I can’t believe I’m about to wade into the homework debate, but here goes.
When I became a consultant, they spent a great deal of time teaching me how to coach and facilitate. One thing they taught me was to be up front about my assumptions and biases. So here’s three pretty important ones.
- As a kid, I hated doing homework.
- As a teacher, I hated chasing kids to get their homework done.
- As a parent, I am learning to hate fighting with my kid to do her homework.
A few years ago, while tutoring a student, I came to the realization that most of the math homework we assign is a waste of time. Her teacher had assigned her questions 1-15, parts a, c, and e. She did 1a and knew how to do it. I suggested that we move on to #2, but she was the kind of kid who did every question assigned, so she did 1c and 1e even though they were exactly like part a, but with different numbers. It occurred to me at that point that I needed to look at how much and what kind of homework I was assigning.
I started paying more attention to which students were completing what homework assignments. Some kids did it all, and some kids did none. The problem is that the students who needed the practice, didn’t do the work, and the students who didn’t need the practice, diligently did every single question I assigned.
At about that time, some teachers in my department were complaining about how kids didn’t do homework. I threw out the idea of just not assigning it at all to alleviate everyone’s (teacher, student and parent) stress. That suggestion didn’t go over well. In my classes, I consciously started giving less homework. My thought was that if we assigned 4 useful questions and the kids did 3, we were way better off than if we assigned 20 rote practice questions and the kids did 6.
I also started differentiating my assignments. Kids who needed practice got a manageable amount of practice. Kids who needed deeper thinking got richer questions. As a kid, I hated it when I got done an assignment, only to have the teacher give me more of the same. I learned not to get done. We do that to our strongest kids. Instead of giving them better assignments, we just make them do more work, and because they’re good kids, they tend to do it.
Another change I made was to move away from giving my class practice time at the end of the lesson. I tend to talk less than most high school math teachers. In an 80 minute block, I try hard to keep lessons to no more than 40 minutes, so that kids have at least 40 minutes to work. I used to give that work time at the end. Kids were tired after a 40 minute lesson, and it was difficult to focus them on the practice questions. I started breaking my lessons into smaller sections, so that I’d teach for 10 minutes, and then assign 2 question, then teach for 10 minutes and assign 2 questions, and so on. By doing this, the kids really felt they had to do the questions, because it seemed like part of the lesson. As such, I assigned far fewer questions at the end of the lesson. Most kids had nothing to take home at all, which I felt good about, and I’m sure they felt good about. More importantly to the people who will suggest kids need lots of practice to be successful, my student’s grades didn’t suffer by doing less homework.
If I get brave later on, I’ll add a post about how I feel about assessing homework.