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Posts Tagged ‘Alfie Kohn’

School has resumed for another year and most parents, teachers and students are discussing the thorny issue of homework.  Common sense would suggest that it is desirable for students to come to class each day prepared and capable of contributing to activities and discussion. A body of educational research had accumulated by the late 1990s documenting its “positive benefits”for reinforcing classroom lessons, teaching responsibility and self-discipline. Assigning a steady diet of programmed-learning worksheets, mind-numbing repetitive exercises, and “busy work” –to be sure– gave conventional homework a bad name. It also opened the door to a short-lived North American backlash against homework in the mid- 2000s.

HomeworkHeadacheBCAfter the appearance of American education writer Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Homework Myth, a vocal minority of parents and educators sparked a movement to curtail homework and eliminate it in the early grades. Kohn succeeded in challenging the purported benefits of homework in improving student academic performance and attracted friendly researchers like Dr. Linda Cameron at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. In February 2008, Cameron and OISE colleague Dr. Lee Bartel produced a study of parent opinions and attitudes that supported Kohn’s claims that homework was excessive, especially in lower grades, and that it reduced “family time” and affected “family relationships.”  That opinion research, buttressed by teacher union workload studies, led credence to moves underway  in Ontario to “ban homework” in lower elementary grades.

Limiting or eliminating homework gained favour in Canada’s major urban school boards, most notably in the Toronto District School Board, the Greater Vancouver region,  and the Halifax Regional School Board. By 2012, the impact of the changes was beginning to show in the reported weekly hours of homework and student preparation in mathematics. New studies also pointed to possible negative effects of cutting down homework on student work ethic, grit and resilience.

Fifteen-year-olds around the globe, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported in 2013,  spent an average of 5.9 hours a week in 2012 doing homework, one hour a week less than in 2003.  While Shanghai-China and Singapore students were assigned 13.8 hours and 9.7 hours respectively; United States and Canadian students were only expected to complete 6.1 hours and 5.5 hours of homework.  South Korean and Finnish students averaged 2.9 and 2.8 hours, considerably less than their North American peers. The OECD Education Office attributed it to adolescents spending more time on the Internet and to changes in homework policy.

The direct benefits of homework for student academic achievement are not clear before Grade 3, but researchers have identified and confirmed other important merits of the practice. The benefits tend to vary according to the subject and grade level, as well as the amount and type of homework.  Spending a lot of time on homework in the early grades does not translate into better reading performance (PIRL 2011), but it does contribute to developing self-discipline reflected in more focus, better time management, and improved self-confidence (CMEC, 2014).

The latest research confirms that doing homework is essential to performing reasonably well in junior and senior high school.  Since Canadian high schoolers now report doing less than one hour per day (CMEC, 2014), most education authorities reject Kohn’s claims and see a positive “return on the time invested” in subject-specific homework, balancing the multiple demands of competing subject areas.  All recent studies concur that older students continue to benefit more than younger students because of the edge it gives them in academic achievement.

The Homework Backlash is fizzling-out as parents and teachers recognize that too little rather than too much is now expected of most public school students. In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, homework has made a real comeback.  A provincial Education Review, conducted by Myra Freeman in 2014, surveyed 19,000 Nova Scotians and discovered that half of those surveyed were “not satisfied” with P-12 education and a majority of parents and teachers felt students were “not prepared” for the next grade.

The Nova Scotia Education Review findings led to the proclamation of a Provincial Homework Policy (Grades P-12), effective September 2015, setting an “expectation for educators” to assign homework in graduated amounts, to evaluate it promptly, and to provide regular feedback to students. It was introduced, top-down on all students, ages 5 to 18, over the objections of the teacher union president Shelley Morse who saw it as another “source of work” for teachers.  This measure, it would seem, violated the cardinal principle that students and teachers are more inclined to carry out actions that they find palatable than to swallow bitter tasting curatives.

Schools without clear homework expectations are certainly ill-prepared for some of the most exciting innovations emerging across the continent.  The best example is the so-called “Flipped Classroom” model where students are expected to utilize the Internet to watch videos as 21st century-style “homework” and teachers are encouraged to utilize class time for interactive, follow-up learning activities.  What’s really odd about the Nova Scotia provincial policy, however, is that “homework” cannot introduce new material and thus the “flipped classroom” is actually rendered more difficult to implement.  Perhaps that’s a comment on the receptivity of Nova Scotia to online learning inside and outside the classroom.

What good does homework do at each stage of schooling? Should schools and school authorities be firmer in expecting more homework?  Why has recent research tended to blow holes in Alfie Kohn’s 2006 book, The Myth of Homework?  Do system-wide homework policies work when they are imposed from the top? How can new policies help to enable some innovative approaches such as the flipped classroom?

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A Calgary Catholic District school, St. Basil Elementary and Junior High, made headlines in late October when principal Craig Kittelson sent a letter to Grade 7 to 9 parents announcing the elimination of the academic honour roll and end-of-year awards ceremonies.  The controversial Letter to Parents cited the work of American popular writer Alfie Kohn, including the contention that “dangling rewards in front of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive.”  A Postmedia news story by Trevor Howell in the Calgary Herald and the National Post gave extensive coverage to the eruption of “parent outrage” over both the decision and the way it was summarily announced to the community.

Alfie-KohnAxing the Academic Honour Roll reignited a public debate over the common practice of giving awards as an incentive to encourage academic achievement. The Calgary Catholic District School Board was caught flat-footed by the outrage. Scrambling for a plausible explanation, the National Post turned to Alfie Kohn’s leading Canadian disciple, Red Deer elementary teacher Joe Bower who operates the blog for the love of learning.  While news reports referenced Joe Bower’s 2007 move to end awards ceremonies at Red Deer’s Westpark Middle School, they made no mention of his related initiatives abandoning homework and refusing to give grades. Nor did the media report that he did so after experiencing an epiphany while reading Kohn’s article “The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement.”

After “discovering” Kohn, Bower has been on a mission.  He’s become a serial @AlfieKohn retweeter,  while bouncing from school to school and ending up teaching special needs kids in ungraded classes at the Red Deer Regional Hospital.  In September 2013, Bower published a co-edited collection of so-called “progressive education” articles entitled de-testing and de-grading schools, complete with a glowing foreword by none other than his mentor,  Alfie Kohn.  Almost simultaneously, the Canadian Education Association published a feature article by Bower in Education Canada (Fall 2013) on “Telling Time with a Broken Clock,” the trouble with standardized testing. Kohn’s fingerprints are all over Bower’s articles and posts, hammering away at the evils of academic rewards, homework, and student testing of any kind. It makes you wonder whether this once repudiated, retooled agenda is actually the hidden curriculum of the CEA and its acolytes.

Whatever got into the Calgary Catholic District Board to actually sanction the axing of academic awards?  When pressed for a rationale, the CCDSB posted a rather bizarre summary of the “education research” intended to support the decision and come to the rescue of Kittelson,  the beleaguered school principal.  Surveying that short brief, makes for fascinating reading because it leads off by quoting American radical critic John Taylor Gatto, a leading “unschooler” opposed to compulsory schooling, then cherry picks evidence from Alfie Kohn’s favourite sources.  As a validation for the policy, it’s a classic example of a selective, politically-driven education research “mash-up” — the very kind that has landed education research in such bad odour in academe.

Just when it appeared that America’s leading progressive gadfly was fading in influence, Bower and a new generation of disciples are taking up the cause. Having heard Alfie Kohn speak at a Quebec  English Teachers Conference in Montreal in the early 2000s, I have seen–first hand– his tremendous gifts as an orator and felt the allure of his iconoclastic ideas, until I began to consider the consequences of putting those ideas into actual practice.  Born in Miami Beach, Florida, the preppy-looking, reed thin author and lecturer, now in his late 50s, has authored a dozen books with catchy titles such as No Contest: The Case Against Competition (1986), Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars (1993), The Case Against Standardized Testing (2000), The Homework Myth (2006), and Feel Bad Education (2011).  He has staying power, judging from the steady stream of simple Kohn axioms spewing out of Bower and his other camp followers.

Like most educational evangelicals, Kohn has undeniable appeal, especially to North American teachers, tapping into their very real feelings of alienation, powerlessness, and resistance to imposed change.  He finds a ready audience because he has identified a vein of dissent and resistance running though the rank and file teacher forces, often manifested in opposition to top-down educational decision-making.  Academic critics like Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School, point out that Kohn is effective as an agent provocateur and likely “not bad for you or dangerous to your children.”  He raises important questions, but, according to Willingham, “should not be read as a guide to the answers” because his writings “cannot be trusted as an accurate summary of the research literature.” In his reply to Willingham, Kohn held his ground, while conceding that some of his distillations run the risk of oversimplying complex issues.

One of the most incisive assessments of Alfie Kohn comes from Michael J. Petrilli of The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an American education gadfly of a different stripe. Writing in the March 2012 issue of Wisconsin Interest, Petrilli hit the mark: “Kohn’s arguments are half-crazy and half-true, which is what makes him so effective — and so maddening.” He also provides a useful corrective to Kohn’s particular educational worldview. “What fuels the modern school reform movement,” he claims, “is not acquiescence to Corporate America but outrage over the nation’s lack of social mobility.” You can be sure this will not appear on Joe Bower’s blog or in one of his next tweets.

What fuels American education gadfly Alfie Kohn’s zealous contrarianism and various progressive education crusades?  How much of Kohn’s core progressivist ideology is rooted in the teachings of John Dewey and Jean Piaget — and what proportion is pure creative imagination?  What has Kohn actually contributed to the education world in terms of sound policy ideas?  What does explain his continuing influence and undeniable capacity to attract new adherents?

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