Mathematics Homework: My Dilemma

June 2, 2014

A few months ago I started compiling my viewpoints about mathematics education. What I mean is that I have been using sticky notes to record my beliefs about mathematics education and collecting them on a piece of flipchart paper on my back classroom wall. (Strangely, no students have asked about this. I wonder if they read the stuff on the walls at all??) The viewpoints poster has been a personal exercise to help me clarify my thoughts and see which issues I have strong feelings about.

viewpoints on maths ed 1

I used yellow sticky notes for beliefs I can justify and for which I can provide examples. I used pink sticky notes for issues about which I don’t yet know what I believe. One of these is homework. It seems to me that some people feel quite strongly that homework is bad and should be abolished. Others hold that homework is essential; for some it is even sacred. I have no idea where I sit on this issue, hence the pink sticky note.

viewpoints on maths ed 2

Most of the time, I feel as though my thoughts don’t matter too much because homework policy is determined by the school I work in. If my school says to assign homework, I do so. I usually follow the lead of my head of department in what types of homework I set and how much.

But I think it is time to do some reading around this subject of homework and come to some conclusions of my own. After all, I have strong views about all manner of other things (for example, setting students into classes by ability and acceleration of more able students), and my views have to submit to the policy of the school and my department. So why not form some views about homework?

As a first step, I will be participating in the #eduread discussion about mathematics homework. The plan is to read the assigned article by Patricia Deubel and write about it. Then there is a twitter chat about it on Thursday morning (June 4). (Or Wednesday night if you live in a North American time zone. Or the wee hours of Thursday morning for Europeans…. Maybe Europeans are better off reading the summary afterwards.) Update: The second post in this series about homework is: 26 Good Ideas.

Do you believe in homework?

5 Responses to “Mathematics Homework: My Dilemma”

  1. My personal opinion is I believe in _some_ homework. For example, I believe in assigning a small number of challenging problems for the learners to struggle and create questions.

    I try to spend the class time working on questions and there is not enough time in class for the learners to try to generate answers and also for them to create questions to be answered.

    This also means that I do assign homework almost daily, but I can look back at the school year and say the most I ever assigned was 5 problems.

    • Hi Glenn, thanks for your visit and comment. I think that your number of five is much fewer than most math(s) teachers–certainly when I assign questions from the textbook it’s usually around twenty.

      I see what you mean about picking more challenging ones… I worry about demotivating my students if they get unproductively stuck. Have you had to wrestle with this?

      • I have one consistent message that I repeat over and over again from the first day of class, “If it was easy, I would not waste your time with it.”

        I explained at the beginning of class that the goal was to learn math, not to get answers. If I assign 4 problems, it was because those were the 4 hardest, most complex problems and those 4 are what I cared about. What YOU (the learner) care about is understanding how to get to the 4.

        At that point, they may choose to work however many they need to in order to understand how to get to the 4. Sometimes the 4 were from the book sometimes I made them up on the fly, sometimes I planned them, sometimes I let the class decide on the numbers as we created them together. (this, of course, made some hyper complex problems sometimes).

        Also, on many tests the test had the problems and the answer ON the test. Their goal was to fill in the blank from problem to solution. It set a clear expectation that what I cared about was not the answer, but the work and the effort to get to the answer.

        It was weird, but when asked whether they wanted the answer or not, it was about 50/50 in responses Yes/ No. The brightest learners generally wanted the answer because it gave them a hook to work from if they were stuck.

        As far as the unproductively stuck learners, I kept the same mantra, “if it was easy, I would not waste your time.” “Your time is too valuable to allow you to waste on easy problems.” I set the expectation that it SHOULD be hard and thought provoking, then laddered them to that level.

  2. […] think about being asked to read and write for their maths homework. After reviewing literature and reflecting on my practice last school year, I decided to try a whole range of different homework options this […]

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