in high school there's only a modest correlation between time spent on homework and achievement – with little reason to think that the achievement was caused by doing more homework. Then there's other evidence, including a brand-new study of TIMSS data from 50 countries, and it shows no positive effects from homework,
even for older students."

But Alfie also believes that high scores on standardized tests are bad:

"This assessment is borne out by research finding a statistical association between high scores on standardized tests and relatively shallow thinking."

[From: Fighting the Tests: A Practical Guide to Rescuing Our Schools]

I'm wondering how a standardized test like TIMSS could show a positive effect for Alfie Kohn? Lower test scores?

In another article, he approvingly quotes Linda McNeil of Rice University:

"Measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning."

So ... I'm wondering how Alfie Kohn can claim anything about homework one way or another? If the stuff that can be measured isn't important , then how can we decide anything about anything, including the use of homework?

-Mark Roulo

Mr. McNamar said...

With my Pre-College classes, I make a vow each year: "I will not give you meaningless busy work. If I assign it, it has value; so do it."
And so far, I've been pretty successful. The problem comes when, at the end of a quarter, there are only a limited number of assignments to use and the students have chosen not to do a few.
You are right, it is not about how much homework is given, but how valuable. it is.

graycie said...

I tell my (high school) kids that they have homework every time the class meets:

1) Re-read any notes from class -- read'em silently if you're visual or out loud if you're auditory.

2) Make sure that anything written from class is in the right place in your notebook.

3) Check any upcoming deadlines such as quizzes, tests, or project due dates. Be sure that you are up to speed on any of these.

This isn't busy work -- it's taking responsibility for one's own learning. It's also doggone hard to pass without doing these things.

Instructivist said...

Alfie says:

An in-depth project that helps students understand ideas from the inside-out is a hell of a lot better than a packet of worksheets or a requirement to read another chapter of a dull, committee-written textbook and answer the questions at the end.

Alfie lauds projects, but projects will be time-wasters if students don't have foundational knowledge. Alfie's contempt for textbooks and practice sheets denies them this foundational knowledge.

I love your line about magical learning (“Learning is magical, like riding a unicorn over a rainbow to a pot of gold at the end.”) Indeed the belief in magic is a major component of these educational charlatans who would be laughed out of court in a more rational world.

Anonymous said...

You should appreciate this.

Anonymous said...

Can any of you get back to me with good anti-Kohn material??? The charter school where I teach has a few board members enamored with Kohn and wanting to forcefeed us Kohn's schtick. I need any and all ammunition against Kohn - who I know in my gut is a money hungry ghoul trying to scare parents and annoy good traditional teachers. (He doesn't think there is any such thing...)

KDeRosa said...

Can you be more specific; Alfie has written on a broad range of idiocy. There is a lot more criticism out there on the stuff that Alfie backs that doesn't directly criticize him.

jim said...

I’ll be more specific: My school (private parochial), sent home a letter that in part states: “According to The Homework Myth by Alfe Kohn, research indicates that giving routine homework does little to improve test scores in young children. A long-term national study has found that since 1981, homework has actually doubled and become routine part of the school experience. We know that homework can be stressful to some children. Taking these findings into consideration, we would like to discontinue our routine homework assignments.”

Some parents are pressuring the teachers about the amount of homework, but believe that there is another agenda here. I do not think that my daughter is doing too much home work. She completes the assignments, makes good grades and still has to be reminded not to watch so much TV.

I am hoping that this new line of thinking can be quickly changed and would like any help countering Kohn’s ideas

Anonymous said...

why debate or debunk? everyone has an opinion (ie uninformed thoughts and feelings). when is someone gonna ask what are my preferences? if you like hilter and help fight his war ... if you like kohn and agree with the priniciples of that research... if you want to deliver you own thoughtless thrashing...
judgment, criticism, evaluation
where is your understanding of your own needs? is it to just debase others and their idea? i would rather know how you treat others in reality. what types of relationships do you choose?
good luck good vision

Anonymous said...

I would like to find some hard facts on the homework question, especially for children in grades k - 3. Kohn asserts that there is no proof that homework for children can help them learn, and I did not read a credible refutation of that. As on blogger points out not knowing it helps is not equivalent to knowing it does not help, but doctors don't perscribe medicine using that kind of reasoning. At least, I hope they don't. Kohn also discredits his own point when he discredits the objective data from standardized tests. Such tests are badly flawed, but if we pay their results some attention, what do we have to go on at all? If I go by my own intuition as well as memories from my distant childhood, regular homework in grades 5 and probably just rob learning of its joy for younger children. But my intuition is all that is. So I am back to wanting some facts.

Anonymous said...

Alfie Kohn is just another quick money sleaze who is essentially playing on the fears of the public. The one question that would ruin Kohn's book entirely is: Where is this research? I have never seen any proof of this.

Anonymous said...

Alfie Kohn is just another quick money sleaze who is essentially playing on the fears of the public. The one question that would ruin Kohn's book entirely is: Where is this research? I have never seen any proof of this.

Anonymous said...

I've read Alfie Kohn's books before, and he's always had multiple references at the back of the book. I have trouble questioning Kohn's credibility, considering he has experience in the education field. His references apparently have experience as well.

Alfie Kohn brings up some interesting points. I don't believe he is suggesting a "magical short-cut to being educated". Nevertheless, I have been searching for criticms against him or his ideas in order to form a more complete idea on how to improve the education system (as part of an independent research project).

As it is, it is hard to take this blogger's criticms seriously with the b-slapped comment and the vulgar title. I thought the blogger might have been onto something for a moment before the crudeness of his arguement set in.

KDeRosa said...

Kohn and his references have no experience with the actual teaching of children. He sells books to the gullible who don't don't bother to validate his references. Is it that you find the language offensive or is it merely a convenient cop-out to avoid asking yourself the difficult questions re your shared opinions with Kohn?

Anonymous said...

I have a question for you. Did you, the author of this blog, go back and read his references? If so then explain to us in blogland what they said and what they mean. Perhaps you could inform the uninformed a bit better--- instead of unintelligent character assassination. I have no opinion one way or the other, but am interested in both sides of the debate.

KDeRosa said...

Anon, I have an answer for you. I have read the "research" on homework. Like most of Ed research it isn't very good or very scientific. It certainly doesn't say what Kohn thinks it says and the conclusions Kohn draws are facile, at best.

The point is that the research Kohn quotes aren't valid predictors of anything so there's no sense going into a detailed analysis other than to point out the flaws in the research, which other researchers have already done.

Physix cowboy said...

I will go ahead and admit that I am just beginning my graduate studies in education so I am not the grand master instructivist believes him/herself to be, but let me see if I can express my self more professionally than he/she did. I realize that this is a very old post, but one statement irks me to the point that I must make this probably futile reply:
"Alfie has has given us a false premise. Homework is not responsible for stress etc. It is the student's inability to do homework, no doubt because they weren't properly taught the underlying subject matter, which leads to frustration and stress."

This is so totally false that words fail me. Homework doesn't have to be impossible to create stress. If the assignments are ridiculously easy, but ridiculously long (try unending and unnecessary) as they always were in my personal experience with primary school, then I can only view them as Mr. Kohn believes them to be: a conspiracy to desensitize students to the drudgery of spending the rest of their lives in a cubicle. I'm not certain as to the validity of Kohn's data or arguments, but I am sure about yours. And as far as your statement that there is no good data pertaining to this matter, try googling Dr. Harris Cooper. Or if you like, e-mail me and I'll send you a 60 page PDF.

You sir/madam are the jackass.

Anonymous said...

I believe that perhaps you missed the central point of the book. It is not "homework is from the devil and it should be eliminated", it's "homework is being applied without much thought about its consequences". The biggest problem isn't with homework per se, but with the way it's been used lately

Also, you rant about practice, and nowhere in the book did I find the idea of practice opposed, on the contrary. The fact is that kids already spend a great portion of their time in school, why should they need to spend more time in academics at home (where there is no teacher to guide, no peers to exchange ideas with, etc...)?

You're guilty of exactly what Kohn criticizes most about educators, and people in general: that they see things in black-and-white rather than in many shades of grey. Apparently, you believe that either kids practice or they don't; either they spend hours on schoolwork or spend none at all; either teachers assign homework or the kids don't practice. In reality, it doesn't work like that at all; as a matter of fact, we'd be hardpressed to find ANY issue that is completely black-or-white

I came here looking for constructive criticism on Kohn's work, but your attempt failed spectacularly, especially given the vehement tone you use, which seems to indicate, honestly, a anterior bias, with which it is hard to see things clearly. Perhaps if you actually assimilated all of Kohn's points you could conduct better criticism

Anonymous said...

On average, homework DOESN'T help because 1) too many teachers try to use it as a bandaid for bad teaching, 2) teachers often assign stupid, pointless activities as homework, and 3) some teachers think that homework is inherently valuable and so assign huge amounts without regard to that actual value of the activities.

Teacher often assign ridiculous projects that they didn't teach the material for and that, more and more commonly these days, students can't complete without parental help. These projects are rarely conducive to learning.

Homework is ONLY effective as a reinforcement for concepts that have been mastered in the classroom. Then, it is a useful tool. Otherwise, it is a waste of time.

So I have to say this is wrong, as well:

"Homework is not responsible for stress etc. It is the student's inability to do homework, no doubt because they weren't properly taught the underlying subject matter, which leads to frustration and stress."

No. Actually, very often, homework is highly stressful of its sheer quantity, which has nothing to do with one's ability to do the work. In fifth grade, my math/science teacher covered all of fifth and sixth grade math. That was fine. No stress there. The stress came because she thought that it was appropraite to assign ten-year-olds 50 long division problems and 30 definitions to look up and copy from the back of the science book--even punctuation being graded, of course!--in a single night. That is three hours of homework for a fast 10-year-old. Three hours. For two subjects. In fifth grade. After we finished that, we then had social studies and English to do, too, and our intruments to practice.

I could do the homework fine. I made very high grades. I did not have my parents help me in any way with it. But you'd better believe I was stressed.

She was one of those teachers who mistook piling on huge numbers of repetitions and rote memorization for comprehension and rigor. I did more homework that year than I did my senior year of high school, when I had a 4.0 GPA (salutatorian in a graduating class of 1,000) with 5 AP classes, all of which I scored a 5 on on my AP tests.

I did more homework that year than I did as a freshman in college, when I was taking 19 credit hours, eight of them honors, and one of my classes was a grad-level class while another was the class that flunks more people every year than any course in the US at the time. (I got a 4.0 then, too.)


KDeRosa said...

Rey, you're battling a strawman. I don't think anyone is advocating for assigning lots of bad homework. In addition, our example, while compelling, is far from the norm. I agree with your first few paragraphs, but then you start painting with too broad a brush. Yes, too much homework can be stressful. But, the typical teacher does not assign anything near this level of homework.

Anonymous said...

>But, the typical teacher does not assign anything near this level of homework.

It really depends on the school. In my school district, thankfully, that 5th grade teacher was the aberration, but I know of SEVERAL schools that confuse "high standards" with "enormous amounts of busy work." There are people who forcefully declare that homework is good and teachers aren't assigning too much...but it varies so hugely from school to school and even teacher to teacher that I think that THAT comment was way too broad. Just because *most* teachers don't doesn't mean there aren't places where first graders often have an hour or more of homework a night.

(BTW, I was in 5th grade in 1990. I think the teacher finally retired last year. She won all sorts of award for "great teaching" because she was a tireless self-promoter, but she actually did no conceptual teaching whatsoever--it was all regurgitation or algorithmic operation with no meaning.)

As another comparison, I never did homework in my Chemistry AP and Cacl BC AP classes because the homework was optional (corrected, not graded) and I simply didn't need it. I typically studied half an hour to two hours for the bi-weekly test, and that's it. Was I hurt by this? Well, considering how well I did in Calc III H at Purdue after passing out of Calc I&II, I'd give a resounding "no!" Different students need different amounts of repetition, and I believe that practice should be optional starting in high school for honors students.


harriska2 said...

Rey, do you think the Stand and Deliver guy was a self promoter and simply stood on his laurels by teaching simple algorithms? I mean, geez, he had the gall to teach urban, low SES kids calculus. I'm sure they only knew the formulas but couldn't apply them on a test correctly. Oh wait, most of them passed the AP test. Well, I'm sure he was evil. He got run out by the other teachers so he must have been bad, right?

Anonymous said...

I've been searching the web for counter-arguments to Alfie's claims, but there's precious little to be found. By responding to Alfie's carefully documented research with ridicule and name-calling, you've helped confirm my belief in what he says. If you want to make converts, then start by doing your own research, and then documenting it. Otherwise, you clearly have nothing substantive to say.

KDeRosa said...

I've been searching the web for counter-arguments to Alfie's claims, but there's precious little to be found. By responding to Alfie's carefully documented research with ridicule and name-calling, you've helped confirm my belief in what he says.

You've certainly ignored the merits of the arguments in this lengthy post. There's more than just name calling.

If you are serious in your intellectual quest, you'd offer counterarguments. But alas, you only offered a drive-by comment and maintained the security of your intellectual cocoon.

If you want to make converts, then start by doing your own research, and then documenting it.

I have over 400 posts on this blog. Many of them refute one or more claims your boy Alfie has made. Lots of data is provided.

Otherwise, you clearly have nothing substantive to say.

pot, kettle, black

Artemis said...

I am desperate to find more debunking of Kohn's bizarre notions. Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

Traditional views of education hold that homework is useful and bestows advantages on the student and their learning. But research fails to find reliable evidence for this.

Kohn claims that homework is disadvantageous and a source of demotivation. If these claims cannot be substantiated either we are still left with the problem that there is no evidence that homework achieves anything; there is only an wooly opinion that it does.

This being the case - why give it at all.

It is also important to realise that schools only teach a fraction of what children really learn. What makes us so sure that what we set them to learn after school is what they really need. Children are learning whatever they are doing - play is important.

My daughter is a natural artist but the school structure is unable to foster this. After homework, she has no energy left to develop these talents and her progress is slower than it would be if she had the freedom to choose what she does. Schooling tends towards mediocrity, my daughter will be able to do what any other child can do but not more and that, for our kids, it is an injustice.

Lots of schools around the world do not set homework and the children do just as well in school and after it.

Anonymous said...

I had to listen to this insufferable twit lecture for 3.5 hours over two days about how bad it is to lecture to students. Alfie then "took questions" for an hour. He only answered three questions, dragging his answers on for twenty minutes each to a) listen to his own annoying Sylvester-the-Cat voice and b) decrease the chance that anyone ask a tough question. Contrary to supporting free-thought and open discussion, he and his disciples tolerate no criticism. Check out the discussion page on his Wikipedia listing to see what I mean.

Anonymous said...

im writing agin to compline, cuz i dont feel i wrote enough. there is a school assiment that is troubling me, is about Alfie Kohn's book.i have trouble finding a decent artical about reader's view. Now i found one, thanks. and this isn't suppose to make u look good.
since ur not going to put any comments thats aginst u, this one and the last one isn't going to go up.