Raise your hand if you remember hating homework as a child … Raise your hand if you have children and hate it when they have homework … Raise your hand if, as a teacher, you have ever received homework submitted with teardrops on it 🙁 If you haven’t raised your hand yet, you were born under a lucky star, or you have a faulty memory.
On the plus side, homework
- offers a chance for students to independently consolidate skills they learned in a group setting
- builds skills of responsibility and time management
On the negative side, homework
- asks parents to monitor an approach to math they are not familiar with, meaning they may undo learning done in the classroom.
- compromises family and play time because children are too busy with homework.
- might reflect the work of a parent, rather than the thought processes and progress of the child.
- is not backed by solid research, at least at the elementary level, showing its effectiveness in supporting learning.
What to do?
As in many schools, we are expected to give homework, so we had to go back and weigh our thoughts in terms of our BASIC BELIEF:
Math should be taught through understanding, not memorization. In the 21st Century, students will not need speedy calculations skills nearly as much as they will need big-picture thinking, problem-solving skills, and creativity.
So, here are our conclusions, compromises and solutions:
1. Less is More. We set a maximum limit of 20 minutes for each math homework assignment, and students have TWO days to complete it (It’s due every other day). This is enough to build independent organizational skills (one homework benefit). And it allows for other activities – school is important, but the physical, personal and social development of children is far more important than completing a homework assignment. If a student spends 20 minutes without finishing, they STOP, no penalty.
2. It’s All About the Thinking. We also do not penalize mistakes on homework. We say, “OK, did you spend a solid 20 minutes, thinking? wondering? Did you get stuck? That’s ok – that’s part of learning.” We then spend the time needed to correct homework in class. By this time, students have skin in the game – they’re interested in finding out how to solve that problem that eluded them alone.
3. Offer Challenge. Our homework has three levels.
- Level 1 is concrete/pictorial, and solidifies students’ visual understanding of key concepts. (Throughout our fifth grade year, much of Level 1 covers operations with fractions.) For some students, this is easy and done quickly, giving them more time for Levels 2 and 3. (In the long run, these abstract thinkers still benefit from these small doses of visual underpinning of their conceptual understanding). For other students, Level 1 is time-consuming, but absolutely essential to their progress. It’s okay to have to draw one or two fraction problems every day for months, if that’s what it takes to internalize understanding. In the mean time, they often excel in concrete investigations done in class, and their confidence grows. These students are usually visual learners, humans who a generation or two ago would have been excluded from grade-level math achievement and soon relegated to dead-end, remedial courses. A huge fraction of our adult population today readily confesses to “not being very good at math”.
- Level 2 is at grade level, and transfers students’ visual understanding to the traditional, abstract mastery of mathematics. About 90% of our students complete both Levels 1 and 2 on their homework. Students only go on to Level 3 if they have time and interest.
- Level 3 is the challenge level, and is there to give our fast-working students a feeling of struggle and challenge. On a survey yesterday (an exit ticket), several of our fastest students said that Level 3 has not been hard enough, so we’re listening, and will notch it up a little 🙂
Why not just move fast students ahead in the curriculum?
- We realize the importance of higher-level math skills for students who end up going into STEM fields, but their push toward accelerated math should come in high school. Success in today’s high schools is improved greatly by a solid conceptual basis from K-8, and from the independent ability to doggedly THINK things through. Challenge problems with depth lend a greater mental acuity than speeded-up algorithmic memorization.