I have always struggled with assigning math homework. I hate the idea of busywork, so work that seems too easy feels like a waste of time. Then again, assignments that are challenging don’t work either since I’m not there to support students when they need coaching. I also know that 10 minutes of work for one student can be an hour of work for another.

As a parent, I’ve watched my own children struggle over the years with unwieldy math homework. Some grades have been better than others, but in the bad years, there can be regular meltdowns. My children have developed more of a fixed mindset and have learned to dislike math in the years when homework is too much of a focus. Talking with other parents and educators has led me to the conclusion that in too many math classrooms almost all teaching and learning revolves around homework. This is problematic for several reasons.

  • Appropriately challenging work requires the coaching of a good teacher. Few students have access to high-quality math support at home.
  • Appropriately challenging work requires good energy. We all know how hard it is for kids (and teachers) to engage in lively and productive work at the end of the school day. Late afternoons and evenings are even worse. What takes 15 minutes in school can easily take an hour at home when a student is exhausted.
  • When the bulk of a class period is spent correcting and reviewing homework, little time is left to teach the next concept. Poor teaching leads to struggles with homework, struggles with homework lead to more time spent correcting/fixing it, which in turn leads to poor teaching. It’s a vicious homework doom loop that’s hard to escape once it gets going.

So what does it look like when math instruction doesn’t revolve around homework? There are two suggestions I’d like to offer in this post: 1) Use a simple three-part lesson plan and 2) Use fun projects that last multiple days. Both of these strategies keep the bulk of the math work–the practice, problem-solving, and higher level thinking that require support and coaching–where they belong: in the classroom!

When teaching a simple lesson, use a three-part plan.

Beginning (5-10 min.):

  • Introduce the main idea of the lesson. Why is today’s work important? How does it connect with previous work? How does this skill/concept fit into the big picture?
  • Teach a brief mini-lesson. Be clear and succinct. Explain what students will do and how they will do it. Use simple examples as illustrations—ones that will help students understand the skill being learned. Take few questions and comments from students. You can address questions and coach students better once they’re working.

Middle (20-40 min.):

  • Make sure the work itself it open-ended enough to be accessible to all students. Jo Boaler recommends low floor, high ceiling tasks. Consider offering choice as a way to help students self-differentiate their work.
  • As students work, you coach. Students may collaborate together to understand key ideas and practice skills. You circulate and support students individually. Or, you may pull a couple of small groups together, either to support students who are struggling or offer an extension for students who are ready.

End (5-10 min.):

  • Have students reflect on their work. What do students better understand? What do they still need to work on? Consider having students fill in a simple reflection tool—perhaps a quick note on a note card with an example of a problem or two on the other side—so you can better understand where students are. This will help inform tomorrow’s lesson.

Projects can add vigor and purpose to math.

What’s something that you and your students can work on together over more than one class period? When students engage in longer-term projects, the work can take on a greater significance and learning can be deeper. You can also spend more time supporting students’ math thinking and less time engaged in direct instruction. Remember—whoever is doing the talking is doing the thinking. The less time students spend listening to us, the more time they can spend thinking about math!

There are tons of fun projects that can make math work more purposeful and joyful for students (and teachers). Here are some ideas that might get your creative juices flowing:

  • quilt2
    Mathematical quilt: I used this project several times in a couple of ways—to apply principles of geometry and to explore fractional parts of a whole. In each case, students designed a 12” x 12” quilt square, meeting specific mathematical requirements. Before they could color in the square, they had to show how they met all of the requirements. This oral assessment took the place of an exam.
  • Problem-Solving Puzzle Book: Students create various mathematical problems and puzzles using the key content being studied. They must create an answer key with a detailed explanation of the solution. Problems and puzzles are published in a class anthology.
  • Math Videos: Students create videos to demonstrate mathematical problems or concepts. These videos might take one of any number of forms:
    • TED Talks: a monologue speech
    • ESPN Math: one student solves a problem, another narrates the play-by-play, another records
    • Animate: students use dry-erase animation and voice-over narration to explain math concepts or solve problems

Better Homework:

If, in the end, you still need to give homework, consider these ideas to help it be better for students:

  • Keep it easy. If students are expected to do their work at home when they’re tired and don’t have a teacher on hand for support, it needs to be simple review work.
  • Keep it short. Five problems are better than 50. Don’t confuse volume for rigor.
  • Offer some simple choice. Give an assignment with 20 problems and have students choose at least three to work on. Encourage them to tackle problems that offer a little push but that they can also do independently.
  • Don’t correct it in class. In fact, you might not need to correct it at all. If it was simple practice, you might just scan through students’ work to get a sense of how it’s going.

For more ideas about great math instruction, I highly recommend the work of Jo Boaler. Check out some of her work and resources at https://www.youcubed.org/.