Monday, January 22, 2007,2:17 PM
The Homework Myth - Learning
I'm working my way through The Homework Myth by Alfie Kohn and I want to post some of my reflections. In the first part of the book, Kohn presents research to show that contrary to popular opinion, homework doesn't help students (either academically or otherwise). I don't want to get into all the technical research (read the book for that), but just point out a few things. It is common for homework to be defended on the grounds that studies show it is effective. But often that claim doesn't reference any studies or as he found on multiple occasions, the studies listed in the footnotes didn't show a positive effect of homework at all (were they just there to look good???).

The only studies that showed any positive effect of homework were those that had students cram on a certain group of facts and then test them on that group of facts the next day. Voila - the kids who crammed did better than those who didn't. Big surprise there. But did those kids remember that stuff a week later, or a semester later, or the nest year? And who can actually call stuff like that learning? Rote memorization is not a meaningful understanding of the subject, just a form of acquired behavior (given the stimulus 3 x 4, you respond 12).

It is the more meaningful type of learning that is so lacking in schools and is hard to accomplish with homework. Teachers, who are already overworked and underpaid, are expected to give homework. To assign meaningful homework that involves the students engaging the subject would mean way more work grading for that teacher. It's a lot easier to give homework that can be graded quickly, but that sort of homework is rarely meaningful but relies instead on drill and practice (rote learning). I liked this perspective presented in the book -
"... thinking should be 'couched in terms of comprehending, integrating, and applying knowledge.' But in their classrooms, the students' job is 'comprehending how the teacher has integrated or applied the ideas... and to reconstruct the teacher's thinking on the next test.' ... The best classrooms not only are characterized by more thinking than remembering; they also have students doing much of the thinking."

Comprehending, integrating, applying - far cries from rote learning and far more meaningful. It is active learning, not stimulus/response "learning." I think we need to care more about such active meaningful learning in our schools and in our churches. This issue is part of why I despise a lot of children's church curriculum like AWANA. In such programs the quantity of facts acquired is the point. The kids memorize Bible verses each week and then promptly forget them (until they have to cram for the end of the book test). While the adults may talk at the kids about the verses, the kids are not engaged meaningfully with all of those separate, out-of-context verses. Who has the time when quantity of verses memorized is the goal. (And don't get me started on how warped it is to reward kids with badges, stickers, and jewels for memorizing the bible. I'm not into bribing kids to be spiritual or to love God).

A whole perspective change on learning is needed. Instead of just trying to tweak a broken system perhaps we need to question our basics assumptions about learning itself. If what we are doing doesn't work or lead to any real learning, why do we do it?

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posted by Julie at 2:17 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


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