Saturday, July 19, 2014

Homework questions & dilemmas --- reflections on Cathy Vatterott's Rethinking Homework

A teacher/friend/co-worker of mine is reading "Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs" by Cathy Vatterott for a class and was asked to get some people to answer some questions for her.  I have read the book and it is one of many that has moved me from being a believer that homework is mandatory to learn math, to the idea that it is an assistance (when done in the right context), but not a necessity.

The questions are bold - my reply follows.

What is your philosophy of homework?  What do you consider the role/purpose of homework? 
It is practice.  In a perfect world it should be individualized and time based versus number of problems based.  Meaning strugglers do less problems, different problems, "easier" problems.

I also believe new material should not be practiced at home - it needs to be done under the expert (the teacher).    (Comparing homework to my previous life -- homework is low level paperwork)

At the HS level I don't think homework teaches responsibility at all (I doubt it for all grade levels), it may teach a little about consequences (And again in the real world you are not punished for skipping some "homework" - skipping some low level work can be important, and for me personally it resulted in promotion -- skip good, do great)
And finally - if homework is low level - how much time should I or my students put into it?  Until you reach a high level of math - my answer is not much.  At high level classes with a quicker pace, it is needed that students do some learning on their own (sort of like college) but for the traditional K-8, Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2 sequence I don't think asking students to learn "themselves" is a good idea.

What are your struggles with homework?
If I assign homework - I should look at it (theoretically) but that is impossible (20 problems, 100 students is 2000 problems per day, at 8 seconds per problem is over 4 hours!).  Not checking homework is my largest struggle, but checking it in class is a waste; you know 5 students watch (who got them all) and 25 are in the twilight zone.   I know there is only so much of me and it is impossible to do it all - homework's return on my investment is simply not enough.  I also struggle to do good differentiation on homework assignments -- that is why I am looking into more computer based practice programs (see below).

What do you think about grading or not grading homework?
I feel practice should not be graded for a score (I give a couple of points for "completed" work, which ends up being only about 1% of the student's grade).  But as the teacher it is important for me to know that students are learning from their mistakes and correcting when doing homework.  That is why with paper and pencil homework I always provide the solutions, which a lot of students still don't check! (Ha!)  That is why I am pushing towards more on-line, have to be correct to move on type of homework.  My plan is to use Khan Academy heavily this coming school year.  But errors must be okay and homework is where they should occur.

What do you think?  Homework is one of the hardest parts of being a math teacher - go ahead and write me a comment, or a drop me a note.