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Letter to NYT about homework

[An abridged version of this letter was published in the New York Times on September 19, 2011]

Is "The Trouble With Homework" (opinion, Sept. 11) more a matter of its quality than its quantity? Yes and no. Homework can be pointless or counterproductive even in limited amounts, but a lot of it -- or, worse, a pattern of loading kids down with homework day after day -- can be enormously damaging even if we approve of the assignments themselves.

To suggest, as Annie Murphy Paul does, that the only relevant question is "How effectively do children's after-school assignments advance learning?" is unfortunate for several reasons. First, it begs the question of what's meant by "learning." The research she cites, concerning techniques like spaced retrieval and retrieval practice, are primarily intended to increase the number of facts students can memorize. Anyone with more ambitious intellectual goals -- for example, helping students to understand ideas from the inside out, to analyze them critically, to make sophisticated connections and distinctions, and, above all, to want to continue to do these things -- will be less than impressed by memorization-oriented studies. [On the study dealing with retrieval practice in particular, see this blog post.]

In any event, none of this research makes a case for homework, per se, and Paul's single-minded focus on the quality of homework ignores the question we believe is more important: Must children really be made to work a second shift after they've spent a full day at school?

The available data simply do not support an affirmative answer to that question, particularly with students below high school age. Corroborating what the research tells us are the many anecdotal reports we've collected of teachers and entire schools that have eliminated homework altogether -- with encouraging results in almost all cases.

Moreover, if we look beyond academics, then the question is no longer how to tweak homework assignments to maximize the number of facts retained. Rather, we'd want to know the effect of homework on children's social, emotional, physical, artistic, intellectual, and psychological development. We worry not only about the other activities that homework displaces but the frustration, exhaustion, and family conflict that homework so often causes. And we fear that homework may be the single most effective way to destroy children's curiosity.

Even if the quality of homework did improve -- and it's not clear that assignments based on the studies Paul cites would really bring about meaningful improvement -- that wouldn't address these deeper and wider concerns about what is really best for kids.

-- Vicki Abeles and Alfie Kohn
The writers are, respectively, director of the film Race to Nowhere and author of the book The Homework Myth. -- Alfie Kohn