Squaring Alfie Kohn’s Reply with My Reality

Naomi's photos
Naomi’s photos

In my previous post I dared to post some BUT arguments related to Alfie Kohn’s approach to homework. I used the word dare because I really admire both the man and his work.

Now I admire him even more because he has kindly allowed me to quote from his reply! So nice of him to take the time to do so!

However I’m in the midst of puzzling over his powerful, research based points and my daily reality in the classroom.

I made two basic claims that Kohn related to, in regards to my deaf & hard of hearing high-school students (we’re not talking about young children) and he doesn’t accept either of them. The background to the claims is that I only give a small amount of homework, once a week, of work that isn’t “busy” work, but rather is meaningful.

Claim 1: Homework provides practice and exposure to material in English beyond what I can do in class.

Kohn replies:

“To be honest, it’s not clear to me why those who are deaf would need, or benefit from, having to do more academic assignments after school when the research suggests there’s no benefit for students in general.  (And I think the other arguments against homework would also apply here:  the inappropriateness of having the school determine how kids spend their time when they’re not at school, and the importance of other sorts of development beyond academic:  social, emotional, physical, etc.)”

Naomi's photos
The school yard
Naomi’s photos

Claim 2: Homework given online lets me really individualize the homework without insulting the learners as they don’t see each other’s tasks. They all get tasks they can do and experience success.

Kohn replies:

“I might reframe the question as follows:  Can we figure out a way to individualize learning and help students experience success (at tasks *they* experience as meaningful) entirely during school hours — regardless of whether they have special needs?  I’m optimistic the answer is yes.  And if there’s really a good case to be made that homework is necessary, then perhaps we can make that case to the students so they can make the decision themselves rather than being compelled to do what the teacher alone decides is valuable”

These replies make me feel rather conflicted.

In the reality of my classroom setting, some students DO participate in sports or have an afternoon activity. A few have jobs. Some attend the weekly social meetings for our students run by Shema, the organization I also work for (but that’s only once a week!). However, quite a few students do nothing, absolutely nothing, after school. The students do not live near the school or their peers and some have no friends where they live.

In addition, the STUDENTS  (not to mention the parents) are the product of the system. Since I started with my clear, “every Monday homework task” system, on the Edmodo platform, I’ve heard from the students, EVEN THOSE THAT DON’T DO THE HOMEWORK (!!!) that they take the subject more seriously. The parents are pleased too! To me it  seems that my little homework task  lets students do their own thing and still benefit academically because it’s brief. When you learn a foreign language, it’s important to see it used outside the context of the classroom.

On the other hand, for those students whose home life is chaotic and no homework gets done there, we find ways to have it done in school. I’ve always seen that as subscribing to Robyn Jackson’s approach  (my paraphrase)- if the homework you give is only homework that is important, than it can’t go away until it’s done. I would assume that Kohn would say : Oh, if you can do that,  let all the students do it in school.

Naomi's photos
The school yard
Naomi’s photos

But we have so little actual lesson time at school – lessons are constantly being cancelled due to lectures, trips, sport days,  tests in other subjects and more! It’s a constant battle for time!

Everything makes sense. Sigh.

Robyn Jackson’s approach really helped me construct my homework system. Maybe I should draw on some more Chutzpah and ask for her help in squaring these conflicting issues?


2 thoughts on “Squaring Alfie Kohn’s Reply with My Reality”

  1. I would agree with Kohn on the second argument. Differential assignments can be given in class, with or without a computer. As far as the issue of homework being necessary or not, to a large extent it depends on whether you are given enough class time to accomplish all you feel you need to accomplish in class. This is where reality sets in. If, for example, you have enough hours and access to computers to spend one hour a week in class doing the assignments you give on Edmodo you could do it that way, and some teachers do.
    As a parent, frequently when I ask my children if they have homework they tell me they finished in class, so apparently some children end up with more homework because they work slower, either because they are weaker students or just don’t work (I’ve seen both in class). I also think that although they are involved in many activities they do have time for some homework every day without sacrificing other types of development.

    1. Kara,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.
      I’ve been thinking about what you wrote.
      I agree with you that time is a big factor here.
      I DO NOT have students who work quickly do homework. Homework is different from classwork. For homework I try to give exercises that highlight a certain point (such as the difference between like/look like). I give almost all the students at all levels the same video/pic to relate to, but the level of complexity of what to do with general topic varies. I don’t have time to highlight such issues in class – everyone is working on something else and at a different level. That’s our learning center. Homework is nice because they all think they got the same task – it’s the same video, right?

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