Sunday, October 9, 2011

Alfie Kohn vs. Janine Bempechat on Homework

Here's an interesting radio debate between Alfie Kohn and Janine Bempechat about homework:

Cursed by Students, Homework Finds Skepticism Among Researchers

As I've remarked before, I don't always agree with Alfie Kohn, but I can safely say that I never agree with Janine Bempechat, from her first utterance, where she claims that homework is beneficial because "it helps kids develop the ability to endure boredom", through her summing-up (which elicits a shocked "Wow!" from Alfie Kohn):

I think fundamentally we're talking about cultural models of learning, and in all the complaints about homework, what I hear is a subtext of people feeling sorry that children have academic work to do, and I think pity is the kiss of death where children's learning is concerned.

Talk about not taking kid's unhappiness seriously!

Bempechat consistently takes the teacher's point of view, while patronizing parents and children:

Teachers like to give homework because it's a primary way to involve parents, and it's critical to involve parents in their children's learning.

After she acknowledges that the research is clear that homework has no correlation with achievement in elementary school, she goes on to say:

At the elementary school level, teachers give homework in order to foster adaptive beliefs and behaviors around learning ... it's very short-sighted to argue that we should throw homework out just because kids — it doesn't make them do any better.

So, the fact that homework doesn't help kids do better academically isn't enough to support an argument that we should throw it out? What kind of support is she looking for? Would we have to show that homework causes cancer? What?


  1. Well, actually, many people will develop cancer later in life, so it is important that we give carcinogenic homework to kids now so that they can be ready for cancer in the future.

    My first thought reading Janine Bempechat's comments was about the book "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo": the original Swedish title for the book is "Men Who Hate Women."

    This is clearly a person who hates children.

  2. Ah, yes, the classic "better get used to it" meme. As I've been tempted to point out at many a conference, someday we'll all be dead, but that doesn't mean we need to practice lying down in a coffin.

    I agree that J. Bempechat hates children. One thing I appreciate about A. Kohn is that he's really interested in what school feels like for kids.

  3. Yes, c'mon you wimps... we need our kids to understand that learning shouldn't be fun and that school is merely a device for them to learn to conform, fill in boxes when asked (even if the questions are inane), and follow instructions without question (even if the instructions make no sense or are draconian).

    It's all about meeting last minute deadlines, keeping track of six different bosses assignments right down to each teachers' requests on line-spacing, writing utensil, type of notebook, paper-folding, and information for the top of the page. Because, that's the important stuff in developing career aspirations, isn't it?

    No pain, no gain. Right?

  4. Check out this article (c/o northTOmom): An elementary school principal abolishes traditional homework in favor of free reading, and one of the parents complains: “The behavior of homework is more important than the content of homework."

    If that isn't the definition of busy work, I don't know what is.

  5. Right, that's the idea that the purpose of homework is to get kids in the habit of doing homework. It's such an outrageously lame argument that I wonder why people support it at all.

  6. There is a difference between homework that allows kids to practice the skills needed for success in the class, and homework that is given out just for the sake of giving out SOMETHING.

    Any skill learned in school is just like any skill learned outside of school: if you don't practice it, you won't master it. If we throw homework out, how will kids learn more complicated subjects like upper math? And how would they even be at the upper math level unless they practice basic math first? Most kids won't make a willful decision to do math on their own. That's why homework is in make them practice useful skills that they might not have the internal motivation to practice.

  7. anon, I learned all the math I need by grade 2, and didn't have homework till grade 4.

    Not that I don't like learning, just that upper math is not for everybody.

    Come to think of it, what is it for?

    This is a serious question. What percentage of the population uses higher math in their jobs? I would guess 20% max? possibly less?

    Woulnd't it be more useful to read Plato or Kierkegaard for everybody else? I sure as hell would rather read SK than do stinking math. But perhaps others would prefer math.

    To bad we don't have a choice till School is out

  8. Anonymous, I'm not opposed to math practice. But can't the school day be structured entirely differently? When teachers overload with homework, it's no longer about practicing a skill. It's about survival, trying to get through that interminable mountain of work. And ultimately it can lead to cutting corners, to cheating.

    When a child is stressed, pressured and exhausted, I doubt much practice is going on. And if she's cut severely into her sleep in order to cut down that mountain, I doubt much is retained either.

    Work smarter, not harder. And that goes more for the teachers than the kids.

  9. "Teachers like to give homework because it's a primary way to involve parents, and it's critical to involve parents in their children's learning." This tired old canard is trotted out so often, it's amazing we haven't debunked it for good.

    Does anyone ever stop to consider how incredibly insulting and patronizing this statement is? Bempechat presumes I am such an idiot, it would never occur to me to involve myself in my child's learning unless the teacher ordered me to do it.

    Yes, I'd like to know what my child is learning in class. But you can send or email regular newsletters and updates. And guess what? I actually talk to my child so I get information from her as well. I don't need to be roped into an involuntary homework cop role in order to discover what my child is doing at school.

    This statement also posits that without homework, I'd never bother educating my child at home. I'd plop her in front of the tv, dump a bag of cheese doodles in her lap and take a nap.

    And we all know the statement isn't true anyway. If all schools cared about was learning at home, they'd accept my desire to take my child to museums and libraries and call it a day.

  10. HomeworkBlues, there's an extra wrinkle to the presumption. It's not just presuming that without homework, some parents would plop their kids in front of the TV, dump a bag of cheese doodles in their laps and take a nap. It's entirely plausible to imagine that some parents will do this (I have seen kids on field trips come with a big bag of cheese doodles as their packed lunch). The implausible presumption is that the parents who were going to do that now won't, because their kids have some crappy worksheets in their bags. It's more likely that the kids who were already going to have an academically enriching home environment will come to class with all their work done, and the kids who were going to eat cheese doodles and watch Power Rangers ... still eat cheese doodles and watch Power Rangers. The belief that some instant conversion will be worked by three pages of story problems is a punt.

  11. To add, why should we be punished because some kid doesn't go to the library or museum after school? It's often been said that the child who is the most hurt by homework overload is the contemplative in depth one. The ones who don't need it are saddled with too much of it.

  12. Anonymous, I completely agree. All these attempts at involving parents are a burden to the parents who are already involved, and a complete wash to the parents who aren't involved. They're not having the intended effect at all.

  13. These are all good points. Then there's also the issue that the involved parents are usually the ones who will either force the kid to do the homework or do it themselves. The un-involved ones don't, their kids don't do the work, and then they get in trouble the next day.

    I've seen kids from unstable, unhappy homes who were happy and eager to go to school and do whatever was asked of them. But when they started getting in trouble because they couldn't keep up with the class and then couldn't do the small mountain of homework assigned to them, they became depressed and sullen at school and would fake sick to get out of it.

  14. It boggles the mind what a boondoggle homework has turned into. We've gone from the iconic reluctant child of the sixties who didn't want to do it but the amount is reasonable, she got it done and skipped out to play to today's insurmountable daily mountain. So that for many families it takes cajoling, homework coach, psychiatrist, medication, therapy, and a bevy of consultants. All for the sake of what has turned into a daily bitter pill that hasn't proved beneficial in the first place.