Academic Skills, Pedagogy, teaching

History without Homework?

I recently finished Alfie Kohn‘s recent book The Homework Myth and found myself intrigued by his argument and his extensive use of evidence to debunk a number of common conceptions about homework and its value. He very thoroughly challenges the idea that homework serves a valuable purpose — either for helping students learn skills by practicing, or by providing a “non-academic” benefit through time management skills or improved character. At the heart of his argument seems to be an earnest, and compelling, vision that students need time to be kids and do things with their families that extend beyond protracted battles over homework completion and the attendant grades that come along with doing this work.

Particularly convincing was Kohn’s challenge to the idea that homework provides a benefit for students by allowing them to “practice” the skills they learned at home. Situating this idea in the context of B.F. Skinner and his vision of behaviorism, Kohn contends that this assumption views students as comparable to pets in that both can eventually learn certain skills through endless rote repetition. Although perhaps a bit sensationalistic (and perhaps I’m dressing it up to be more inflammatory than Kohn himself put it), I nevertheless found the point really persuasive as it meshes with an aspiration of mine to avoid encouraging students to think about history and the habits of mind unique to the discipline as extending merely to a cycle of “reading-memorizing-regurgitating.”

While I see Kohn’s argument as particularly valuable and pertinent to elementary school classrooms, I’m still having a hard time conceptualizing how I could harness his totalizing vision in my own classroom. Kohn does mention a number of middle and upper school teachers in his book that have implemented “no homework” policies, he doesn’t lay out a detailed vision of how precisely this works in practice. Nevertheless, he does mention a few specific suggestions that teachers should consider to begin moving in the direction of minimizing homework by ensuring that what they do assign meets a few key criteria. In Kohn’s vision, homework should be:

  1. Activities naturally suited to the home — things like interviewing parents, discussing current events or issues addressed in the classroom, and the like;
  2. Activities not normally considered homework — things like cooking, playing crossword puzzles, watching and discussing television or movies together, building things, and other things that have students engage with adults in a critical and inquisitive manner;
  3. Reading — in this case material that is of the student’s own choosing, which should help them build vocabulary, pursue their own interests and passions, and develop an authentic interest in discovery and learning for its own sake.

I think it made a lot of sense for Kohn to provide (wow, this is about to get super-meta here) a scaffold for his readers to approach these concepts at various levels of comfort. In other words, his suggestions allow a variety of teachers — those who’ve imbibed various quantities of the Kohn Kool Aid — to implement his suggestions in their own classrooms.

When I think about these general guidelines I’m better able to envision ways in which I could help reduce the more traditional, behaviorist-inspired style of homework. There’s certainly some good potential in a history class for genealogy-related assignments, oral history interview work, and researching the provenance behind valued family heirlooms. Additionally, having students learn how to seek out meaningful, scholarly work about topic in which they’re interested would also be a tenable thing to implement. Nevertheless, I’m still struggling with how I could adopt more of Kohn’s vision in an upper school history classroom. While contained classrooms in elementary school lend themselves more readily to this “no homework” approach as they offer sustained amounts of time with the same students that allow for in-depth exploration and sustained inquiry, I’m having a tough time thinking about how this might work in a 45 minute class period. Of course, it might just be that I’m familiar with the habits and routines I’ve developed over the past six years and it’s easier to imagine that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence where class periods are longer, whereas these challenges will exist whether one’s class period is 45, 60, or 90 minutes.

I posted a question to this effect yesterday on Twitter and got a response from Stephen Lazar which explained his approach to this dilemma — assigning brief reading assignments at the end of a class period that then serve as the basis for the next day’s discussion. I got the impression from Stephen that his classes are a pretty typical format (e.g. 45 minutes/day, meeting five days a week), and he acknowledged that in order to make this shift in his classroom he had to sacrifice breadth in exchange for greater depth. Is this trade-off one that’s inherent in moving toward a Kohn-esque vision of homework (or the lack thereof)? Of course, to ask that question is also to beg the larger question of which is more important — breadth or depth — which is a topic best left for another post.

So, I’d be interested to hear from other teachers who’ve either read and are familiar with Kohn, or who simply try to avoid homework having come to similar conclusions independently or for other reasons. Does this vision of avoiding homework function as Kohn describes it in the upper grades? On a number of occasions throughout the book, Kohn seemed to suggest that homework was a more natural fit in an upper school context, and he never really addresses whether his argument extended to (or should extend to) colleges and universities. Therefore, I’m wondering if these hedges in his book are present because his audience is primarily elementary and middle school teachers and parents — an audience where he thinks he can affect the greatest change — or if his argument isn’t meant to extend to upper school and college students because the intellectual work these students do requires them to grapple with texts and assignments on their own time outside of the classroom.

Particularly for history, I’d love to hear about secondary school classrooms that manage to conduct seminars, in-depth document analyses, and extended research projects without assigning traditional homework. How do these classroom frame assignments? Do these courses cast their scope much more narrowly than traditional high school courses (e.g. World History, European History, United States History)? Certainly, I’ve got much more reading to do of Joe Bower’s blog, whose work I discovered after hearing his great talk at the Reform Symposium. His blog has a ton of great ideas about reforming the traditional classroom, and I’d suspect that many of my questions will have some light shed on them by reading his work. However, if anyone else is familiar with other schools, classrooms, or teachers that avoid homework or manage to frame it in Kohn-esque ways, I’d be really interested to hear about those experiences.

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4 thoughts on “History without Homework?

  1. Mylynka says:

    Your review of this work brought to mind the early chapters of “Kindergartens and Cultures” we read for Adam. The idea that school work be replaced with more home oriented tasks for learning… hasn’t that already been tried?

    How DO you do history with no homework? How does the reading get done to enable next day discussion? And how will they “practice” history at home? Does he address specific academic subjects or is this about homework in general?

    • Nate says:

      Kohn uses a variety of examples from various disciplines — elementary school classroom, middle school science, social studies, English, and a few high school teachers of these subjects as well.

      He doesn’t really go level-by-level to explain how his system would be implemented for different subjects or for different age groups. Rather, and I suspect that this is wholly intentional, he leaves his recommendations very generalized so that they can be applied to the broadest swath of teachers possible.

      As I’ve noted in this updated post, I wonder to what extend he is speaking to upper school and college-level teachers, as he uses few upper school examples, and doesn’t address colleges or universities at all. Perhaps post-secondary schooling is off his radar as they’re not beholden to the same high-stakes standardized testing that is so prevalent at lower grades, but you’d think that is eliminating homework is so beneficial for younger students, wouldn’t the same hold true for older students as well?

  2. Just for the record, I teach in 60 minute blocks 4 days a week. There’s not a significant difference between that and 45×5 for me. It’s also worth noting that I don’t really use a text book in my class (there are some in my room to be used as reference materials).

    I think you bring up a lot of good questions. I am very strong supporter of depth in the “breadth vs. depth” argument, and I’ll eagerly await your post on it to see where you fall.

  3. Pingback: At the Intersection of Grades, Game Theory, and Ethics « The History Channel This Is Not…

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