Not-live Blogging – Alfie Kohn, at QPAT Convention 2009


(read the beginning of my last post, also about a QPAT convention speaker, for an explanation of the whole not-live blogging thing)


Apparently there has been a provincial teacher’s association convention in Quebec every year since sometime in the 1800s. I did not know this.


It is interesting that Alfie Kohn is speaking tonight to teachers of a system who are fed up with grades. More on that later, he’s taking the podium.


And he starts – “Merci, bonsoir… and the remainder is in English. “


radical questions. The latin root of radical is root. He’s not afraid of radical questions, they are root questions.


He speaks of our fascination with grades. Switching from percentages to 5 point ranges and back to percentages again, and having a myriad of committee meetings and debates around the shifts. He calls this a ‘sideshow’ at the end of the presentation. We get so bogged down in the minutiae that we forget to ask fundamental questions:


Why are we grading our students?

Why are we giving our students homework?


We see children/parents/teachers frustrated and fighting. We see children becoming less and less interested in learning as a result of homework, I’d add as a result of grading as well. It also gives more work to busy teachers. We give mindless homework (busy work), or homework that is too hard and then we have to deal with discipline and correcting whether it is done or not.


For the most part, I give little homework. Work leaves my room when it isn’t done in the room during the time allotted for it. Difference is, my students do their ‘homework’ with me after school, at least those ones who did not get the work done during class time. Some (ok, most) who stay with me on a regular basis do it by choice. They have more of my time and focus after school. Those kids who are having a hard time with homework have so far chosen to not stay after school. I’ve got a feeling that, after term 1 parent/teacher interviews, this practice may change.


No study to the best of his knowledge has found any benefit whatsoever of homework for kids before high school.


Even at the high school level, at best, the research is correlative. It doesn’t mean that kids did well academically because they did homework. Once other variables are added in (quality of curriculum, motivation, etc…) the correlation disappears.


I’d even add that after rich learning the brain needs a sleep in order to let the learning take. Our brains continue to work on what we learn after the learning happens. Reserve our classes as sites of rich learning (and not sites of squabbling and discipline related to homework done or not) and let evening time be a time to allow learning to set.


Not only that but when work is sent home, how do you know it is the student who does it? There is so much stress around homework that often parents end up doing it.


Question we are asked to discuss in pairs or small groups ? Why does research fail to support the belief that homework is not beneficial to learning?


There is no data that homework is character building.

Teaches self-discipline – is this always true? No.

Responsibility? How? This might come if kids decided whether or not to have homework and what kind and when it is due and why.


These are non-academic characteristics. They don’t stand up on their own and there is no research that supports them.


Homework as home/school connections. Aren’t there so many other ways to do this that are more beneficial, fun, connecting? Make a phone call, invite parents in for activities, on field trips, etc…


So why do we put up with homework?

He says because 1) we don’t trust children to use their free time positively so we make sure they have as little of it as possible.


There IS research to support that when individual teachers stop giving homework the quality of their work is same or better. Relieved of the responsibility to do worksheets, chapter readings, they seek out knowledge that interests them. Or they actually have the time to relax, that gives their brains a chance to recuperate.


  1. data-driven, test score raising culture

  2. those most into homework understand least about how people learn.

    1. The more you practice something the less thinking is happening!! We need to worry about this!


Psychologists will tell us that what predicts outcomes is not the homework but the motivations and goals and aspirations that students have.


He’s not saying never give homework. He’s saying change the default. We should give it only on those occasions when a given assignment will have benefit to most kids in a class. Or. Does all homework have to be the same for all kids? I at times give specific tasks to specific kids, depending on what I think is beneficial for that student. That extends a particular learning that kid just made, that will make him/her think more deeply and become more excited about what we are learning.


I’m getting tired. My notes may slow down. Been here since 8:30 this morning. It’s now 9:10. (He’s gone over time). My poor dogs have been home alone since 6:45 am. Even if I left this minute I wouldn’t be home until 10:30 or so. That is way too long for them to be alone. What is even worse is this is day #2 since we had parent/teacher interviews last night. Poor boobs.


When you lose marks for not doing homework you are being graded on behaviour, not on your learning. It is a classroom that is really about compliance, not about learning.


Every study that has ever looked at the effects of grades on the motivation to learn demonstrates a negative effect on kids and learning. Research finds that when you get rid of grades kids spontaneously pick harder things to do with their spare time. When they know a grade is attached they will choose something less challenging but more likely to provide them a higher grade.


Yet, we live in the circus sideshow of the QEPs evaluation and reporting system. How would you make a shift away from the sideshow?


Ok. He’s now 30 minutes over time. I may have to walk out. I’m so tired I can’t stop moving my legs. Restless, in need of rest but can’t for at least another 75 minutes. oy.


His own summary of his ideas – I don’t care how motivated our students are, I care how they are motivated. Using grades as a reward is extrinsic motivation. Learning situations that are intrinsically rewarded are the motivations we are looking for. Extrinsic motivators drive down intrinsic motivation.


Idea – ticks and pluses to record my observations throughout the term. Throughout the term, have student meetings to determine how they are doing. They grade themselves. Keep notes and hand them in to my principal instead of my grade book at the end of term.


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