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Extended Book Review -- Updated 27 Aug 2008

If peace is ever to reign on earth, it will come as a result of education in what it takes for peaceful living. Toward that end, in his book, "The Homework Myth," Alfie Kohn provides thoughtful, even passionate, insights. Most basically it is that homework is at best way down the scale for effective learning; at worst it is cop-out for ineffective teaching. Homework as too often practiced not only often retards learning, but can disrupt family life as well. It has no provable positive effects at all through grade 5.

Kohn draws on the fullest extent of the educational experience, but supports it with numerous interviews with veteran teachers. Many of those gave up on homework except under the most special of circumstances. It is those circumstances that give us hope for the future of humanity.

Before we get to that, there are other most-enlightening aspects of this book--authoritarianism and the system in Zimbardo’s context. We have long sought keys that underly authoritarianism and we have found a few, importantly in the Nature/Nurture equation. Kohn’s findings provide new insights into the power and sometimes senselessness of the “SYSTEM.”

Kohn's own words from Teacher's Gazette

    After spending most of the day in school, children are typically given additional assignments to be completed at home. This is a rather curious fact when you stop to think about it, but not as curious as the fact that few people ever stop to think about it.

    It becomes even more curious, for that matter, in light of three other facts:

    1. The negative effects of homework are well known. They include children’s frustration and exhaustion, lack of time for other activities, and possible loss of interest in learning. Many parents lament the impact of homework on their relationship with their children; they may also resent having to play the role of enforcer and worry that they will be criticized either for not being involved enough with the homework or for becoming too involved.

    2. The positive effects of homework are largely mythical. In preparation for a book on the topic, I’ve spent a lot of time sifting through the research. The results are nothing short of stunning. For starters, there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school. For younger students, in fact, there isn’t even a correlation between whether children do homework (or how much they do) and any meaningful measure of achievement. At the high school level, the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied. Meanwhile, no study has ever substantiated the belief that homework builds character or teaches good study habits.

    3. More homework is being piled on children despite the absence of its value. Over the last quarter-century the burden has increased most for the youngest children, for whom the evidence of positive effects isn’t just dubious; it’s nonexistent.

Now for the commentary and editorial content.

Kohn makes a strong case for the system being predicated on false premise, that drill, drill, drill is the most effectives means to educate. Many teachers and other folks know better, but the system as a whole does not hear, nor does it see, so tight is the hold of the system on the individual mind. Modernity is all about reality; science teaches us that daily. But fables die hard and directed-drills have only limited value–when skill refinement is needed and skill generation is not. Life challenges require the latter in our day.

To be sure certain skills do indeed improve with practice, maybe most do. Athletic activities ride high on the list, and athletic activities have high profile in the America psyche. So the association of drill with learning seems natural. The same is true of many games; sudoku, chess and bridge are just three such examples that reinforce in the mind the naturalness of drill in learning. But drill in and of itself never leads to insight required for life, let alone peace.

Learning has other components, qualitative and quantitative, what one knows vs. how well one knows it. Only the latter requires drill. Another way of thinking about this is breadth and depth. We can know something about many things, or a lot about just one thing. The latter of course contributes to the scientific breakthroughs so necessary to roll back ignorance. Endless hours and perseverance went into every such breakthrough. It seems natural to equate dogged persistence with education.

Together, these seem to be some of the important reasons why most of us hold on tightly to the concept that drill is a key to education, at least on the subconscious level. Then there are the learning disabled for whom there can be no substitute for drill. The dyslexic is one such example, and they may be quite bright and capable, except that reading, writing and spelling do not come naturally to them. In these ways drill seems to have become equated with learning in the minds of many Americans, in particular. But the dyslexic is the exception, and even so the dyslexic only needs drill for a year or so until reading, writing and their attending thought processes are developed in a brain better wired for other things.

The problem with heavy homework assignments is that they miss a most important feature of learning, insight, while emphasizing its antithesis, rote. Rote reinforces knee-jerk decisions more than thoughtful reflection.

Insight amounts to creative thinking, relating all that one knows to resolve a problem at hand. Knowing how to think must be among the truest goals of education. But directed homework too often does just the opposite.

It is this very point that Kohn hits on again and again. In his rendition, insights arise from conscious endeavor by curious minds even without direction, preferably without direction in fact. No one was beating on Newton or drilling him when he developed his revolutionary law of gravity. He was self actualized, able to think for himself and to follow where his curiosity led.

And so it is in formal schooling. Students allowed to pick and perform projects in response to their natural curiosities learn and gain insight in the process of learning factual information. More importantly, they learn how to gain insight into new situations. In that way they become fit for the life in the bruising ever-challenging world of adulthood.

In contrast, those who are drilled endlessly with boring subject matter may well never discover the thinking world, or if they do, give up on ever learning how to think in the first place. Such automatons sometimes later insist on being spoon-fed their information. They can still be good caring people, good at what they do. They are just working and living far below their own never-discovered intellectual potentials.

We know an entrepreneur who used that fact to advantage when he founded a new company on a shoe string. He gave high school dropouts interesting work to do and by asking questions as their skills improved gradually trained several people to professional levels in both performance and earning power. Never mind that he saved tons of money up front; his company survived. His staff became better and more able than they were. All who took part knew that and gave him their undying gratitude. This is a mere anecdote in today’s world. The entrepreneur, when questioned later about his seeming brilliance replied: ”We couldn’t afford the ordinary way.” His primary virtue was his insight into people. And he could put his gratification on hold while attending to the educational process. The other very real message is that many, if not most of us, are shortchanged by the educational “system” in America.

Needless to say, “No Child Left Behind” forces kids to become automatons while tempting school districts to cheat. It also reinforces our innate tendency toward authoritarianism by dumbing down creativity and insight so badly needed in todays world. Peace is ill served by such blunders. People have little choice but to march in lockstep with the drummer of divisiveness. This particular problem is not local to the US. It is common world-wide. Imagine, intelligent beings who miss developing the very thing that sets them apart from the rest of nature.

As it is, we are generating Authoritarian Personalities who as teachers want hierarchy and conventionalism–which means homework drill and control beyond the classroom. Their personality traits are in this way passed on to the next generation ad infinitum. That all this happens largely at the unconscious level makes it all the more difficult to deal with.

So let’s get on with freeing our kids to learn how to learn for themselves. Life is not a series of achievement tests. It is a never ending series of new challenges and the sooner we learn to think, the sooner we can free ourselves and get on with growing a society of peace and good will. Kohn describes numerous schools that have tried that. Those parts deserve the most careful consideration.

Like religion and politics, education is a hot button for many goof people. In many such cases, it is a family member who was short changed by the school system. Most schools rely pretty much on a one-size-fits-all methods, when the human genome simply is too varied to be accommodated in such a narrow way.

Yet politicians on the right and left push back and forth vigorously when it is nearly impossible for a lay person to know where the path of improvement lies, much less how to take it.

Ideally education benefits from science, the science of education. But that doesn't work in the politicized world (Left or Right) that passes for education. Other nations do not meddle in time-honored procedures that work. They hone what they know and try to do it to perfection--particularly is this true in Asia.

Caroline Hoxby captures what should be the essence:

"Science is the standard set for medical research.
Why should we accept quackery for education?"


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