Words of discomfort

I spent this evening with several concerned parents who were discussing their concerns with the amount of homework that their children in elementary school have to do. Near the end of our talk, I was told about a recent article in a national newspaper, written by the Canadian Council on Learning. You may remember that the CCL received $85 million from Canadian taxpayers last year to set up five knowledge centres. In Words of Comfort to Parents About Homework, posted on the CCL site, Paul Cappon states:

Research supports the idea that homework assignments in reasonable amounts can substantially contribute to learning. Not surprisingly, students who do homework perform better on tests and other assessments than students who duck it. And, up to a point “there is such a thing as too much homework” the more homework students do, the better they perform.

Please Mr. Cappon; what research? The only positive research that I know of was conducted by students; was not peer reviewed; and had small sample sizes. Please post references to any other valid research data here, in case I am ignorant of some reputable studies on the subject.

So, do reasonable amounts of homework contribute to learning? The authors of The Homework Myth, The Case Against Homework and The End of Homework, strongly disagree, and cite several studies to support this position. In our small group of parents, several with PhD’s and statistical analysis expertise, not a single person has been able to find any data to support this statement by the CCL. Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth, puts it quite categorically:

For starters, there are no data whatsoever to show that elementary school students benefit from doing homework. None. And even in high school there’s only a modest correlation between time spent on homework and achievement – with little reason to think that the achievement was caused by doing more homework. Then there’s other evidence, including a brand-new study of TIMSS data from 50 countries, and it shows no positive effects from homework, even for older students. I wasn’t able to find any reason to believe that students would be at any sort of intellectual disadvantage if they had no homework at all.

So why is a publicly-funded learning institution making flawed statements in the national press about educational practices? These are words of discomfort for me.

12 Responses to “Words of discomfort”

  1. Amanda Cockshutt

    Fantastic Harold! Nicely put together. When I read the G&M article by Paul Cappon I e-mailed him and asked for his references to support that statement. He quoted the 2006 review by Harris Cooper (where the author clearly states NO correlation between homework and academic performance), and 4 unpublished studies. These are discussed on pages 39 and 40 of “The Homework Myth”. There Alfie Kohn discusses them in detail. Not pretty.

    It’s pathetic!

  2. Chris

    Hi Harold,

    Have you mis-quoted them? The line “And, up to a point—there is such a thing as too much homework” doesn’t make sense. Are you missing a “no” in there?

  3. Harold

    No misquote, Chris; check the CCL link.

    I believe it’s an aside. Cappon is saying yes, “there is such a thing as too much homework”, but sticks to the premise that the more homework students do, the better they perform. However, no valid research supports that premise.

  4. Charles

    I’m wondering just what this really means. There is research showing that expertise requires an intense amount of “effortful study” (see The Expert Mind in Scientific American), and according to John Anderson (of ACT-R Theory), effective time on task is the most important element in learning something. Without any research in hand, I’m pretty certain that my table tennis skills (long ago) were directly related to the amount of time I practiced. So, I’m having a hard time reconciling the solid research on learning and expertise with the notion that homework, which would seem to be a sort of more time-on-task activity, doesn’t aid achievement. The only thing that comes to my mind is that homework is busy work, is perhaps not related to learning that counts, or is not “effective time on task.” Another possibility is that the homework, being spread over a variety of subjects, means that the amount of extra time on a particular subject is not significant enough to aid achievement in that subject or overall. With just these few possibilities, it seems that we need to know more to understand the effect, or non-effect, of homework on school achievement.

  5. Harold

    I’m not sure if cognitive and psychomotor skill development can be directly compared, so I wouldn’t use a tennis analogy when looking at homework. As for time on task, how much more than 6 hours of “book learning” can a child do in a day? Children need energy and concentration to do “effortful study”, and this is difficult after 6 hours in school and then starting homework in the late afternoon or early evening. As author Sara Bennett says, “For many kids, homework is like having to do their taxes every night” – yuk.

    Another difficulty in studying this phenomenon is the validity of the test scores themselves. Even if there was a positive correlation (which there is not) between homework and test scores; so what? Do higher test scores make for a better society? Do students with higher test scores found start-up companies and create wealth for their communities? Do they become social activists and help make this a better world?

    There is more to life than school and there is more to learning than doing homework. Six hours a day, ten months per year, over 12 years, is enough time for teaching and instruction.

  6. Charles

    From the perspective of “more to life than school,” especially with youngsters, I agree. And ditto on “the validity of the test scores.” What I am wondering about is the validity of the research showing homework doesn’t help. There are too many loose and unexplained ends, at least for me, to draw such a conclusion. The correlation, however, should give us pause before having our children jump on a homework bandwagon.

  7. Harold

    I think that this review in Slate, by Emily Bazelon, of three pertinent books (Bennett & Kalish; Kohn; Cooper) on the subject of homework tells it fairly simply:

    “Cooper is one of Kohn’s main foils and a leading scholar on the subject, so I picked up his book expecting to find a convincing counterargument defending homework. I didn’t. Cooper’s research shows that, much of the time, take-home assignments in elementary school are an act of faith. No one really knows whether all those math sheets and spelling drills add up to anything. If there’s little or no evidence that younger students benefit from homework, why assign it at all? Or, to adopt Kohn’s less extreme position in The Homework Myth, why make homework the rule rather than the rare and thought-through exception?”


  8. Charles

    I read the review. I was with you until I came to this one point in the review that seems to support homework for a specific population: affluent students. And the reason is that the parents make them do it and help them do it. In other words, homework for non-affluent students doesn’t help because they aren’t doing it and no one helps them do it. And Meier must buy into this because she suggests to Kohn not giving homework because the affluent will move even further ahead of those less affluent.

  9. Harold

    Yes, her conclusions are not mine, but I thought her coverage was relatively fair. I’ve just finished one of these books and have another in line. I’m also getting a copy of the meta-analysis to look at the details. From what I’ve read so far, I believe that homework is more detrimental than beneficial in the long run.

  10. Marie

    I have no expertise aside from that of being a parent with two teenagers but I have to say after years of observation, I see little to no benefit to homework. A little drilling of french verbs, spelling words or time-tables, a little reading or research or preparation for a project — this has some value. But hours of the same thing every night? Please!

    My daughter has several learning disabilities and what do we get? Even more homework than other kids — in essence, even more of what she already has trouble with. What she (and my son and other kids) really need is time to expand and recreate the energy necessary to come ready to learn the next day. Time to play, do sports, practice an instrument, draw, paint, create imaginary words on paper, cook, do chores, read books, hang out with friends and family — essentially practice being a whole person, not just a student.Aside from occassionally writing notes to excuse our children from homework, what can parents do to battle this incursion into family and personal time?

  11. Harold

    Thank you for explaining the situation so concisely and eloquently, Marie. “The Case Against Homework” gives a number of practical things that parents can do. For instance, our local elementary school is having a no homework week, as a result of feedback from several parents.

    I would recommend http://www.stophomework.com/ as a good forum for exchanging ideas.


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