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Helping Homework Work

01 August 2011

It's a funny old thing, the homework malarkey. There is no reliable evidence to suggest that doing homework has any impact on students' understanding of mathematics or the standards that they achieve, yet still all over the country it is seen as a given that students must do homework. And in mathematics this often looks like students wading through question after question after meaningless question.

Some research supports the notion that a culture of homework helps to improve independent learning skills – but even this is on shaky ground and with varying definitions about what these skills actually are.

The approach that you choose to take with setting homework can at least improve the chances of it having an impact. For instance, it is known that a more effective use of homework time is preparation for a future lesson (why else do you think so many long-established schools maintain prep time). So perhaps a better activity is to tell the students what you will be learning next lesson, outline the kind of question that they might need to be able to do, talk about the skills that they might need, and ask them to come to the lesson with the five main points that they have been able to find out about the topic. Not only is this a better use of time and builds stronger independent learning skills, but it also means that the next lesson can begin in a much more formative manner – instead of you telling them how to do something, you can use the collective knowledge of the group to come up with the necessary information, skills, techniques or what have you.

There is strong evidence to suggest that in many cases homework actually leads to a lowering of standards – for many students the negative emotions towards learning that the homework experience builds flows over in to lessons so that they are turned off or have poorer relationships with the classroom teacher. This may be, for example, because at home there is no place to do homework, or they are a child carer, or the family set-up means homework leads to arguments and fights, or that (particularly in middle-middle class families) the pressure put on the child and the strict evening routine is extremely stressful (kids doing 3 hours homework per night instead of having a childhood!). The prep approach helps to alleviate some of these problems, because the students are not doing lists of questions that a parent feels the need to monitor (and when they can't do maths themselves, this can be particularly problematic), but instead the homework is investigational and conversational.

Oh, and what if they don't do the prep? Well, frankly, so what? Of course you should encourage them to be a part of it, but sometimes the lives that children lead are so chaotic and in some cases abusive, that they really do have bigger things to worry about. There is no need for confrontation in the classroom over homework. It is pointless, and regresses performance. However, because the lessons now have a different feel, where homework is something that allows you to participate in building the knowledge, you will notice that as time moves on, students become more interested and keen to undertake the prep because they want to be able to take part with their peers.

So that's one approach.

Of course, many teachers (maths in particular) want to have opportunities for consolidation and mastery. I'm not saying that there is no place for undertaking homework tasks that are looking back at work already covered. But perhaps an alternative approach might be helpful here too.

For instance, I would suggest that a more powerful and effective approach would be to abandon the notion of wading through questions and instead attempt just one question. This could be an already existing exam question (therefore no prep on your part) or a question that you have written. The question should cover a lot of learning and include the need to extract information from word problems.

So the students complete this (It could go on your VLE), and then you can talk it through during the next lesson (not necessarily at the start). But then, the next homework is for the students to mark the question. You give them the worked solution, highlighting the points where marks would be awarded. They then have to go through the question and mark it based on what the examiner is looking for. This means that they are already getting inside the heads of the examiners – they know what working out counts and what is being looked for. This is of course nice prep for exams, but more importantly it is about communicating mathematically and understanding the processes.

In the following lesson, for five minutes, put the kids in groups of 4 and let them moderate each other's marking. It might surprise you just how good kids are at doing this once they have a little practice and how seriously they take their duty as moderator.

Now there aren't really any good computer packages that do this yet – the infinite possibilities that a student might write in their explanation have as yet escaped the programming world for a solution, which is why it sticks to ticking formulaic and repetitive questions and maybe printing the worked solution alongside. But you do have these remarkable super-computers in your classroom: the children. They can reason, debate, collaborate and invent. Not only do they make a great marking machine, but by placing them in this "teacher" role, they live up to the character and engage in higher order thinking as they have to give justifications for their moderations to their peers.

This is all just one suggestion, but with the approach above, maybe it could work like:

Week 1: Prep

Week 2: Prep

Week 3: Exam Question

Week 4: Prep

Week 5: Prep

Week 6: Half Term Review

This would mean in terms of teacher work load, creating one question in Week 3 and a review exercise in Week 6. Marking only the review exercise. I think that is about right.

This would not contravene most school homework policies, since with this approach you are setting "homework" each and every lesson.

Far too much teacher time is wasted on things that have no impact on learning, and one of the major culprits is the marking of homeworks. I realise that this might worry some teachers. Often the response I hear is "but what about when Ofsted check my books and they aren't marked?" Well how about explaining the professional decisions that you have taken, the reasoning behind it and the improvements it is bringing about. And if you come up against someone that is adamant that every equation, every graph, every calculation should have a tick of cross next to it, ask them simply to explain in what way that improves mathematical understanding and what good it does the child, their family and you as a teacher.

Just a thought.

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