Thursday, January 22, 2009

Homework Research and Practice Time

As I near the end of Gladwell's "Outliers", I'm finding more discussion on the relationship between socioeconomic factors and practice time. One chapter discusses the importance of the rice farming culture in the light of the success in mathematics demonstrated in those same cultures, and another discusses the KIPP school movement's success in educating poor inner-city students by increasing the length of the school day and inspiring students to complete their many homework assignments. If there is a theme that Gladwell seems to return to again and again in his attempt to define the factors that influence greatness, it would certainly appear to be time spent in practice (and the environmental variables that influence ability and/or willingness to practice, such as sheer luck - like access to a multi-user mainframe computer in the late 1960s / early 1970s - and socioeconomic factors - like whether or not there are books at home for students to read over the summer).

The "10,000 hour rule", combined with even more examples of the power of practice, continues to strike me as existing in tension with the reduction of practice time inside and outside the classroom, such as memorization / repetition and homework. This seems especially true when we think about the brain, which for all of its incredible capacities, is not pre-fabricated to quickly or to easily acquire and work with the facts and skills we expect students to learn as a result of modern education. The choices that educational systems make with regard to how much time they expect students to be in practice with their learning - as well as the meaningfulness of that learning experience - must, then, be a result of the underlying philosophy of schools with regard to what learning is and whether or not that system's goal is to be able to produce mastery.

In my most recent post, I discussed my reservation about the movement of some schools to reduce or eliminate homework. This movement, according to the article, has been greatly influenced by the work of Alfie Kohn, author of "The Homework Myth" (2006). Clearly, this is a book that I need to read, so that I can better understand his argument. In my recent searching for commentary about Kohn's work, I found an article by Robert Marzano [PDF link] that addresses some of Kohn's claims. I found Marzano's repsonse interesting, because Marzano has a very different interpretation of the research on homework that Kohn uses to support his argument that homework should be reduced and/or eliminated.

While I must also admit that I haven't read the primary literature referenced by Kohn and Marzano, my bias at this point is to be skeptical about the idea that homework isn't effective at all. The normal school day and school year isn't long enough for students to achieve mastery of all the different topics that modern education demands they learn, and so time in practice outside of school is critically important. With that said, it is also clear that homework needs to be as individualized and meaningful as the time spent working in the classroom if it is to be valuable to, and therefore more likely to be attempted and/or completed by the student. There is a great deal of research on homework (for example, here's a search for 'homework' on ERIC), even beyond that cited by Marzano and/or Kohn. I hope we'll all take some time to look deeper into this issue; our thoughtful reflection on our practice will help us all to make the educational experience as beneficial as possible to our students.

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