Monday, April 26, 2010


In Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson go on the offensive against workaholism:

Our culture celebrates the idea of the workaholic. We hear about people burning the midnight oil. They pull all-nighters and sleep at the office. It's considered a badge of honor to kill yourself over a project. No amount of work is too much work.

Not only is this workaholism unnecessary, it's stupid. Working more doesn't mean you care more or get more done. It just means you work more.

Workaholics wind up creating more problems than they solve. First off, working like that just isn't sustainable over time. When the burnout crash comes - an dit will - it'll hit that much harder.

Workaholics miss the point, too. They try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them. They try to make up for intellectual laziness with brute force. This results in inelegant solutions.

They even create crises. They don't look for ways to be more efficient because they actually like working overtime. They enjoy feeling like heroes. They create problems (often unwittingly) just so they can get off on working more.

Workaholics make the people who don't stay late feel inadequate for "merely" working reasonable hours. That leads to guilt and poor moralle all around. Plus, it leads to an ass-in-seat mentality -- people stay late out of obligation, even if they aren't really being productive.

If all you do is owrk, you're unlikely to have sound judgements. Your values and decision making wind up skewed. You stop being able to decide what's worth extra effort and what's not. And you wind up just plain tired. No one makes sharp decisions when tired.

In the end, workaholics don't actually accomplish more than nonworkaholics. They may claim to be perfectionists, but that just means they're wasting time fixating on inconsequential details instead of moving on to the next task.

Workaholics aren't heroes. They don't save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.
As a teacher, I read this thinking of homework and how kids play the game, jumping through the homework hoops that teachers hold in place. Too often teachers make students who don't do their homework feel inadequate for "merely" working reasonable hours during the day.

Alfie Kohn explains how simply adding more time to the school day is a poor way to make educational reform:

To begin with, let's consider the assumption that homework ought to be useful just because it give students more time to master a given topic or skill. Plenty of pundits rely on this premise when they call for extending the school day - or the school year. Indeed, homework itself can be seen as a way of prolonging the school day on the cheap. After-school assignments ratchet up the amount of time students spend on academic topics by an hour or two. Ergo, higher achievement.

Unfortunately, this reasoning turns out to be woefully simplistic... It's hard to deny, for example, that lots of kids spend time in school looking at books or listening to lectures without getting much out of the experience. Would more of what the experts call "time on task (ToT) be likely to make a difference? The answer to that question is so obvious that ToT proponents were forced some years ago to revise their original proposition. In the amended version, learning was said to improve in proportion to the quantity of engaged time on task... compelling students to do more school assignments at home is not especially likely to maximize engaged time.
Okay, maybe time on task isn't all that effective, but maybe it's the best we can do? Kohn puts this misassumption down just as fast:

Instead of asking, Does more time for academics help? maybe we should ask, Does more time for academics help more than other things we could do instead? A Stanford University study compared four different reforms: peer tutoring, smaller classes, increased use of computers, and adding an hour of instruction each day. The result: "On a cost-effectiveness basis, the time intervention was found to rank at the bottom with respect to improving student performance in mathematics and third out of the four [in reading].
This really shouldn't surprise us. As teachers, how often do we say it is the quantity of your learning that matters more than the quality? I couldn't imagine saying this.

Students are already fulfilling the quantity of time by attending school. If we think that assigning homework will do anything to address the quality or engaged time spent learning, we are kidding ourselves.

I stopped assigning homework 5 years ago, because I came to see homework as not something to be assigned but to be inspired. When I poll my students to find out how many of them willingly do more of what we do at school on their own time, half of them put up their hands. Perhaps surprisingly, some of that half are students who typically wouldn't do their homework if it was assigned.

If children want to continue their learning at home, then more power to them, but let's not be so arrogant to believe that without school no learning would occur. We know this to be bullshit because far too many students have to leave school before they can find their true passion.

I believe we can agree most, if not almost all, students dislike or even hate homework. Because of this, we need to seriously rethink its use. The perceived gains of homework are largely a myth; however, because the harmful effects of homework are very real, we need to seriously rethink whether we should be asking kids to go home and work a second shift.


  1. I think that most homework is busy work left over from the day anyway. While I do believe there needs to be more time to practice certain skills, I don't think assigning hours of homework is effective or engaging.

    Somewhere along the line we need to quit treating our students (especially the young students) as though they are adults working in the "real world" and allow them to have time to be kids.

  2. I love your final three paragraphs. I need to find a way to direct this particular article to my colleagues. Unfortunately, I don't think homework is even a discussion point in my school (or division). When it becomes so, your reflections and example will become part of the discussion.

  3. I think our brains function almost the exact same way. I have been thinking about "spending more time" on a subject, and how helpful it really is. I do AM Math Support at our school, and feel like kids think they're going to get better simply because they show up in the morning.

    I'm considering not assigning homework anymore, as I just don't see it being helpful. Especially when a kid that does it at home and a kid that does it in homeroom receive the same credit for completing the assignment.

    I want to provide a list of assignments to kids that they may work on. Ultimately, project completion will be what they will be assessed on, and however they choose to prepare to complete that project is their decision.

  4. As a teacher this makes me think of the times I look at the clock and realize it's 5:30pm and I've been at school since 7:30am and I wonder: "What the hell am I still doing here?" It's so easy to find menial little things to take up your time if you're not careful.

    I do find that when I overwork myself that my decisions become less clear and I get fuzzy and unfocused.

    I like the way you tied the concept of workaholic into homework. I also wonder what implications and ties it may have for/to the multitasking generation.

    Thanks for reminding me to put my feet up a little!

  5. Good points made here. I have worked at some schools which did not assign homework and some that felt that homework was important to the overall process. One of the reasons I've heard lately is that it teaches kids to be responsible by having something to bring back to school and that some kids need something to help lessen the amount of time they spend watching R rated movies or playing video games when not at school.
    I've yet to see any data that supports homework, a big part of any push to change the thinking will involve parents. Many parents feel that if they did it, it must be okay. It's one of the things that makes talking about education so tricky, just about everyone in the discussion has gone through our public education system, most people don't want to feel like they didn't have a good experience, or that they were short-changed so they are not likely to criticize anything they experienced. Also there's the "If it was good enough for me, then it's good enough for you" mentality. It also tends to make people feel like they are experts on the subject too having spent twelve plus years going through the process. I recall one parent at a private school (that did not give homework) say he was concerned that his son liked school, he felt he must not be learning or that the work must not be challenging enough if he enjoyed coming to school. While that may seem like an extreme position I don't think it's that far off from what a lot of people are thinking.


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