I’ve assigned homework once this semester. That was Geometry. In Algebra, I’m not sure I’ve assigned any. I rarely talk about this particular paragraph of my personal Manifesto du Education, simply because, unlike assessment reform, for example, this has always felt a bit disgraceful.
So here it is, and don’t expect this one to surface Whack-A-Mole-style like this again for a long time:
- The kids who need math homework least (A and B students) will do it.
- The kids who need it most (D and F students), won’t, or else they’ll do it halfassedly, gaining as much credit with the least effort possible.
- This goes double for high-poverty students, where I performed a Master’s thesis study that concluded as much.
In that study, incidence of cheating rose significantly in the experimental group. Assessment scores, meanwhile, demonstrated statistically insignificant improvement. My class’ disposition towards learning (and math, particularly) took a nosedive. When I surveyed my students, few of them connected homework to practice, only to the points.
There were students in the C-range whose comprehension improved with daily practice but this only raised a larger semantic issue for me: what are we calling “homework?”
If it’s just schoolwork done at home, then what makes it more valuable than schoolwork done at school? The issue is more complex than that pat answer and deals with what I perceive to be a common failing even of effective educators.
I should state for the record my assumption that students need a certain amount of practice for each new concept.
That certain amount certainly varies by the student, however. Some students don’t need more than a couple problems. Others may need thirty takes to get the concept right.
My point is this: if my kids evaluate and graph forty points over a class period, as they did yesterday, why would I send them home with any more?
The issue for most math teachers, I believe, is one of time management. If your class is slow to start the period and quick to finish, if your transitions are labored, or if you waste time disciplining your class, then you won’t have the time to get through forty problems. The only year I assigned homework with any regularity was during my student-teaching, when my class management plainly sucked, failing by every one of those metrics and more.
It was such a criminal arrangement.
By assigning whatever practice we didn’t finish to homework (“… I’d like you guys to finish this for homework …”) or by using homework to compensate for underplanning (“… tell you what, I’ll let you guys start your homework early …”) I was transferring the cost of my poor teaching onto my students.
One more time: my time management was a bust so I helped myself to whatever time I wanted from my students’ personal store, whenever I wanted.
I’ve since taken a cane to my class management. I continuously examine and re-examine how I spend my instructional minutes. Between effective class management and my new hardware package, I am now confident that, in a two-hour block, my students are coming within a gnat’s eyelash of two hour’s worth of instruction and practice.
At which point, what’s the point of homework?
I know there is value in outside work. It falls to the teacher, though, to take that value seriously, to maximize it in creative ways, and to minimize its cost to the student. Are we there? Or are we somewhere else?
Jonathan takes exception in the comments and, to his credit, he’s got a wily homework scheme that does right by many of my caveats above:
I assign 3 pieces: practice, regular, and challenge. Everyone does regular, and one of the others. So the stronger kids get a couple of challenge problems, and the weaker kids get a fistful of easier exercises to build up some proficiency. And since it is easier, they are more likely to do it.
I find “likelihood of doing homework” to be a troubling measurement, though. If I can’t secure 100% buy-in (like I can in my classroom) and if I can’t verify that the work on the page matches the name at the top, I can’t assume that, okay, we’ve all hit thirty factoring problems, I can move on to evaluating.
Okay, so I am assigning homework.