What’s important about math homework…

There are somethings in life that require repetition for them to be of much use.  A toddler must develop large muscle skills.  I can’t imagine being able to think well on my feet if I had to think through how to put one foot in front of the other.  While I argue the need to practice some things for automaticity, I would be hard pressed to think of a skill for which understanding of the function should be diminished.  We should all still know, “heal toe, heal toe,” because when forgotten, a digression into shuffling causes problems with feet and hips.

To argue the case for homework, I would first define quality homework.  Quality homework, in my thinking, has two functions.  The first is to extend what is learned in class by offering problems that are slightly more complex, some of which is scaffolded in videos or instructions.  The other function of quality homework is to provide enough practice for procedures to move them into automaticity.

Recently I read a blog by someone who found teachers audacious for assuming homework was more important than family time.  I would argue homework need not be done apart from family nor should it consume the majority of a child’s after-school hours.  From my perspective as a grandmother, I agree with the general guideline of 10 minutes per grade level; and half of that would likely be for math.  Of course there are more exciting things to do than homework, but I believe the burden of justification lies with those who want to ban homework.  Would we rather spend classroom time on rote practice and extension?  Do we want to extend the time students spend at school?  I have seen the studies of students who did vs. did not do homework, but I remain skeptical of the correlation-causation for the simple reason that kids don’t learn by osmosis.

Is there justice in assigning homework for all?  If one weighs work like they weigh potatoes, then students will be unfairly practicing something they have already mastered.  That extra work could infringe on one’s perception of entitlement:  I shouldn’t have to do practice something I have already mastered.  Mastery work assigned on an individual basis every day would be the ideal; and for a teacher with 10 students, customizing 7-10 content areas per student might be doable.  Otherwise it seems like an extravagant expenditure of teacher time to try to do that every day.  I am certainly open to discussion on this, but it seems the practical thing to do is to assign homework for all that can reasonably be completed by most in a 5-10 minute-per grade rule of thumb.

Some students need an inordinate amount of practice to mastery some concepts.  I use mastery quizzes:  partly to identify those students who need “extra” practice and work with them individually.  However, with 150 students in total, some of my students will be getting slightly more practice than they need.  One suggestion has been to let students decide which problems to practice, but my experience with that has not been successful.  Given the choice between socializing and working optional homework problems, most of my students would decide they did not need to do the homework.

Trying to tailor every assignment to extract only the absolute minimum effort on the part of each student is not possible, nor is it “real life.”  There are general standards for how often we change our oil and brush our teeth.  We don’t always do what is good for us but if we follow the guidelines, things have a better chance of turning out well.


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