As a math teacher, I am expected to assign homework. After all, math requires practice.
I can liken that practice (in my mind) to a Olympic champion practicing the balance beam hours daily to perfect that one skill.
The problem is—my students are not Olympic champions or even Olympic hopefuls. They have no interest in the balance beam or balancing equations. None.
This year I am teaching what is commonly referred to as Repeat Algebra. I have 10thand 11th graders who have not passes Algebra and therefore are not on track for graduation. Let’s be honest, they have seen this same material at least 4 or 5 times already. Some probably see it at night in their dreams and nightmares.
This week we began our unit on solving one variable equations. I gave them a warm-up of 5 simple one step and two step problems. If they could solve these, we could skip to more advanced solving and save time. The class became angry. They asked: You have never taught us this, how can we know it?
They first solved equations in 6th grade (simple one step) and again in 7thgrade. They saw two step and multi-step in 8th and 9thgrade. And many have seen it repeatedly in summer school, trying furiously to understand what has so far eluded them. Confused and believing that somehow the teachers had it in for them and failed them. These are not students with identified (or even unidentified ) learning disabilities as we understand them. These are average, forgotten students who have somehow been left behind on the march to college readiness.
When I looked at the warm up, half the students had correct answers. The other half refused to try—they blamed me—a teacher set them up for failure again. I explained that I wanted to see how much they remembered from previous classes, now I know. Some students responded that it wasn’t fair to grade the warmup when I had not taught it. I agreed and they relaxed.
We took notes on one step equations. I kept prompting students for definitions—What is an inverse operation, What does it mean to Isolate, What is the Multiplication Property of Equality, What does it mean to justify. With some prompting, most remembered something.
After a few examples, I gave them one to try. Really easy. It was
I walked around and checked answers, asked them to solve and provide the property. Some had not taken any notes, a few had the right answers and right property. Most did not. Most had x = -4. They had shown the correct step, but could not add negative numbers.
When I viewed all the answers I explained: I needed to borrow money from some of them. When I borrow $6 and then borrow another $2, some of them think I only owe $4. This is great—for me. I saw the light dawn and a few erased and changed their answer. We reviewed the rules of signed numbers.
At this level, with these students, the only people who do the homework is those who already know how to do it. Those who need the practice the most will not. And if by chance one student who is not doing well was inspired to attempt the homework, he would most likely do it wrong and thereby practice the error making it much more difficult to relearn.
Some experts say is takes 20 hours of practice to learn a new skill, others say 1000 repetitions. Clearly my students are NOT going to practice even 1 hour. To unlearn that error you have practiced takes 13 times more effort that it takes to learn it in the first place.
We do not have the time to unlearn mistakes. We need to focus on the right process, and give students the feeling of some success. So I will not assign homework this year. I will not send a student home with pages of work, we use every second in class to learn. That will have to be enough. Because at the end of the day, I am assigned to teach Algebra but I teach students.