Sunday, October 9, 2011

Homework's misinformation campaign

After listening to Radio Boston's show on homework that featured Janine Bempechat and Alfie Kohn, I was horrified to hear Bempehat's closing words:
In all the complaints about homework what I hear is a subtext of people feeling sorry that children have academic work to do and I think pity is the kiss of death where children's learning is concerned.
Upon hearing this, I emailed Alfie Kohn to ask him how he would have replied to Bempechat's concluding words. With his permission, here is Kohn's response.

By Alfie Kohn

This is one of those statements or practices where offering any reaction seems pointless. (Another is the latest example of a school that has created a caste system by assigning color-coded IDs based on test scores. A third is the parenting style of Amy "Tiger Mother" Chua.) It's hard to imagine that anyone who wasn't horrified could be persuaded by anything one might say in response.

The background with Bempechat is that she wrote an article several years ago claiming that homework promotes self-discipline, independence, responsibility, and other nonacademic advantages. She cited four sources, giving the impression that they offered proof. I checked out all four. Not only did none of them contain any data to support her claim; none cited any other sources that contained data. I wrote to her twice to ask about this discrepancy and received no reply.

But misleading empirical claims turn out to be the least of it, as her subsequent writing reveals. Take these sentences. First, she collapses a slew of objections to homework into the single straw-man claim that anyone who offers objections is really against having students make an effort to succeed at academic tasks. Second, she tries to reframe compassion for children, empathy, concern for their well-being, or efforts to join them in opposing pointless or onerous assignments, as "pity" -- which sets her up to dismiss this response as not being in children's best interest. Again we have an absurd false-dichotomy: we pity and coddle them, or we make them do what they're told.

If we must traffic in dichotomies, though, I'd much rather entrust children to those who feel pity than to those who are pitiless.

By the way, the job of homework critics would be a lot easier if all defenses of homework were as heartless and mindless as Bempechat's.


  1. No matter how much evidence you throw at some people, they will never wavier from their stubborn insensitive ideas.

  2. Joe, after reading your blog for the past few years, and reflecting upon my own practice, I am seeing the benefits of assigning no homework.

    If a student does work in class, and is provided with an adequate amount of time to complete the assignment then they should not have any extra work to take home.

    Instead I urge students, if they have the time, to go deeper into the topics we are looking at and do reading on them. It is not mandatory, but many students are jumping on the bandwagon and learning more as a result of having no homework.


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