April 11, 2007

When fanboys attack

An Alfie Kohn Fanboy stopped by and left the following comment on a nearly eight month old post:

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.

Sounds like he's been sniffing too much glue making all those ed school collages.


CrypticLife said...

"This is so totally false that words fail me.

You sir/madam are the jackass."

[emphasis added]

Two points: I wish people would stop using the word "totally" incorrectly, and I always thought that being named "Ken" meant you would be addressed as "sir".

As far as his point, sure homework can be stressful by being boring, but isn't the point of the argument that homework should be improved?

I can't imagine how Kohn comes to "high test scores show shallow thinking", unless he's talking about incredibly poorly designed tests.

Denever said...

Crypticlife, I believe that "sir/madam" was directed at the commenter called "Instructivist."

Frankly, I'm amazed that the usefulness of homework per se, as opposed to the quality of homework, is still being debated.

I'm taking a weekly foreign-language course at my local community college. Last semester, I had virtually no homework. This semester (different teacher), I have homework every week. There's no question that homework assignments, especially written ones, force me to practice what I've learned between classes, which reinforces each lesson.

I don't recall it being any different when I was in elementary school, and I find it hard to believe it's any different for kids who are presently in elementary school.

Isn't this a no-brainer? Do some people really believe that regular practice *doesn't* lead to greater proficiency in everything from playing an instrument or a sport to solving math problems or reading increasingly advanced material?

KDeRosa said...

I have bad news for you, denever, they exist and they currently run the schools.

Forty-two said...

I would agree that it is a no-brainer that properly designed practice leads to greater proficiency in any given endeavor than no practice. Certainly, the more time a person spends on something, the better they are at that something. Put in those terms, I don't think that anyone (rational) would disagree.

However, that still leaves room to disagree with homework, both as currently implemented by government schools, and in principle.

As currently implemented, criticizing homework is like shooting fish in a barrel. There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that quite a bit of assigned homework is pointless, time-wasting crap. Given that there is research that indicates that many of the most popular curricula are - at least as far as achieving any sort of measurable progress with basic skills - also pointless, time-wasting crap, this is not surprising. If they can't even teach a skill properly in the first place, then it is not likely they can properly reinforce it.

While some teachers may rise above curricular deficiencies, those hated standarized tests indicate that most either cannot or will not. Given the fierce resistance to abandoning the philosophy behind those curricula, I don't think things will be changing anytime soon. And that means there is no end in sight to crappy, pointless homework.

"Yeah," you say, "most assigned homework is worthless; but there are good teachers out there, whose homework IS well designed and worthwhile. Isn't putting up with the crap worth it, to keep the good stuff?"

While the opportunity cost of pointless homework is impossible to estimate on a large scale, it certainly exists. (Parents, however, could determine it with a fair degree of accuracy for their own child.) Not only are children NOT learning/practicing the skill that the homework is ostensibly meant to reinforce, they have lost time that could have been used for something else. Are the time and skills lost to worthless homework worth the skills gained by worthwhile homework? I don't think it is unreasonable to answer "no."

As for objections to homework on principle, children are in school for 6-7 hours, 5 days a week, 180 days per year. In that time, I find it insane that schools cannot manage to provide children with both instruction and sufficient practice to achieve mastery. Instead, they find it necessary to intrude on the few hours schoolchildren have to spend with their families with yet more work. The academic subjects (supposedly) taught in schools are necessary, but they are not the only things children need to learn. Children need plenty of time to explore and to delve into their own interests. Homeschoolers manage to teach their children the standard academic subjects in a fraction of the time. Yet schools insist that they need longer school days and longer school years if they are to have any hope of succeeding. They waste the time they have already - why in the world should we give them more?

(I think this might be what Alfie Kohn was referring to what he said that more time on task would be pointless. It is not that spending more time on a topic wouldn't help kids learn more, but that SCHOOLS spending more time on task wouldn't help kids learn more, and would in fact take even more time away from ouside pursuits.)

This is just one of the reasons why I will be homeschooling my daughter.

Forty-two said...

Oh, as for Kohn's "high scores show shallow thinking," I would agree, with a caveat. High scores don't, and can't, show anything MORE than shallow thinking. These are basic-skills-only tests, after all. They aren't meant to measure everything that comprises a complete education, just what people think is the minimum necessary to reasonably function in society. However, it would be hard to engage in productive deep thinking if one was unable to think shallowly.

(A test that proposed to measure everything of true value in an education would scare the hell out of me, to be honest.)

Anonymous said...

"This is just one of the reasons why I will be homeschooling my daughter."

Your daughter is in for quite a shock when she gets to the university and discovers that she has to work and her excuses will be ignored, instead of playing all the time as you intend to let her do.

And we won't care about all of her whining, either. Or yours.

Denever said...

"I have bad news for you, denever, they exist and they currently run the schools."

Fortunately, they're only running the public schools. This is one of the reasons I can only support public education in principle, but not as it's actually practiced.

Forty-two, re your first point, I specifically directed my disbelief at opposition toward homework generally, not stupid homework.

Re your second point, I don't agree that everything can or should be taught during the school day. The reinforcement of what was presented in the day's lesson occurs *after* the lesson itself.

New ideas and skills need time to sink in. A student may not get everything as it's presented in class, but when he reinforces it by practicing it later that day or (gasp!) over the weekend, it finally sticks.

Haven't you ever had the experience of hearing something and thinking you get it, and then realizing when you finally do get it (the aha! moment) that there is a gap between abstract understanding and realization? That's been my experience in everything from calculus to martial arts to new bowing or fingering techniques in stringed instruments.

Practice does more than make perfect. It makes new ideas and new skills make sense in a much deeper way.

KDeRosa said...

Don't kid yourself, they've infected many private schools as well.

Forty-two said...


I'm not sure what in my comment indicated that I was going to allow my daughter to skate through life, and never learn the value and necessity of hard work. As well, I didn't feel my post was particularly whiny - rant-y and anti-government school-y, maybe - but not whiny.


My first point was that the overabundance of worthless homework compared to worthwhile homework was a legitimate reason to call for a complete homework ban (at least at the pre-high school level).

As for the second point, I see no reason why schools cannot supply distributed practice during the school day instead of via homework. I don't see a significant difference between learning skill A in the morning, and then practiing it in the early afternoon at school (the day it was learned and/or subsequent days as needed) or practicing it in the evening as homework. Granted, there would be a gap over the weekend, but that would most likely happen anyway. I seriously doubt most students would evenly space weekend homework over Friday, Staurday, and Sunday, but rather do it all Friday or Sunday night.

In short, practice is good and necessary, but mandatory homework is not the only route to achieve this practice. Honestly, I have more against government schools and how they waste time than I do against the idea of homework.

Denever said...

"My first point was that the overabundance of worthless homework compared to worthwhile homework was a legitimate reason to call for a complete homework ban (at least at the pre-high school level)."

Right, and since the criminal justice system sometimes errs, we should abandon it altogether - let's raze the courts, fire the police, and stop arresting criminals. That's a good way to handle anything that's imperfect - don't improve it; just ban it.

I could search for and cite the studies showing that the lag time between first learning a skill and practicing it does matter, but I don't think it's possible to sway closed minds with mere evidence.

Joanne Jacobs said...

I was surprised that a fan of Alfie Kohn thinks Harris Cooper's research supports Kohn's theories. Cooper advocates the 10-minute rule: 30 minutes a day for a third grader, 40 minutes for a fourth grader and so on. And, of course, he says homework assignments should be designed carefully so students will extend their learning.

Generally, research shows a modest benefit in elementary school; the benefits rise in middle and high school.

harriska2 said...

Geez, how would I teach my son how to read and write, do math if he didn't have homework after school. After all, I have to teach him how to do those things - they aren't.