The pros and cons of homework

For decades, the standard operating procedure in America’s classroom has been teach, then have students continue to teach themselves in the form of homework. Time and time again, the formula has been revised, recreated and redistributed across all grade levels. The question of whether or not it is benefiting students is uncertain.

Author Alfie Kohn questions the practice and the benefits long attached to homework. He believes that the standard should be no homework because six hours of school time is enough for students, and evening work detracts from family time. He said homework cannot be completely avoided 100 percent of the time, but in most cases, he feels that it should be an option or given only when it directly benefits all students.

“Don’t just try to improve the implementation, ask the radical questions. Ask why we’re doing this and what the research says,” said Kohn.

Kohn spoke to parents, teachers and community members of Mercer Island on Tuesday, March 3, about his book, “The Homework Myth,” written in 2006.

He is a former high school teacher and long-time author who has spent the last 20 years researching and writing about education.

Kara Millsap, a first-grade teacher at Lakeridge Elementary, said she attended to gain perspective on giving homework and deciding how much is appropriate for younger students, an issue that she deals with on a daily basis. She said she walked away with the idea of differential homework, or the belief which Kohn outlined that there is not a wholesale solution which fits every student’s needs.

“I’ve always felt homework can be a window into the classroom so parents could see what I’m doing, but maybe in some cases a newsletter would suffice,” said Millsap.

Kohn’s appearance was made possible by the Mercer Island Parent Education Committee and ParentMap, a parenting magazine, as part of the Pathways 2009 lecture series. The Education Committee consists of representatives from each of the Mercer Island schools and St. Monica School. Judy Chase, Chair of the Education Committee, said the group pools a budget from each of the school’s PTA’s with the purpose of bringing in speakers to discuss issues with parents. This topic came up after discussions with the high school, parents and students.

“A group of teachers, staff and students met to understand the stresses on high school kids and what could alleviate some of the pressures,” said Chase. “We think it is healthy to have conversations that raise different points of view, and we have heard from many parents that their kids struggle at home with too much or too challenging homework.”

Tom Tivnan, a fifth-grade teacher at West Mercer Elementary, said Kohn presented an interesting perspective, but it is hard for him to completely accept the results without seeing the documentation. While he said he agreed with Kohn’s philosophy on some points, the fact of the matter is that the research cannot be looked at in a vacuum.

“There are times I agree with some of his statements, but he’s preaching to the choir. This needs to go all the way up, to the governor. Until then, it’s still what we’re expected to do,” said Tivnan.

Jill Seidel, a parent with two kids in the district, said while homework has not been a big issue in her house, it does come up during meetings with other parents. She said she found herself a fan of what Kohn had to share.

“He challenged us as parents and educators to question some of the norms and standard practices,” she said. “I was most surprised to learn that there is no body of research which supports the benefit of doing homework. The idea that intrigued me was that doing no homework could actually be beneficial. Perhaps there are better things to do with those after-school hours like reading books for fun. We all agree that we want our children to grow up to be happy, well-balanced, lifelong learners, yet we allow them so little time to develop, grow, explore, dream outside the academic arena.”

The district’s homework guidelines encourage staff to give homework which falls into three categories. It should help prepare students for an upcoming topic, give them practice in a newly learned skill or allow for individualized application through research or an independent study.

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