When inquiry is the homework

When I ask teachers what they ask their students to practice, most of them talk about homework. But when is homework just busywork—and when is it the kind of “deliberate practice” that really makes the learning stick?

In a three-hour workshop I facilitated last week, 30 teachers combed through their homework assignments to compare them to the criteria for deliberate practice. They asked themselves:

  • Does this homework ask each student to practice something that the student hasn’t yet mastered? Does the student clearly see its purpose?
  • When students are asked to repeat or rehearse something, does it require them to focus? Or can they do it without really paying attention?

One fourth-grade math teacher said that his biggest goal was to get his students to rip through routine calculations (like the multiplication table) in the shortest possible time. He wanted them to have the numbers down cold, so they wouldn’t have to think twice when they needed them.

But even though a lot of his students could do that, he noticed something troubling. When confronted with mathematical questions deriving from the world around them—like how long it would take to fill a five-gallon jug with water—they couldn’t tell the difference between a wild guess and a reasonable estimate.

Even before they needed to know their times-tables, his kids needed practice in mathematical reasoning. On multiple-choice standardized tests, they were spending too much time laboriously considering answers that couldn’t possibly be true.

Together these teachers brainstormed homework activities that might give students practice in this crucial thinking skill. For example, what about introducing a real-world dilemma, then asking kids to estimate a reasonable range in which the answer might fall? They could share their thinking in small groups the next day, with the teacher coaching them through the calculations that would show who came closest.

This kind of homework gives students practice in the thinking habits experts use when they approach problems. And it can be done in every subject area, from science to literature to history.

When kids learn to ask good questions, they care more about finding out answers that make sense. That generates a need for collaboration, for considering the perspectives of those who may disagree, and for analyzing different routes to a solution.

How do you give homework in “asking good questions”? Send in the details, and we’ll send you a complimentary copy of Fires in the Mind!


3 thoughts on “When inquiry is the homework

  1. I teach Mathematics. And I am in a situation where I cannot assign homework to my students for certain constraints.

    However, if I go by UBD by Wiggins and McTighe and extend that approach of end in my mind to planning my lesson of which homework is an essential part? Then homework should supplement classroom learning. Homework should not be overwhelming by its quantity. It should continue student’s inquiry into the learning the topic and show his reflections in what he has learned. It’s a time when student is working on studies all by himself/herself, so the assignment should be thought provoking. Nevertheless, it is up to the teacher, and the assignment should complement or supplement what the teacher wanted to achieve in the lesson. It should reflect student thinking and a feedback and monitoring tool to inform the teacher whether the lesson goals and learning required were achieved or if something needs to be addressed before moving on. So I propose that a lot of thought is required to be given to homework assignment, not just the odd number problems. Something you would check and give feedback to your students. It should enrich student learning.

  2. I completely agree, Gopesh! Can you give us a specific example of a thought-provoking homework problem you have given? What kind of ‘feedback and monitoring tool’ did you use with that example, to let you know if it achieved your goal?

  3. I teach in an institutional settings where a student is for very short term period and the institutional setting, at present, does not allow student a time for homework or studies after school. So right now I do not have to give my students a homework.

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