An Interview with Kenneth Goldberg: Homework Trap or Trapped in Homework?

Mar 23, 2012 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. First of all, how do you define “homework trapped “?

A child is homework-trapped when homework becomes an ongoing and unrelenting issue that dominates his home life and his relationships with his parents, in the absence of evidence that progress is being made. The parents are similarly trapped because they fear serious consequences for their child, yet have limited authority to use their own judgment. Being homework trapped can be distinguished from having short lived homework problems. For homework trapped children, standard consequences, such as punishments and low grades, have the undesired effect of increasing, rather than diminishing the child’s resistance.

  1. Secondly, when kids complain, what is the FIRST thing parents should do?

The first thing the parents should do is what they would do with any ordinary child issues, and that is to exercise their parental prerogative and use their own judgment. As for specific recommendations, it is probably most helpful that they step back, listen to the complaints, respond with love and humor, and maintain their expectation that the child will do what he’s asked to do. My recommendations to the parents for homework trapped children don’t kick in unless the problem continues.

  1. Often kids are tired after school, and after school activities- should a medical check up be in order? ( often kids don’t eat right or those school lunches are not really nutritious)

I wouldn’t run to the doctor, beyond routine checkups, unless the parent suspects a serious health problem. Regarding children eating right, that’s a current and popular issue, but not one for the homework trap. The key “homework-trap” issue is that we need to cap the child’s homework by time, not by the assignment. Children have lots of things to do, and parents vary in what they think makes sense for their children after school. Teachers need to give homework assignments with an understanding that they are limited by the clock.

  1. Let’s face it. Some kids have ADD, some have an undocumented learning disability- but parents don’t often know what ADD is, or how to treat it, and many do not understand dyslexia. How can your book help?

The question of undocumented, or what I call under the radar, learning disabilities is a central concept of the homework trap. We need to dispel the myth of motivation and look for learning, not behavioral or moral, problems as the reason why some children don’t do their work. In my book, I pay particular attention to the issue of ADD, noting that these children cannot be medicated after school as effectively as they can be during the day. Their performance at school is enhanced by their medication and this creates a false impression about what they can do at night. These children have a particularly strong need for homework relief.

  1. Now, some kids get 40,50, 60 percent done with their 100 math problems, but fail to finish. What is a parent to do?

The parent needs to define the assignment by time, not by volume. If the child can only do half the problems assigned, then that is what he does. The parent should report this to the teacher and share his or her thoughts about why the child cannot do more work. With this information, the teacher can decide the educational implications for teaching that child. It’s far more important to teach the child to use time well, than it is to expand the time until all the work gets done.

  1. Alfie Kohn has written extensively about inappropriate homework, and review homework, and what might be termed “ busy work “ homework. How can a parent decide which is which?

I’m familiar with Alfie’s work. In 2006, I participated with him on a homework panel at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association. Alfie makes excellent points. They are just different from mine. I defer to educators to figure out what constitutes a good homework assignment. If teachers assign homework knowing they have a finite portion of the child’s time at home, I think they will figure out how to use that time well. I would certainly recommend that they consider Alfie’s comments.

  1. Science projects- while not exactly homework, can consume a lot of parental time. Any ideas?

Again, homework is being given by the school to be done in the home. This is the parents’ space. Parents may make different decisions regarding how much they will get involved in these projects. But, it is for teachers to figure out which is more important – the science project or other things they could assign. It’s like a budget. In the old days, if I had $10 in my pocket, I’d make my buying decisions based on that amount of money. Because of credit cards, I can spend thousands of dollars without having a single dollar bill in my wallet, so I don’t always know what I can really afford.

Teachers need to assign homework as if they are on a budget, e.g. ten minutes per night per grade, whether the student works quickly or tends to be slow, and not a minute more. If they do that, parents may not feel so pressured to stay up all night to get their child’s project done.

  1. Between you and I, the amount required, demanded, expected of students nowadays is much more than when you and I went to school. Do we need to lengthen the school day or year?

That’s an interesting question that goes beyond the concepts of the homework trap. In general, I think it would be better to have children learn in school and do other things at home, so if teachers are really short on teaching time, I would opt for expanding the school day. I think we overvalue the role of parents as partners in teaching, and in the process, interfere with their ability to teach their children well. There are all sorts of things children learn at home that they cannot learn in school. I don’t think it’s good for parents to have teachers creating too many “at-home lesson plans” for them.

  1. How about simple, good old fashioned reading for enjoyment and pleasure? Should teachers be asking kids to read (gasp !) Mark Twain?

When I was a student I had assigned reading. John Steinbeck is still my hero as a writer, and I learned about him because he was assigned at school. There is also value in supporting children to read what they like. I’m not an educator so I tread lightly in making judgments on this issue. I just think that we should keep the assignments in containers. If teachers determine that it is important for children to read Mark Twain or anything else in the ten minutes per grade per night they have, that’s fine. Just don’t look at it as more work, above and beyond the other assignments the children have.

  1. What about expectations- should they differ from the first to twelfth grade ?

Absolutely. To start, it is generally recognized that the number of minutes of required homework will go up incrementally every year. But there is another, far more important consideration when it comes to advancing grades, and that is the distinctions between elementary, middle, and high school. In elementary school, it is very important that homework expectations not be allowed to cause the child to develop negative feelings about education and school. In middle school, it gets trickier because the time allowed is shared by four or five teachers. The homework trapped child may conform to expectations in class, but he’s hopelessly lost with multiple authorities sending assignments home. Adults do not generally do well when they have to report to multiple bosses. Why should children? The homework trapped child usually enters the school year with enthusiasm and hope, certain he’ll do well in the coming year. He gets all of the work done for some of his teachers, but lacks the ability to do all the work for all of his teachers. By October, the notes start coming home because he is falling behind in one or two subjects. Then, like a house of cards, all his subjects suffer. By high school, this changes if the student can chose between different levels of work. The student at biggest risk in high school is often the athlete who may lose sports eligibility. With that, the student loses all interest in school and this may draw him into negative peer groups.

  1. What about writing? Some teachers feel that students MUST practice grammar, syntax, spelling, sentence structure, learn to use commas and the like. Appropriate or inappropriate?

Again, I defer to educators to decide among themselves what is important and what is not. I don’t know if it is better for the child to learn and practice grammar, read Mark Twain, do the science project, or work on something else. It is just important that educators figure that out knowing there are boundaries to the student’s homework time.

  1. What have I neglected to ask?

As you can tell, I go to great lengths to defer to teachers on matters of education. There is a caveat here; my only major criticism of the educational field, when it comes to homework policy. I haven’t seen any courses called “Homework” in the course catalogues of schools of education. I don’t understand, if homework is weighted so heavily, why it isn’t being looked at in a much more serious way. It does not make sense to me to factor in a task at up to 25% of the student’s grade, and then devote virtually no time to teach its theory, research, and technique in schools of education.

Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with 35 years of experience. His book, The Homework Trap, explains in more detail the strategies described here. For more information, please visit

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