Response to Alfie Kohn's interview in Maclean's magazine
Alfie Kohn’s message, at first, is that we should eliminate homework, an outdated, “behaviorist” practice that allows we teachers to think we’re developing a “useful work ethic.” As a practicing teacher of eleven years, I have watched my own attitude to homework shift. I think sometimes I’ve provided homework because it has been routine; parents, colleagues and students expect it. Sometimes this homework has been, as Kohn suggests, “more concerned about producing behaviours than about enhancing understanding.” I hope I’ve made a change.
As a high school English teacher, I do not imagine eliminating homework completely; however, what I wish to assign as homework has shifted. It’s taken my eleven years, but this year I finally indicate the purpose of the homework at the top of the homework assignment. If I can’t come up with a purpose immediately, I don’t assign it. Mostly, this involves reading; while we do some reading in class, students read at different rates and I find it more efficient if students arrive having read either the same material, or for example, different articles on the same topic; then, they are prepared for the collaborative work we do in class, be that our work online, our discussions, or our teaching of one another. Homework allows a much more efficient use of class time.
I agree with Kohn that we need not “get rid of homework altogether, but that we should change the default state. Right now, the default is to make kids do school work at home almost every day, regardless of whether it's necessary.” Our homework must be purposeful and thoughtful: We can’t merely extend the school day endlessly. Too many of our students come in having had too little sleep as it is.