Matthew Gorman, Mathematics Department / September 1
Early in my teaching career, my practices mirrored the popular belief that a rigorous and prestigious academic program should have an abundance of challenging homework each and every night for its students. The thought was that the more work assigned to students outside of school hours, the more they were positively challenged and the more practice they had to master the material. There was little, if any, regard to what the side effects were of requiring students to complete hours of nightly assignments, on top of taking care of their other non-academic responsibilities, and still fit in enough time for family, leisure, and sleep. Reading Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education, allowed me to reflect on my homework policy and helped me identify more efficient ways to assign homework. Some of my practices have changed and will continue to be fine-tuned as I implement research-informed strategies inside the classroom.
Now, after in-class lectures, I find it inappropriate to assign large amounts of practice problems for homework. I don’t believe those assignments are helpful towards the development of our students’ brains. As some of the observations made by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) claim (1), “quality of homework is more important than quantity.” There is evidence that “homework is most effective when used as a short and focused intervention,” rather than as an “add-on.” (2) I try to give smarter, not harder homework to my students to help increase engagement levels and decrease burnout. For example, a recent homework assignment in one of my middle school math classes asked students to quickly research the mathematician Pythagoras and write down three facts they learned about him and his followers, the Pythagoreans. This short, targeted, non-traditional math assignment sparked a great in-class discussion. The assignment led to a more exciting way to learn about the Pythagorean Theorem.
Further analysis by the EEF suggests a “lack of sleep deteriorates a wide swathe of brain performance, including working memory function, long-term memory storage, and memory retrieval, [and that] teachers play a role here in how much homework they assign and how they schedule it.” (3) Also, “ a certain amount of tolerable stress is a good thing, as it helps developing bodies and minds build robust stress symptoms to deal with future stresses - but the important point is that students have supportive relationships and that the stress is episodic rather than never-ending.” These points help support my shift towards less demanding homework at home, and more supportive problem solving inside the classroom. Allowing students to work inside the classroom productively reduces the demand for much time needed for homework after school hours and helps manage their stress levels in my class. Furthermore, students seem to be more willing to engage in difficult math problems when their teacher is there to help, as opposed to diving deep into the same difficult math problem as a homework assignment.
Becoming enlightened to brain science has validated some of my best practices, and allows me to reflect on and modify some practices that weren’t guided by neuroscience and research.
- 1. Homework (Secondary) | Teaching and Learning Toolkit | The Education Endowment Foundation.”
- 2. Whitman, Glenn, and Ian Kelleher. Neuroteach: Brain Science and the Future of Education. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, 119-120.
- 3. Ibid., 121