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Posted at 8:30 AM ET, 03/ 4/2011

Why homework is counterproductive

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Alfie Kohn, the author of 12 books about education and human behavior. His latest, the forthcoming "Feel-Bad Education . . . And Other Contrarian Essays on Children & Schooling," will be published this spring by Beacon Press. He lives (actually) in the Boston area and (virtually) at www.alfiekohn. He blogs at The Huffington Post.

By Alfie Kohn
A parent wrote me to express her frustration not only with homework but with the response she hears from teachers when she complains about homework. Even those teachers who are sufficiently knowledgeable and brave to admit that research fails to show any meaningful benefit from making kids do homework -- particularly in elementary school -- tend to insist that pressure to cover an absurd number of topics prescribed by the state standards means they just can’t get through it all during the day. Hence the apparent need for homework.

Here are four responses to this claim:

1. Lengthy lists of specific standards and benchmarks for each grade level and in each subject can be just as damaging to learning as the tests used to enforce them. Yet many teachers -- even at the high school level, and certainly below it -- find a way to teach the required material without pushing the burden onto families and making kids work a second shift at home.

2. The best teachers go a step further: Rather than focusing on how to cover a "bunch o’ facts" more efficiently, they see their job as helping students to discover ideas. These are the teachers who really succeed at helping kids to become critical thinkers and excited learners. And, as a rule, these teachers are even less likely to assign homework.

3. Just because the practice of assigning homework seduces some teachers with its promise to make up the gaps in what they’re able to get through during the day, that doesn’t mean students will actually learn what they’re made to do at home on their own. Even supporters of homework generally justify it as a way to have kids practice skills they were taught during the day, not as a way for them to teach themselves new material!

4. In any case, the disadvantages of homework -- frustration, exhaustion, family battles, loss of time for kids to pursue other interests, diminution of interest in learning -- far outweigh any theoretical gain in curriculum coverage.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 4, 2011; 8:30 AM ET
Categories:  Alfie Kohn, Guest Bloggers, Homework  | Tags:  alfie kohn, disadvantages of homework, homework, homework research, how much homework  
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All right, that's about students and teachers who don't want homework, and parents who are threatened or reluctant to take it on.

But what about students who want more learning, and want it connected to their school learning and want their teachers to be involved?

Are you saying that they should not have "homework"?

Posted by: dsequeira | March 4, 2011 10:01 AM | Report abuse

All right, that's about students and teachers who don't want homework, and parents who are reluctant to take it on or don't know how to help their kids gain any benefit from it.

But what about students who want more learning, and want it connected to their school learning and want their teachers to be involved?

Are you saying that they should not have "homework"?

Posted by: dsequeira | March 4, 2011 10:02 AM | Report abuse

SOME teachers assign homework because they feel pressured to cover too many standards.

SOME students have too much homework and become frustrated by it.

SOME teachers use homework as "practice."

Alfie Kohn Logic Conclusion
Therefore, ALL homework is bad.

Non-Ideologue Logic Conclusion
Just because SOME teachers don't assign meaningful and reasonable amounts of homework doesn't mean you condemn homework altogether.

How about we focus on reforming homework practices to make them meaningful and valuable?

Alfie Kohn's logic is the equivalent of arguing that because eating bad food leads to heart disease, the solution is to stop eating. Shouldn't you just eat better food?

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | March 4, 2011 10:28 AM | Report abuse

When I taught gifted students in an affluent area years ago, the parents complained that I did not give their children enough homework. You can't please everyone no matter what you do. Some people will just be better off home schooling their children. that way they can do exactly what they believe works.

Posted by: 12345leavemealone | March 4, 2011 10:40 AM | Report abuse

I believe that the argument is that no matter what you assign for homework... that work would be more meaningful if assigned during class.

I have to add to the time defense though. I teach high school Algebra 2/Trig, and we are required by the curriculum to cover all of Trigonometry in 1 quarter (9 weeks). Clearly, this means the teacher must introduce something new daily. Now, between the required warm-up (5 minutes), having the students copy the objective (another 5 minutes), and introduction of the material (20 minutes), students have 15 minutes to put their new knowledge into practice.

I don't know of any other way of getting good at this level of mathematics without repeatedly and completely solving math problems (much like music or sports, you can only become proficient with practice).

I'm out of ideas, what else can I do but give problems for homework?

Posted by: someguy100 | March 4, 2011 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Re: "I believe that the argument is that no matter what you assign for homework... that work would be more meaningful if assigned during class."

That's not Alfie's argument. His argument is that homework is bad (hence the title of this article).

The problem is that Alfie's contention about homework is SOMETIMES true... that it's too much, or it's not meaningful, or it's driven by "coverage," etc... but it's not ALWAYS true.

Some homework can be valuable and meaningful, if not downright paramount.

But, as with every other argument he makes, Alfie treats complex and nuanced issues as being simple. He treats exceptional cases as being universal. He then offers solutions to problems that may exist on a small scale as if the problems are pervasive, and his solutions are radical for the sake of being radical.

I can't believe this guy has a following.

Posted by: AJGuzzaldo | March 4, 2011 11:08 AM | Report abuse

AJGuzzaldo is spot on in his analysis. Kohn's rhetorical musings fly in the face of overwhelming evidence. His writing is not reasoned argumentation, it is philosophical propaganda in style and in content.

Persons who excel at sports, musical performance or even driving a car improve with more and repetitive practice. Math, reading, and foreign languages require the same effort, repetition and practice in order to be successful. That is reality.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | March 4, 2011 11:44 AM | Report abuse

@someguy100: Did you see the link in the article to the comments by all the teachers - including high school math teachers - who have found they actually don't need to assign homework? Kohn also tweeted a link to a section from his book that asks teachers (esp in math) to reconsider their beliefs about the need for practice:

Posted by: jiji1 | March 4, 2011 12:05 PM | Report abuse

"I can't believe this guy has a following."

Nor can I.

Posted by: DHume1 | March 4, 2011 12:27 PM | Report abuse

It's not enough just to discourage teachers from assigning homework. We need to BAN homework -- including homework assigned by private schools. Indeed, the video gaming industry should back such legislation.

Otherwise some throwbacks -- ambitious Asian "Tiger moms" and other parents driven by some perverse work ethic -- will prefer (nay, DEMAND) homework for their offspring, and will ultimately have their better prepared progeny earning far more than our coddled children.

Level the playing field! Ban homework!

Only one problem left -- we need to get the UN to ban homework worldwide. Otherwise . . . .

Posted by: RRider1 | March 4, 2011 12:38 PM | Report abuse

The argument that sports and music require much practice and therefore we should assign homework is ridiculous. Most sports practice is done during official team practices (similar to class time), unless individuals feel they want/need more. Music is practiced at other times often because one only has an hour lesson each week. Students are in class practicing these skills much longer than an hour a week and so are getting time practicing in school.

As a teacher I have never believed in homework. I require my students to be reading each evening but otherwise I hope they are spending time with their family. I work them hard for the 6 1/2 hours they are in school, they deserve to be kids after that. This was true when I taught fourth and fifth grades and is true now that I teach first grade.

As a parent, I hate homework. My child (second grade) and I could spend our time doing much more interesting, engaging, life-learning rather than the worksheets she brings home (and I think she has a fabulous teacher).

Posted by: Jenny04 | March 4, 2011 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Count me in as a homework hater also. In particular, I hate wordstudy or spelling homework. I didn't learn to spell through spelling homework, I learned to spell by reading books that used correctly spelled words--which is basically any book you can find. My children are subjected to such drivel as wordstudy, in which teachers hand out packets of work based on sets of words, and then test them on how to spell the words at the end of the week. The homework has only a limited relationship to the assessment, and often has a high stress factor. When my normally easygoing fifth grader, who loves to read, has a good vocabulary, and gets good grades, is reduced to tears by wordstudy homework, I question the value of what is being done. When I take a look at the homework that is reducing her to tears, I no longer have questions--this is bad stuff. In a unit consisting of words that have prefixes that change the meaning of a base word focusing on the prefixes "ex", meaning "the opposite of" or "formerly", one of the words was "example." On another, students were given lists of words ending in "-sion" and "-tion" and were asked to write a root word ending in "-se" or "-te." Expulsion was one of the words--and after my daughter cried because she couldn't find "expulse" in the dictionary, I told her the root word was expel, which she wrote at the bottom of the page, since there was no column for words that don't fit the pattern. The teacher told me later that he had looked it up and discover that my daughter was right, so he gave her an extra credit point. Cold comfort in exchange for anguish experienced by a fifth grader who previously expected homework to make sense. He did not agree with our judgement that "state" is not the root word of "station." When she asked me why her teacher would assign homework like that, I just told her, "Mr. So and So likes to torture fifth graders." Yesterday my fourth grader was in tears because her word study required her to label parts of a camera, including an external flash, and a canister of film. She also had to use a word bank to complete sentences about how a camera works. However, I use a point and shoot digital camera. She has never seen a canister of film. We are not conversant in the language of high tech photography, so are not sure she answered these questions correctly. And we are left wondering--why is it important for a child to know how to spell shutter, portrait, pose, etc.? Well, actually we aren't wondering. And she can spell film and pose. But how often will she be using them?

Posted by: janedoe5 | March 4, 2011 1:37 PM | Report abuse

If a parent feels a student doesn't do enough homework, let the parent institute a "reading hour" when anyone without specific assignments must be reading (or practicing a music lesson or whatever they think is useful learning). If the parent absolutely insists on specific subjects such as math or science, let him or her instruct the youngster to double or reduce recipes,figure the amount of paint fertilizer the parent will need to spread on the lawn, learn to sew, or evaluate the chemicals in cleaning materials.

Although I do want to warn janedoe5 that while reading books with correctly spelled words is exactly how most good spellers learn to spell, this is NOT "basically any book you can find." If publishers cared about correctly spelled words, I would not be an unemployed proofreader!

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 4, 2011 5:14 PM | Report abuse

When I first started teaching I didn't assign much homework. The kids would come in to class the next time not remembering a thing. The fact that we had block scheduling -- another moronic idea -- didn't help much either. When I started assigning homework things got much better. I've even had students, the good ones, who ask for more practice problems.

Now some subjects may not call for as much "homework", but subjects such as physical science and math certainly do. Idiots like Kohn pretend that his ideas apply across the board. Let's put this in perspective: the guy taught EXISTENTIALISM. Do your kids take existentialism in school? Do you worry that they're not "mastering" it? Does Valerie worry that we're raising existentialism-challenged kids and that this country's days are numbered because of it? If not, then why does she keep giving this idiot a forum?

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 4, 2011 9:48 PM | Report abuse

As an AP Physics teacher I cannot imagine a scenario when homework wouldn't be required and necessary. We don't have enough hours in a day for mastery of each new topic. A bit of time at home is required for reinforcement and practice.

I recall the hours and hours of elementary homework with spelling words and sentence writing with my own children. Yes it was sometimes a problem, but to extrapolate that across all grades and all subjects is faulty reasoning.

Homework is necessary for learning. Anyone who thinks otherwise should attempt to teach a child about complex topics in an hour one day and then move on to another complex topic the next day. See how much mastery is accomplished with no practice at home.

Posted by: VirginiaTeacher | March 5, 2011 6:40 AM | Report abuse


I agree with you completely on your comment above.

The only reason I checked the comment section here was to see how many people were foolish enough to pay an ounce of attention to this gobbledygook. I certainly never read the piece. It's a complete waste of time.

Posted by: paulhoss | March 5, 2011 7:13 AM | Report abuse

My wife is a physician, internal medicine. This means that she specializes in adults. If an adult asks her about some problem she's been known to offer advice. If people ask about kids, then all bets are off. She doesn't, and shouldn't, make comments about pediatric matters.

Too bad that education doesn't work that way. In education everyone's an expert in general, of everything.

I constantly hear claims of this form:

"I taught 3rd grade for decades
Therefore, I am a MASTER EDUCATOR.
I always did X, so everyone throughout k12 should do X
I never did Y, so NO ONE throughout k12 (and beyond) should do Y"

Most of these claims come from language arts teachers and early childhood teachers attempting to extend their experiences beyond the confines of their usefulness and propriety. Alfie is just another prominent, but wealthy, example of this absurd phenomenon.

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 5, 2011 8:20 AM | Report abuse

Should we also assume students can learn a musical instrument without practice?

Surely one advantage of homework is that it gives us a chance to communicate the importance of education to our children. We help them learn to learn at home on their own, and disabuse them of the idea that learning is something that only happens in the classroom and has no connection to the rest of their life.

Alfie Kohn needs to open up his own charter school and we'll see how the kids turn out. There's no longer any excuse for these theories. Let's give him a school of disadvantaged kids and see how it works out for him. Every shred of evidence I have seen and experience I have suggests it won't work out very well.

Posted by: staticvars | March 5, 2011 11:20 AM | Report abuse

Homework is necessary. If many teachers are incompetent and give unnecessary and counter-productive homework. Very much homework is lousy. That does not negate or disprove the need for good homework.

Many parents don't know how to get kids to do their homework and are too lazy to learn - and so it's an unpleasant experience for them. That homework is unpleasant for these people is no more an argument against homework than the painfulness of shots is an argument against vaccination.

On normal school evenings, children should almost ALWAYS have some kind of homework. One of the lessons competent parents teach their kids is that even when you don't have homework, YOU STILL HAVE HOMEWORK - reading, discussing, solving problems.

One problem is we completely separate education from the rest of life and another is we completely conflate schooling and education.

When my kids were very young, about grades 1 to 3, they begged me to home school them. I refused at the time. Had Alfie Kohn been remotely involved with their schooling, I would have changed my mind.

If schools were organized differently, homework might be significantly less critical - but there will always be a need for some it.

Of course the intellectually vacant parents are going to be a fan of Alfie Kohn. He pats them on the back and tells them there's nothing wrong with their ineptitude. The opposite of something stupid is not necessarily wise; sometimes it's just as stupid.

Posted by: kgreen1 | March 5, 2011 12:24 PM | Report abuse

I can go along with kgreen1's statement that homework is necessary--to a point. Math practice is essential. My kids formerly went to an elementary school where the children brought home a "contract" at the beginning of the year explaining real world math application and games that promote mathematical skills. We were asked to sign the contract stating that we would spend 15 minutes daily doing a math activity with our children. Did everyone follow through on that? Doubtful--this was a Title One school in Annandale--parents were working multiple jobs, some did not speak English and some were not literate in their home language. Was it useful to let families know the learning value of games? Absolutely. But spending an hour thinking of sentences to go along with spelling words, having to write a rap using words ending in "-ate," and other wordstudy activities, are, in my book, worthless. Kgreen1, it is not that fact that it is unpleasant. It is when the busywork with minimal educational value is unpleasant and frustrating (when your child doesn't even know what a rap is, and has to look it up before doing the assignment) that I question the value of that particular homework.

So I should not have characterized myself as a blanket homework hater. I am merely a horrible homework hater. Helpful homework is fine.

Posted by: janedoe5 | March 7, 2011 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Let me clarify:

I think GOOD homework is necessary - period.

I also think (I KNOW) that a LOT of homework actually is counter-productive, wasteful - even disrespectful. It's possible that MOST homework is like this, but I'm not sure.

Those two statements are not contradictory.

I agree that horrible homework should not be assigned. However, homework is not horrible merely because it is difficult.
(No one has asserted otherwise, but I should be explicit.)

OTOOH, I try to be flexible even when I strongly disagreed with a teacher. My oldest is a junior in college and my youngest is a senior in HS. They haven't needed homework help in a very, very long time. But their current independence has come about because I tried to work with the teachers. I had some kind of disagreement with the teachers on at least a weekly basis, but I only got involved in extreme cases. (Frankly, I did let things go too far once, but it's difficult to know where to draw the line.)

I'm not sure what to think about the "-ate" homework. It doesn't sound like the kind of thing I would appreciate. OTOH, I would explain to my kid that a "rap" is a kind of song / poem usually with obnoxious lyrics. I approve of exercises to enhance vocabulary. I approve of coming up with sentences to go with spelling words, although I think reading and conversation are a better way to go on that.

I recall that early on my kids had some homeworks that were extremely painful. Maybe once or twice they didn't get to bed until about 10 - this was when they were very young. I refused to give them the answer, but kept using Socratic method to illicit response. Made them furious, but nowadays they have thanked me again and again for helping them figure it out themselves.

Posted by: kgreen1 | March 8, 2011 10:00 AM | Report abuse

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