From the Blog Chris.Thinnes.Me
By Chris Thinnes
March 9, 2013
"At some point we’re going to have to come to terms with the distinctions between the fires we light in our classrooms, and the extinguishers we send home in backpacks."
Last year in Texas, on a visit to a New Tech high school with school and district leaders from the EdLeader21 PLC, we had the opportunity to hear from students that an intentional culture of deeper learning had a transformative impact on their lives.
Among many highlights was a young woman’s response to questions about the differences between her experiences as a senior at New Tech @ Coppell, and her close friends’ experiences at the district’s central high school.
On the subject of homework, she told a story about how her friends, for a couple of years, were jealous because they thought she didn’t have ‘homework’ at New Tech. She admitted, as well, that she was secretly delighted that she did not — on her account — have to suffer through the boring nighttime chores her friends complained about on Facebook.
Then, one evening, one of her friends called her on her cell phone to see if she could hang out. She told her friend that she was still at school, and still at work on a video that a few of her New Tech friends and she were putting together.
Her friend interrupted her: “But you said you don’t have homework. And like every time I call you, you’re doing something that has to do with a project at school.”
"I didn’t ever think of it as homework, like my friends did at their school, because I was making choices about what I needed to do, when to do it, how to do it, and who I should be doing it with.”
All of us in the room suspected where she was headed with this story, and were thrilled to hear it confirmed: “I realized that I didn’t ever think of it as homework, like my friends did at their school, because I was always making a choice about what I needed to do, when to do it, how to do it, and who I should be doing it with.”
This young lady was, obviously, drawing a distinction between ‘homework’ as it has always traditionally defined (in its worst instantiations, as compulsory rote exercises to which students are submitted, without regard to their specific needs or the effectiveness of the exercises’ design), and something more like ‘learning at home,’ as this young woman experienced it: activities students decide to pursue, because of their active interest and authentic investment in continuing their inquiry, discovery, or problem-solving on their ‘own’ time outside of school.
Perhaps we don’t (yet) live in a world, and we don’t (yet) work in a system that supports us making a simple choice between one approach to ‘homework’ and the other approach to ‘learning at home’–but perhaps hearing students’ experiences (such as this young woman’s) will help us move on the path that history, research, and common sense suggest that we should tread.
Imagine my delight, then, when a great 4th grade teacher showed me samples of her students’ recent work this morning: three papers called “Should Kids Have Homework?”, “Why Kids Shouldn’t Have Homework,” and “Should Elementary Students Have Homework?”
This teacher had the confidence (having long ago invited students’ voices into the design of their learning experiences) to let her 9- and 10-year-olds both ask and answer the questions that matter to them most about their learning.
It turns out the membership rolls for the Alfie Kohn Appreciation Society have swelled in recent weeks. Here’s a case in point, from one paper–in a section devoted to the deleterious impact of traditional ‘homework’ on family life and private time:
"In fact, other than not improving grades or test scores, elementary school homework also causes conflict, especially with parents. 'You end up ruining the relationship that you have with your kid,' one father reported to Alfie Kohn. Alfie Kohn is a famous education author. He wrote 'Down with Homework,' which is a very important article for this project. This article is a very proud sponsor of Kohn’s brilliant work."
Another student elaborates on missed opportunities outside of school that follow from the overassignment of homework:
"One of the reasons homework should be eliminated is kids have spent the entire day at school, and the little time they have should be spent learning instruments, playing sports, enjoying time with their family, and most of all relaxing to get ready for the next school day. This would not only make kids more joyful in life, but parents too–because then they would not have to help their kids."
A third student challenges conventional assumptions about the academic benefits of traditional homework, particularly when assigned by the bargeload:
"Finally, more than two hours of homework negatively affects test scores. According to scientists, more than two hours of homework makes the brain soak up too many things, and is too tired to learn or work ahead, which negatively affects test scores.
Also, if a kid stays up till 10:00 trying to finish, they will be too tired to go to school and learn."
But easily my favorite excerpt of all — particularly for any naysayers who come out of their caves, or down from their towers, to mumble tired rejoinders like, “Sure, kids say they don’t like homework. That’s because they can’t understand why it’s so good for them. They don’t understand education the way we do.” — is this simple truth, tagged by a fourth grade girl:
"Learning is great; homework is not."
Part of our joint efforts, as teachers and as parents, to support our children’s learning is to understand the impact of its least effective elements on our children’s lives. At some point we’re going to have to come to terms with the distinctions between the fires we light in our classrooms, and the extinguishers we send home in backpacks.
Let’s work to listen to the voices of students — who are, after all, the individuals who have the most salient, if not the only, experience that’s relevant to the matter — and support a more effective framework to balance their learning and their lives.
Here are some references worth considering, from one of the fourth grade students’ papers:
- Buell - Back to School: Why Homework is Bad for Kids
- Cooper - “Homework Research and Policy: A Review of Literature” Cited Here
- Kohn - Down with Homework
- Nair - Too Much Homework Bad for Kids
- Stevenson - Is Homework Bad for Kids?
About Chris Thinnes
He is Head of the Upper Elementary School and Academic Dean at Curtis School, a member of the National Advisory Group of EdLeader21, a member of NAIS’s advisory council on diversity (CTA), and Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Elementary Education (CFEE) at Curtis.
Educators and parents/guardians from 125 private and public schools participated in the most recent CFEE conference on “Parent-School Partnerships in the 21st Century: Teaching and Learning at Home and at School,” with Carol Dweck, Richard Gerver, Nikhil Goyal, Steven Jones, Ken Kay, Alfie Kohn, Wendy Mogel, Ken Robinson, and Yong Zhao.