Who Does Homework Benefit?

As I reflect about many conversations that I have had with students and their families this year about homework, I have found myself deeply questioning who is benefiting from math homework. With current homework assignments, the students who are on track to meet end of the year standards will continue to be on track, while the students who are struggling have a negative self-concept about their mathematical abilities and intelligence reinforced night after night.

This week alone, I have had enlightening conversations with two families dedicated to helping their child in any way possible. One family stated that they are endlessly researching the Internet to understand strategies taught in class, and the other flat out stated that she did not know where to begin with helping her child. How I have appreciated the honesty!!

As a teacher, I attend trainings and have the daily support of my team to help me become proficient in strategies and thinking that the Common Core is requiring. I have had to relearn the way in which I approach math completely. I absolutely celebrate this fact! As a child, I was gifted at memorizing facts and steps, but that only got me so far. When I see the mathematical thinking that my students are doing, I am elated that they must know the “why,” and there is no right way to do math.

Having said all of this, I was curious about how research supports homework. While I know that the benefit of homework is that students gain additional practice in what they are learning in class, I still could not help wondering whether or not there are significant gains in learning. In the research that I have read, I found that there is evidence that homework is beneficial at the elementary age level, but can actually be detrimental if homework assignments are not purposely chosen (according to Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering, whose viewpoints and insights I greatly admire).

So, what to do? In my view, the Common Core State Standards are asking our students to do amazingly deep thinking—a great thing! I cannot, however, expect my families to absorb and celebrate learning, for example, the array model for multiplication, when the algorithm that we were all taught is viewed as so much more efficient and easy to understand. For now, with the standards and our newly adopted math program (Bridges) being so new, I have decided that I will no longer send math homework that requires new strategies that become frustrating to families and students. Instead, I will send home assignments that reinforce concepts that my students have already learned.

We are missing an important opportunity to excite families and students about math. Even though I will not send home the same kind of homework, I will continue to organize “Math Nights” for families so that they can understand the strategies that their students are learning in math. My biggest hope is that by keeping new strategies in class, at least for now, perceptions about our new program and the Common Core State Standards will begin to shift for the better.

5 thoughts on “Who Does Homework Benefit?”

  1. I have had this same realization. The homework I assign is intended to be practice of what I am currently teaching or review of older material. Still, I see some of the same students without the resources/time/help or perhaps the desire to complete assignments almost week in and week out. Is getting zeros on a progress report going to “teach” that student to do homework, or will it so negatively impact their self efficacy in math that they will drop even further behind? And then what about the kids who beg for math homework – why should they be deprived the opportunity for growth?

    We had an interesting problem that went unsolved in class the other day. I tacked in on to the homework as an afterthought – “if you’re interested, take some time and keep working on this problem…”, but it didn’t seem like the “optional” nature of what would have been interesting problem solving opportunity was taken up by very many students.

  2. You could consider using homework for something other than practicing what they are seeing in class, particularly mathematical awareness and communication. What do they see at home (or just outside class) that is similar to, uses, reminds them of what they are doing in class? Can they teach someone else (parent?) what they are learning? Can they explain to a sibling?

    Of course, this also breaks the common conception of what homework means and maybe parents would struggle with that a bit, too.

    I have them play mathematical games and the assignments are to play with someone at home and be prepared to talk in class about how things went.

    1. Games are a fabulous way to reinforce what students are learning in class! My team member had a great idea–the Bridges program is full of games that we feel are not played often enough in class. Once students have had ample practice in class, we are going to send the game home for homework. Our goal is one game a week to be played with any family member. I am very excited to see how this changes students self-conceptions about math. I really appreciate the idea that students be ready to discuss how things went. I will definitely add that to my plan!

      1. Deborah – the first week of homework games went quite well. My son had the chance to play with me, my husband, and a fellow 4th grader (from a different class). It was fun for him to teach me the game (akin to what Matt describes in his reply below) and to see how much better he got at playing the game after each round of it. We are a family that is highly into playing games, though. Wonder how it would go for a family with less time/inclination.

  3. Absolutely: homework reinforces distinctions between those who “can do math” and those who “can’t do math.” The argument I often hear for giving homework in elementary school is to prepare them for even more homework in middle school. But, I wonder why middle school has more homework than we do, or any at all. Don’t the same things happen in middle school? …in high school?

    I love setting the classroom culture that math is fun and that playing games at home feeds two birds with one seed: practicing skills; communicating skills with those at home. Math is an art form. Math is fun.

    I also like very much what Joshua said about having kids teach their parents how to do the “new” math. I think this places the responsibility of doing math squarely on the students and gets parents out of having to show their kids how to do it.

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