The notion of ‘homework as practice’ is widely accepted in Malta, especially in high stakes subjects such as mathematics. So much so that should a teacher, particularly in the case of high-achieving students, fail to give the necessary amount of homework each day, whatever that may mean, he or she is likely to be quizzed by the head of school and face criticism from parents, and possibly even from students.
It makes more sense to provide students with tasks that stimulate thinking and problem-solving skills, than simply repetitive exercises- David Herd
So ingrained is the ‘requirement’ of regular homework that although, as Eileen Shultz observed in 1995, students view it as a monster and all parents view it as bane, at the end of the day both parents and students expect teachers to assign, collect and mark homework regularly.
Homework debates have a long history and many educators tend to hold different positions towards homework. Even though homework has its advantages such as guaranteeing that students are doing some ‘revision’ at home, it can also produce unwanted effects.
Brian Gill and Steven Schlossman, for instance, suggest that parents might see homework as a threat to their family time. Troels Lange and Tamsin Meaney, then again, argue that homework can lead to stress or trauma, both of which can exert negative effects on students’ health, especially in terms of eating habits.
Again, students may have to drop leisure activities, such as sports or drama lessons, to dedicate more time to homework.
Homework can be especially stressful on families where both parents have working commitments outside home and feel the need to help their children with homework. These parents can end up having very little quality time left to spend with their children.
Another important issue related to homework is the parents’ educational background because there are parents who may have the time, but not the knowledge, to help their children with their homework.
Evidently, the question of homework is indeed a complex one, not the least because it touches important issues that range across learning, emotional, health and social justice scenarios.
Although some, such as Etta Kralovec and John Buell in 2001 and Alfie Kohn in 2007 have argued that homework needs to be abolished this is an unlikely option for the foreseeable future in Malta.
With this in mind, I began to reflect as a mathematics teacher how I can modify the structure of homework in such a way as to transform it from the traditional notion of ‘practice for practice sake’ into a helpful learning tool for students.
The opportunity to deepen my understanding of the underlying issues arose when I had to decide on a research topic as part of the MA in Comparative Euro-Mediterranean Education Studies degree programme that I am following at the University of Malta’s Euro-Mediterranean Centre for Educational Research.
Thus, the research I am currently engaged in seeks to link homework with what is commonly known as ‘Assessment for Learning’. This type of assessment, which is emphasised in the National Curriculum Framework document that is currently being discussed, is about putting assessment, especially within the classroom confines, at the service of learning.
In other words, teachers and students are now being encouraged to use assessment to gather information that shows where students are in their learning and to use this information to facilitate each student’s learning trajectory.
With regard to homework, I interpret this to mean that it makes more sense to provide students with tasks that stimulate their mathematical thinking and hone their problem-solving skills, then simply to limit this to the traditional repetitive drilling exercises.
Following Amanda Morin, I argue that homework can become pointless when it focuses exclusively on repetitive problems and tasks which may keep a student busy, but will add little or nothing to his or her mathematical understanding.
Repetitive tasks, nevertheless, might help students to grasp important procedures that may lead in turn to passing high stakes examinations that can then open doors to further studies, not necessarily linked to mathematics. Both eventualities, I think, cannot be overlooked.
To conclude, I would like to present some personal reflections on the fostering of good homework. I have grown to realise that as a teacher I cannot ignore the context in which I work. This means that my decisions and actions cannot be based only on my beliefs, as if I operated in a social vacuum.
Instead, I have to find a modus operandi within the policies and constraints that characterise my work habitat as a teacher in Malta.
My aim is to see how different forms of homework can help or hinder students’ learning of mathematics. Right now, it is too early to arrive at any conclusions from my case study research that draws on action research methodology.
But my ongoing analysis suggests that although students are understandably taken back when they are expected to engage with non-traditional forms of home-work, their initial hesitation gradually subsides and they even start looking forward to what they see as ‘more fun’ form of homework.
At the moment I am still struggling to understand if this ‘fun’ element translates into richer assessment data that helps both me and my students to improve learning. I need more time, more data, and more reflection to be able to answer this crucial question in my research.
If you wish to send comments or reactions to the author e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mr Herd is a secondary school Maths teacher currently reading a Masters degree in Comparative Education.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us