Friday, July 6, 2012

When is enough, enough?

So, I am sitting here pondering what new things I want to incorporate into my school year this August.  (And, just as a side note, this summer has flown by as fast as a desert storm hitting my house.  Hmm, maybe there is an analogy here somewhere.  I'll come back to that one later.)  I keep festering over the one or two things to pick this year to try or fine tune. My mind keeps coming back to homework.  I have followed a couple of blogs and have been inspired.  The thing is, I am getting in my own way. 

I can't seem to wrap around my stinking brain the part about kids don't need a thousand homework problems a night.  How much is enough?  If they only have 15 problems, is that enough to cement the learning?  Is 15 problems too many?  How do I find the balance of enough?  Can I instruct so well and assess before they leave class to give no assignment?  If I give no homework, how do I know they will retain it?  With all these questions, one thing I know for sure I must do is at least give the feedback to the student on homework.   It seems students painfully sit at home in front of their books, glassy eyed, and praying to a higher power for some divine intervention on how to solve this thing with numbers and variables.  As a math teacher, I don't really want it to be painful.  I would hope that I have clearly explained it that it should be a breeze.  However, for forever and a day, math teachers have always assigned daily homework, checked only for completion, and complained about how kids don't do their homework.  My charge this year is to break that cycle.  I will be flying in the face of my colleagues by challenging their beliefs.  I more than likely will be standing alone in my endeavor although my wish would be a unified front from my department.

Here are some blogs I have been following for the last few weeks.  They are shaping my thoughts on the idea.  Oswald, Nowak, Cornally, and Meyer   All are great ideas and have merit.  (If you have the time, check them out).  I just need to find something that will work for me.   Let me flesh out some thoughts in my head here, let it sit for a day or two, re-read it, re-think it, and revise it.

  • I feel the homework calendar my learning team wants to use has too many problems.  
  • I don't think the book we are using has enough problems for basic practice where there aren't a few weird problems thrown in that are the exception to the rule. 
  • Do I want to generate worksheets everyday for homework, with the exact problems I choose to be on it? 
  • If I do create my own worksheet, I can give feedback better and faster because the worksheet will force some organization.  Some. 
  • How can I change my instruction so that I can assess and re-asses each day how well the students have learned it?  And I think I may have just hit the nail on the head here. 
  • Balance.  
  • I want my students to learn it in class and go home a few hours later and still demonstrate their knowledge without much struggle.  Maybe a quick peek back into the notes. Maybe I allow students to complete as much as they need to have it mastered.  Susy may be need 8 problems and Robby may need 12 while Travis needs 1. 

Time to let it stew for a few more days.

Any feedback would be appreciated. I need to eat my breakfast anyway.


  1. Kelly-

    Welcome to the labyrinth! There's no pat answer that can solve this multi-layered problem for you, especially since you're already looking at balancing what's best for students with your school's culture and your teaching peers.

    I came into math teaching looking for ways to reduce or eliminate homework. I floundered years and made a lot of mistakes along the way, and my "do what you need" plans never worked for the majority of students. But when I started connecting with other math teachers (through roughly the same set of blogs you linked to), I found the clearest arguments for why the traditional "assign and checkmark" systems always seemed worse.

    Scoring unchecked/uncorrected HW incentivizes cheating. Period. Anytime I created a system where a student's end grade depend on something that can be easily copied or spoofed, I realized that I had to share responsibility for their academic dishonesty.

    From that point, I had to look at both ends of the grading homework spectrum. I worked with several amazing mentor teachers early in my career that used HW notebooks well, albeit in a very traditional model. Daily HW, 2-3 (from 10) problems presented by students in class, stamped for completeness and peer-scored, notebooks collected and peer audited before a unit test. Their system maximized the time students spent looking at completed HW problems, both their own and others. The peer-grade & audit minimized class/teacher time with HW grading (which is also problematic!), the scores were weighted towards participation but accuracy did count. As I said, a decent implementation of what I've come to see as a really flawed system.

    I've come to see my primary goal for math HW is to convince students that math requires participation and engagement. In short, math needs to be DONE, and done with mindfulness, in order to be mastered. Any system that rewards careless, slapdash copying or suggests that there's a universal delineated amount of "enough" math works against that goal.

    I also agree with Shawn, that without meaningful feedback, the work is wasted. I think that feedback can come from peers, but only if developing our tools for mathematical conversation and critique has been part of the class experience.

    When I put all these things together, I find myself left with frequent small assignments that receive feedback/evaluation from me. For traditional math-sequence classes in 40-60 minute periods, the best ways I've found to approach that is with SBG-style assessments and records. In practice, this has meant small bundled multi-skill quizzes on a regular basis (at least weekly, sometimes twice), and regular individual HW problems, some that I collect and evaluate, some that the student presents in class or to peers. Gradebook wise, I treat all of these identically - as assessments of a particular skill. I still think that's a weak version of what would be truly best for students learning, but it's the best I've been able to DO in real world settings.

    Oh, take Shawn's advice and AVOID the prefix RE for assessments. The word "retake" sets off alarms for teachers, students and parents, and instantly creates a pile of problems. Each course has skills that will be assessed multiple times and in different ways. It's a long hike, not a tightrope with a safety net.

  2. I like the idea of something like as homework (used it in my class this past school year and my district has guaranteed me at least one more year). Theoretically, kids are practicing what they need to practice with however many repetitions they personally need to get a skill down. Same problems as paper though - not everyone was putting the time and effort into it!