As a middle school math teacher*, I have given an untold number of homework assignments. This year as the parent of a 7th grader I have been on the other side of that coin. My vague dissatisfaction with the whole concept of HW has now jumped into sharp focus.
My 7th grader had EveryDay Math in elementary school and, as a middle school math specialist, I was impressed seeing his relationship with math as a tool to be applied creatively to achieve a series of tasks. I couldn’t wait for him to hit 7th math (not at my school or in my class) and really show his stuff. He was my ninja!
Instead? I watched a year of answer-getting. He approached each HW with dread, dragged it out to far longer that it deserved, learned very little, and applied almost none of the wonderful approaches he learned in Elementary. Traditional HW made an accountant of my ninja. What a waste of his divergent approaches and autonomy as a problem solver! I was finally the mom of the kid who was “too bored to excel”. As a teacher, I’ve always heard that excuse with one eyebrow secretly raised.
So what did I really see from the kitchen table side of 7th grade HW?
· My son didn’t know what HW was for, except 40% of his grade.
· There was very little room for multiple approaches. Each time I tried to show him another way, he’d shoot me down, saying he HAD to do it one way. He was focused on two main things: hand-calculating every computation and saving paper.
· The text (Holt CA edition) stuck to a very narrow range of problems and they adhered exactly to the 3 example problems of that day’s lesson. Boring.
· The HW was far longer than he needed to cement the lesson’s concepts. Boring.
· Did I mention it was boring? Especially the hand computation of arithmetic that an adult would probably have used a calculator to complete. Boring.
· The month after CST testing, the HW became interesting, divergent and he sailed through it- re-ninja’d! I appropriated about half of the assignments- they were great! None of them were from the Holt text.
· Assign it, Mon-Thurs...not too boring!
· Differentiate! One of my summer self-HWs is start building my resources. HW needs to have an element of choice, from a range of simpler “drill and kill” for the emerging learners, to a few complex, brain buster problems for the students who are already competent in the skill. I’m working on a list of resources to use what’s already out there (ie Mad Minutes àPizzazz àMath Counts). I hereby solemnly commit to create not 160 HWs a year, but 160 menus of HW. It has me a little anxious! Determined, but anxious.
· Give a time limit. This year, families signed off at 30 minutes for students who opted for it. Full credit was given. Treating every student fairly does not require that they are all treated identically. This is what I learned as the parent of a 7th grader.
· Stick to self-correcting HWs (send home a key or checking technique) so that students can be held responsible for coming to class already knowing that they have correct answers. Stubborn problems will be dealt with quickly.
· Maintain peer review structure; Students Swap, Look and Sign almost before the tardy bell rings. (I must say, I’m starting to get this one down!) No instructional minutes should be wasted checking HW. We just quickly see which problems gave trouble, have teams log points and compare work and move on. Warm-ups in the first 5 min of class can be used to work on a problem area if needed.
· Clearly articulate why we do HW and what students are expected to gain by it, and make sure students and parents know why; all athletes and musicians practice, as do video gamers. This is tricky, as a recent meta-study, (see Visible Learning for Teaching, by John Hattie) shows little or no causal correlation, in any study, between HW and learning! I can feel myself evolving into a HW rebel in the future, and I’m scaring myself.
To sum up: I’m not really that into HW! I’ll let you know how my evolution evolves.