Thursday, 14 April 2011

Secondary Maths - A new approach to homework

Does homework necessarily mean more work?

One of the greatest challenges facing the present generation of students is to find ways of completing all class work and homework on time in the context of the many potential distractions along the way.  In an ideal world, there might be general agreement that a world without homework would be a less stressful world where school work was completed at school and home was a place to spend quality time with family and friends.  However, with the multitude of demands from an enriched curriculum and the pressure to succeed at every level, homework is generally considered essential for consolidation of key concepts and to keep on track in the pursuit of excellence.

Following a strategic meeting with Sue Briggs, former County Mathematics Adviser in Somerset, I have been piloting a new look at the homework issue which takes a more radical view in terms of the purpose, place and procedure for success in the  homework debate.  In the context of promoting Assessment for learning (AfL), my students are regularly given a homework assignment in the form of an A3 sheet of paper or large index card – together with multicoloured gel pens – and asked to create a poster on key learning moments in the understanding of a topic.   Each poster begins with “My poster on....fractions” or “My poster on simultaneous equations”.  Students are asked to make up their own examples and to explain, in their own words, the strategies they use to make progress in this topic area. 

A recent fractions poster full of colour had the following ‘clouds of knowledge’ -  If we add 50 pounds to 30 dollars, we need a common exchange rate, - the same is true when adding and subtracting fractions.   We look at the two denominators and write down the times tables for each one.  The smallest common denominator is used to write fractions so that they can be added or subtracted.  Another part of the poster is adorned with vivid mathematical images, key language and colour;  To multiply fractions is easy – cross cancel diagonal where necessary and then multiply the numerators and multiply the denominators.  To divide fractions – we don’t!  We simply flip or invert the second fraction and multiply – very straightforward!    Each AfL statement is backed up with a colourful example created by the student.

Recent results from this approach have been hugely encouraging, especially from groups where the homework hand in rates were not 100% and, in particular, from students who find mathematical concepts difficult to grasp.  The key aspect has been for students to ‘own’ their homework tasks and to feel that if they did not complete their learning poster or index card then a learning opportunity has been lost.  Students using their own semantic interpretations of the language of mathematics has helped enormous progress to be made in this area.

Chris Curtis
Curriculum Team Leader for Mathematics

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