Rethinking homework

Do students have too much homework? In Pleasanton, a middle-class California town near San Jose, the school board is set to discuss cutting back homework time.

KQED’s Michael Krasny hosts a debate featuring Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, Harris Cooper, Duke psychology and neuroscience professor and author of The Battle over Homework, Pleasanton Superintendent Parvin Ahmadi and Tom Loveless, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former sixth-grade teacher.

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  1. I haven’t listened to the interview yet. I have read his book. He makes some good points…some homework I believe is unnecessary, or poor quality.

    I’m not against worksheets, but sometimes I wonder if the teachers really look at the worksheets to make sure they are developmentally appropriate, have clear instructions, and don’t contain errors.

    If you read the book, Kohn contradicts himself in a few places about the benefits of homework. He suggests that since some groups might be more likely than others to complete the homework(thus one group leaps ahead, and the other falls further behind)…..that no homework should be assigned at all.

  2. Haha, Kate. The fact you think that teachers have time to look at every problem on a worksheet is laughable.
    I agree that teachers should make an attempt to choose relevant and high quality homework, but for this to happen, they need to be given time or a high quality curriculum with homework assignments included.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:


    Seriously? I would feel incredibly guilty if I assigned a worksheet without doing it myself first.

  4. I like the new model proposed by Salmon Khan:

    1) Student’s “homework” is to watch the lecture video and make note of any questions.
    2) Student comes to class to do the work where the teacher is available for consultation and answering any questions.

    Silly to make the teachers spend their time delivering a lecture that can be taped and used over and over.

    Khan also supplies lots of tracking tools, so teachers can see who watched which lectures, what parts they played over and over and how each student stacked up against the others.

  5. Peace Corps says:

    I rethink homework with every class I have, and often within the year for each class. There is no one-size-fits-all. Last year I had a situation with one class where we did all the work in class and progressed very slowly. I hope I never have a class like that again. I agree that there is such a thing as too much homework. I hope that teachers are continually analyzing what works and what doesn’t for all their classes and adjusting to improve results. I think in the best situation my students will be working math homework for about 20-30 minutes per night.

  6. “Silly to make the teachers spend their time delivering a lecture that can be taped and used over and over.”

    I guess if you are doing teacher talk, students sit and listen type lectures. Some of my favorite professors in college “lectured” by engaging the students a bunch. You know, asking lots of questions, helping students to form knowledge (Socratic). Same for high school. Dull teachers can use Kahn I guess. I’m sure the Kahn idea would be great for teaching specific skills that have specific procedures, but it is over-rated. Before Kahn students could read a book to learn the same information at home and then come to class prepared. Old idea in new clothes.

  7. Sara, why assign the homework at all then, if you really don’t have a chance to review it and see that it is relevant to your students. How do you meaningfully give feedback on the homework, if you haven’t reviewed it to begin with.

    I’m not talking about scanning for typos, I’m talking about homework that really doesn’t make sense, or isn’t developmentally appropriate.

    One of the most confusing episodes as a parent is when my older kid came home with a worksheet asking the student to add two digit numbers. They hadn’t worked on it in class. I would find out later that the math curriculum they were using only loosely taught addition, anyway. Don’t you think that is confusing for the child to send them home with homework they don’t have the skills to do.

  8. alas, sarah’s attitude reflects gthe poor quality of too many teachers today. “We don’t have enough time to do…..” (fill in the blank with the typical things that any professional is supposed to do as part of their job but that too many teachers feel is beneath them). However, Sarah’s statement was a new low. You don’t have enough time to make sure that the homework you are giving the students is relevant or high quality? Wow. that says a lot about your level of dedication to your job and about your professionalism. Get out of the business if you don’t have time for something as important and basic as making sure the homework you give is relevant and of high quality.

  9. Alfie Kohn is a farce, and anyone who listens to a word from his mouth deserves not to get that time in their life refunded to them.

  10. For years, my classes have been heavily homework based so that students who need more time will have it.

    The problem is, some students have home lives that make doing homework rather difficult.

    Another reason I’m rethinking homework is that several of my colleagues who assign no homework are great teachers and get great results.

    One point that Madeline Hunter made was that homework, be it long division or finding the simple predicate, shouldn’t exceed 10 problems. She said, and this was years ago, that anything more than 10 is counter productive.

    I agree with her. I probably should follow her advice. I haven’t yet, but I probably should.

    As for reading, that’s another matter. Students should read 7-10 hours a week. The problem is, how do you monitor it? Book reports kill the love of reading, reading logs are forged, and Accelerated Reading limits choice. I dislike Accelerated Reading but it’s the most effect reading accountability system out there. The simple fact is that those students who are in an Accelerated Reading program read more.

    The bottom line is that for homework, students do too many math problems and read too few words.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Does it count as homework for this discussion if the assignment is, “learn this”?

  12. I realize this is not nearly as common as it once was, but good textbooks include homework for each section — often short-answer questions that require the student to have read a chapter or part of a chapter. If the textbook is good, the questions are automatically relevant and well-chosen. This is for upper elementary and HS, of course.

  13. Stacy in NJ says:

    As a home schooler, I give two types of “homework” to my kids. The first is the easy, repetitive practice stuff – easy math facts as speed drills (starting with addition facts working up to manipulating fractions and decimals ala Kumons), short paragraphs to edit, memorizing poetry and speeches. The other type is more complex, think it through problems – a few more difficult math problems (Singapore math is great for this type of work), a literary response paragraph, answering questions from their science text (as BB suggests).

    We do alot of the first type of work and a modest amount of the second.

  14. Stacy in NJ says:

    Rob, I too think Khan provides an interesting and appropriate model. My 8th grader is halfway through his Algebra text this year (he’ll be working thought the summer to complete it). The program he uses, Teaching Textbooks, works sorta like Khan, although it’s software based.

    He does the following:

    1. Listens to a short lecture via a CD
    2. Watches the teacher work through 3 or 4 samples problems. I require that he take notes on each sample problem.
    3. completes 22 -25 problems in a corresponding workbooks (the newer version of this program allows the student to complete the problems online with instant feedback). The workbook also includes written instructions very similar to the lecture, so if the student prefers just to read the book he can.
    4. I correct his work and he corrects any problems that he can.
    5. For those problems he doesn’t “get”, he watches the teacher via a solution CD work the problem step by step. And he takes notes on those problems.
    6. He has a 25 problem test at the end of each chapter which I correct, but a test solution CD provides step by step instructions for each problem.

    It’s a wonderful program. It allows independence with an ample amount of support. I don’t know why public schools don’t or haven’t tried this type of model more widely. The kids could self-pace – working as slowly or quickly as needed. I would add in a “math lab” or two per week, when a teacher would be available to tutor, answer questions, work difficult problems, provide further explanations.

    Here’s a link for anyone interested:

    In addition to the lectures, does Khan offer problems to work with solutions and feedback?

  15. How is this any different from the last post on homework? Rinse and repeat.

    There are too many different ability groups to meaningfully discuss the value of homework.

    The Khan model, like Singapore math, only works for already smart people. Most folks in all of these discussions are clueless about low cognitive ability kids.

  16. Jill Bell says:

    Speaking from a mathematics perspective, Salman Khan has a great method for the kids who work best with his method – it is great for remediation and for students who tend to need math concepts repeated more than once in order for them to “sink in.” It doesn’t work well with GT kids and upper level kids, because those kids have no opportunity to ask the professor questions about topics related to the topic at hand, or topics regarding extensions of the current topic. Some kids, without the interaction of a knowledgeable professor, would become frustrated with the lessons. That’s why education cannot be packaged into a “one size fits all.” It never will…

  17. > Alfie Kohn is a farce

    Yes, yes he is. I ordered one of his books once to beef up an order to get free shipping. Somehow, I think that book actually made me dumber; it certainly wasn’t worth the free shipping.

  18. Cranberry says:

    If you read the book, Kohn contradicts himself in a few places about the benefits of homework. He suggests that since some groups might be more likely than others to complete the homework(thus one group leaps ahead, and the other falls further behind)…..that no homework should be assigned at all.

    I have difficulty with the concept of attempting to equalize homework’s effect. If one group of children do their homework, and improve their performance, why shouldn’t that be encouraged? Isn’t that why we attempt to educate children? Why is it unfair to educate children?

    My children read for fun. Should that be discouraged, because other children don’t? If you reduce the argument to its essentials, the children who do the least work would set the standard for every other student in the class. Rather than raising expectations for everyone, such an approach lowers expectations.

  19. Cranberry, one argument Kohn makes is that well educated parents can help their children with homework in a different way than a less well educated parent.

    I’m not saying I agree, just what I remember from the book.

    Perhaps Kohn doesn’t realize that in a university community like mine, if the teacher doesn’t assign homework……the parents often will. So there is no way to really equalize, as he would like.