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Mar
01

The Truth About Homework - Learning Versus Drill

Author // Alfie Kohn

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The Truth About Homework
Learning Versus Drill
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Learning Versus Drill

The assumption that education and tennis are analogous derives from behaviorism, which is the source of the verb “reinforce,” as well as the basis of an attenuated view of learning. In the 1920s and ’30s, when John B. Watson was formulating his theory that would come to dominate education, a much less famous researcher named William Brownell was challenging the drilland- practice approach to mathematics that had already taken root. “If one is to be successful in quantitative thinking, one needs a fund of meanings, not a myriad of ‘automatic responses,’” he wrote. “Drill does not develop meanings. Repetition does not lead to understandings.” In fact, if “arithmetic becomes meaningful, it becomes so in spite of drill.”

Brownell’s insights have been enriched by a long line of research demonstrating that the behaviorist model is, if you’ll excuse the expression, deeply superficial. People spend their lives actively constructing theories about how the world works, and then reconstructing them in light of new evidence. Lots of practice can help some students get better at remembering an answer, but not to get better at—or even accustomed to—thinking. And even when they do acquire an academic skill through practice, the way they acquire it should give us pause. As psychologist Ellen Langer has shown, “When we drill ourselves in a certain skill so that it becomes second nature,” we may come to perform that skill “mindlessly,” locking us into patterns and procedures that are less than ideal.


Practice Makes Problems

But even if practice is sometimes useful, we’re not entitled to conclude that homework of this type works for most students. It isn’t of any use for those who don’t understand what they’re doing. Such homework makes them feel stupid; gets them accustomed to doing things the wrong way (because what’s really “reinforced” are mistaken assumptions); and teaches them to conceal what they don’t know. At the same time, other students in the same class already have the skill down cold, so further practice for them is a waste of time. You’ve got some kids, then, who don’t need the practice and others who can’t use it.

Furthermore, even if practice was helpful for most students, that doesn’t mean they need to do it at home. In my research I found a number of superb teachers (at different grade levels and with diverse instructional styles) who rarely, if ever, found it necessary to assign homework. Some not only didn’t feel a need to make students read, write or do math at home, but they preferred to have students do these things during class, where it was possible to observe, guide and discuss.

Finally, any theoretical benefit of practice homework must be weighed against the effect it has on students’ interest in learning. If slogging through worksheets dampens one’s desire to read or think, surely that wouldn’t be worth an incremental improvement in skills. And when an activity feels like drudgery, the quality of learning tends to suffer, too. That so many children regard homework as something to finish as quickly as possible—or even as a significant source of stress—helps to explain why it appears not to offer any academic advantage even for those who obediently sit down and complete the tasks they’ve been assigned. All that research showing little value to homework may not be so surprising after all.

Supporters of homework rarely look at things from the student’s point of view, though. Instead, kids are regarded as inert objects to be acted on: Make them practice and they’ll get better. My argument isn’t just that this viewpoint is disrespectful, or that it’s a residue of an outdated stimulus-response psychology. I’m also suggesting it’s counterproductive. Children cannot be made to acquire skills. They aren’t vending machines such that we can put in more homework and get out more learning.

But just such misconceptions are pervasive in all sorts of neighborhoods, and they’re held by parents, teachers and researchers alike. It’s these beliefs that make it so hard even to question the policy of assigning regular homework. We can be shown the paucity of supporting evidence and it won’t have any impact if we’re wedded to folk wisdom (“practice makes perfect”; more time equals better results).

On the other hand, the more we learn about learning, the more willing we may be to challenge the idea that homework has to be part of schooling.


Pathways Issue 33 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #33.

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