A Homework Philosophy

I often reflect on how I implement homework (post here), and I am consistently disappointed. Although I do change it up now and then, my go-to tactic is to assign a set of practice problems based on that day’s instruction. We don’t have enough textbooks to send home with students (I’m not a fan of our textbooks anyway, so the limited number doesn’t really matter), so I either create or search for decent handouts to give for homework. Some of the practice handouts I’ve created are pretty good – asking students to reflect on what they learned, describe processes using math language, identify errors and write directions, etc. Unfortunately creating high quality homework assignments like these is extremely time consuming, and realistically, there is not enough time to do that for every assignment. And even when I’ve assigned the most creative and relevant handout, I can, without a doubt, count on hearing these three things the next day:

  • “I didn’t do it.” For some students, it’s a matter of time, motivation, circumstances, or a host of other reasons. I find this concerning, but that’s an issue for another day. What is within my power are the students that didn’t understand the lesson well enough to complete the problems. They went home, stared at the paper for a few minutes then shoved it back in their bag. Or even worse, when they left class they already knew there was no point even trying because they didn’t get it. This is definitely an indicator of a poor homework choice on my part.
  • “I did it…but I think it’s all wrong.” I find this particularly troubling because they are usually right; it’s all wrong. They’ve just spent a solid chunk of time practicing an incorrect method and now they’ve really got it down! AHH!!! So now, I need to try to “un-teach” that error and “re-teach” the correct method. Again, this indicates a poor homework choice on my part.
  • “I did it and it was SO boring.” I honestly don’t hear this very often, but I know some students are thinking it. They mastered the skill on the first couple problems, and diligently continued through the rest without being challenged or learning anything new.

What I would love to hear is, “I’m glad we practiced that more. Now I really get it!” Wishful thinking? Maybe. However, I believe that I can get closer to this ideal, and I definitely need to move further and further away from what I normally hear. With all of this in mind, I’ve been thinking a lot about my homework philosophy. I’ve never really given this particular “philosophy” much thought before and now that I have, I foresee a dramatic shift come September. Hold onto your hats…

Actively Think and Reflect about Math

Holy cow! Crazy, right? Stick with me…it seems so obvious but up until now my ideas about homework were very narrow. What I wanted was for my students to practice what we did that day or practice a host of things before a test. Practicing is part of it, for sure. However, to ACTIVELY think is what I really want. And, too often (see reasons above), the level of mental activity when completing practice problems is super low. And there are so many amazing ways to promote active and engaged thinking that could zest up the routine and connect with different learning styles! With this adjustment, I can implement some of the thinking routines (from Making Thinking Visible posts one, two, three, four) to help my students make sense of the content (bonus points for teaching great thinking tools for all content areas). In addition, homework assignments can become lessons in how to study on their own (make a set of flashcards, rewrite notes in a more concise way, other creative stuff that I haven’t thought of yet).

Reflection is also a key component to learning. If I can teach my students in class and through homework assignments to thoughtfully look back to that day’s lesson and make connections to previous concepts, this could be huge for their retention and engagement. Because we use Interactive Student Notebooks (ISN), I think the reflection piece can easily be woven into the routine. In class when we reach a question about a previous topic, I direct them to their notebooks; they search for the page, read and find an answer. In the past, I regularly told them to use their notebooks to study and help them on their homework, some did and some didn’t. So although this became part of our classroom routine, it didn’t translate into a homework routine. Homework assignments that require them to use their ISN to refer back to that day’s lesson will teach them to reflect on what they’ve learned and can extend this learning as well.

If asked before this summer, I would have ended the phrase differently – analyze and reflect about the day’s lesson. However, as I’ve read and thought more about homework, I think this is too narrow (again). Don’t get me wrong, I do want them to think about the day’s lesson, but I also want my students thinking about math in general. I want them to see math in the world around them, to problem solve, to notice patterns, to explore mathematical ideas that they find interesting, etc, etc, etc. So that’s why opened it up to actively think and reflect about math.

In tomorrow’s post, I will detail my budding plan

#EduRead: The Case For and Against Homework

I stumbled upon the blog “Read…Chat…Reflect…Learn…” and the #eduread article from June 18 “The Case For and Against Homework” by Robert Marzano and Debra J. Pickering. I read the article, the discussion tweets, and few other blog posts, which gave me a lot of rich material to consider! I’ve been thinking about the how’s and why’s of homework for years, and for the first time I’ve been able to dedicate some uninterrupted time and thought to it, and I think I’ve reached a few conclusions. (This will probably translate into a series of homework blog posts – one and two.)

Before I add in my two-cents, below are a few quotes that stuck with me from the article:

  • Homework has decades of research supporting its effective use.
  • Cooper and colleagues’ (2006) comparison of homework with no homework indicates that the average student in a class in which appropriate homework was assigned would score 23 percentile points higher on tests of the knowledge addressed in that class than the average student in a class in which homework was not assigned.
  • Perhaps the most important advantage of homework is that it can enhance achievement by extending learning beyond the school day…. The study found that “students abroad are required to work on demanding subject matter at least twice as long” as are U.S. students (National Education Commission on Time and Learning, 1994, p. 25).
  •  Certainly, inappropriate homework may produce little or no benefit—it may even decrease student achievement.

Although I’ve never toyed with the idea of not assigning homework, the research presented in this article made me even more convinced of its weight. It’s so important to keep our students thinking after the school day ends, both for the good of the individual (building their mental muscles) and the community. Yet to ensure our students are actually thinking after school, we need to be deliberate in choosing appropriate and effective homework assignments.

Research Based Homework Guidelines -Marzano & Pickering

I found two lists to help teachers in this process in a number of different articles and blogs. The first list is from a section of the “Research Based Homework Guidelines” by Marzano & Pickering. The other is from the book Fires in the Mind, “Four R’s of Deliberate Homework” by Cushman. Each contains four key components, the first three from both lists overlapped, but the fourth components differed. I grouped the first three pairs together below to preserve the wording in case one speaks to you more than the other. Then I listed the fourth components separately. Note – I identified Marzano & Pickering’s list with a “+” and blue text. Cushman’s list is identified by a “*” and red text.

1) Introducing new content + Readying themselves for new learning *
I played with this a little over the last few years by ‘flipping’ the classroom and assigning online videos and activities for a week here and there. I fell back into old habits and didn’t stick with this even though it worked pretty well. I found that some students that previously did not do any homework loved this and completed it every day. It was also good for my English Language Learners because they could re-watch a video if they had difficulty with the language. I’m sure there are means other than online videos, but I can’t think of any right now. Ideas?

2) Practicing a skill or process that students can do independently but not fluently + Repetition and application of knowledge and skills *
This has been my go-to method although I didn’t apply an essential piece: they need to be able to do the work independently. Some could, some couldn’t. I’m sold on committing to ensuring that they are ready to practice independently before I send these assignments home. This will definitely be a big adjustment for me, but so very important!

3) Elaborating on information that has been addressed in class to deepen students’ knowledge + Reviewing material learned earlier *

This brings to mind one type of problem that I give regularly (and seemed to make a big difference). I ask students to identify the error is a worked example, then explain how to complete the problem correctly. Any other ideas?

4a) Providing opportunities for students to explore topics of their own interest +
Now this is not something I’ve ever done. I’m wondering if I could find a way to implement this component as a long-term homework assignment. Has anyone tried this?

4b) Revising their work *
I’m not in total agreement with this for math homework. At least in regards to quizzes and tests, I’ve found that when a student has a mistake that student needs teacher-support to ensure accurate revisions of this work. I suppose if the student received enough support and/or feedback in class to address their mistakes, then homework revisions could be a possibility.

Homework-Alternatives*from Fires in the Mind by Cushman