Using analogy to explain math homework

Other posts on school or homework here.

Homework, assigned or self-imposed by the meany parent that I am, will be the end of me.

So I switched gears and I found myself in a rather enlightening parenting moment the other night. But to get to the point about the analogy, please allow me to provide some background first:

My third grader does not get a lot of homework in the form of the bring-home, repetitive, fill-out-worksheet, regurgitate-memorized-information type. And frankly, I’m on the fence whether I want to have him do this type of work, or not. On the one hand, practice and repetition is a good way to learn foundational material, like arithmetic, but on the other hand, no one in this house or within proximity of earshot to this house wants to hear the complaining about those kinds of activities.

Still, grade 3 is elementary school which is foundational learning which in my view requires a certain amount of repetition. But my child finds the entire idea *boring*, and *crap* and won’t do it without a certain amount of, let’s use the word encouragement, from me.

[insert parental eye-roll]

But I insist on it anyway.

A few weeks ago I spoke with the teacher with initial intent to find out WHY there is so little repetition of certain learned material. I mean, the boy knows how to subtract with borrowing the one, but when he doesn’t do subtraction for a while and the suddenly has to again, he does it upside down (and incorrectly). I have to re-teach him (why do I have to do that?) and although he is a quick study, I find it mind-boggling that by the end of grade 3 he still needs to re-learn a concept that he should have down by now. Simple arithmetic should be automatic by now.

The teacher is not into sending homework home and does not, theoretically, believe in homework at all. (Fine.) He was quite forthcoming with how he conducts his classroom, and I learned many things. But the one thing I remembered most was the realization that it will be up to me to enforce the repetitive discipline that I feel is necessary for a third grader to succeed and subsequently move on to other, more advanced things. The teacher spent much time explaining why mathematical word problems are such a huge deal at this point in grade 3 (it has to do with grade 3 EQA – standardized testing in Ontario) and how he doesn’t particularly agree with that, either. I asked specific questions: how can you spend so much time on word problems when so many kids can’t do simple addition and subtraction? When will multiplication come back? When is division going to become part of the math curriculum at this grade level?

The answers were unsatisfactory to me. It all comes back to the standardized testing. The test wants to determine if the kids can think. And the way they test this thinking process is by making them do mathematical word problems. Despite the fact that some kids are still stuck on grade 1 level arithmetic.

I pointed this out to the teacher and he said he is aware and there is support available for those students. I know how poorly some of the class is doing in math (and how well others do) because while I was chatting with the teacher, my son did the marking on the math minute quiz they did earlier that day. Some in the class could not add 5+7 correctly. Yet the focus is not on repetitive arithmetic, but word problems. The can’t add properly, but now they have to think about the words AND add numbers together.

Perhaps I’m simplifying things here, but repetition in the form of regular math sheets (at school or at home) would have helped particularly those kids who are not strong in math. We’re not talking complicated formulas, we’re talking foundational arithmetic. Basic, introductory math.

If you’ll bear with me, I will get to the point of the analogy I mentioned in the title.

Here’s the thing. Some kids are excellent in math. Ben consistently gets excellent marks in math despite the fact that he may stumble with certain concepts (subtraction with borrowing the one). Other kids can’t get past the grade 1 or 2 level of arithmetic, don’t understand multiplication at all, have trouble calculating money, and are confused with geometrical terms such as area and perimeter. I see this with my own eyes and wonder regularly if this would be the case had the children taken home regular, repetitive, short mathematical homework. I’m not suggesting hours of math, I’m suggesting a 10 minute exercise a couple of times a week.

We do this on our own volition. I pull out sheets of math that I know will stimulate my son, or use the curriculum book I purchased for $25 at the local bookstore, so that repetition and discipline becomes a part of his regular school day routine.

I fail to see how this is a bad thing for a student of age 8, or 9. I also fail to see why I should be the enforcer of this discipline and repetition.

Which brings me to my analogy thing.

Last night there was much complaining about a math sheet brought home that he wasn’t supposed to finish at home but had just brought home accidentally. I had glanced at it and noticed a mistake, so I sat down and looked at the rest of the addition, and marked it. It was obvious he can do the work, but the sheet was all marked up with doodles and scribbles indicating to me he simply wasn’t focusing on the work.

I erased all of it and made him re-do it. Then I made him show me how he would do the subtraction columns (three digits with borrowing the one) and he once again did it upside down. I re-taught him, and an hour later he completed the work with minimal mistakes. (For the record it was a 10 minute work sheet; the fact that it took an hour was not my doing. Enough said.)

At dinner time I posed the following questions to each child:

Sonja, how is it that you can now walk and do certain exercises on the low beam without falling down anymore? When did you learn how to climb the rope all the way up to the ceiling when just last year you only made it halfway?

Benjamin, how come you and [some child’s name] are passing the puck so well to each other when just a few months ago neither of you was able to pass? How come you know how to backcheck now? When did you learn how to flip the puck into the air and over the head of the goalie into the net?

My questions resulted in elaborate answers that I guided along with more targeted questions. Both kids were very eager to explain how come they have learned these skills, and what it took to get there. This is exactly what I wanted. Ultimately I wanted them to come up with the understanding that their chosen athletic activity has resulted in improvement because of endless practicing.

Repetition, repetition, repetition.

When I finally linked their enthusiastic responses to the dirty word ‘homework’ I was awarded with not one, but two lovely eye-rolls. πŸ™‚

But they got it. Whether they will remember it the next time I sit down with a math sheet (or any other homework) or not remains to be seen, but at least I know that the analogy made an impression.

4 thoughts on “Using analogy to explain math homework

  1. ummm, I love you for this! I am going to use this tonight! I think I’ve mentioned before that my youngest, in grade 3, is in Montessori. She is multiplying her numbers up to 12 and doing long division. They do drills EVERY MORNING at school, matter what. She has a better grasp on it than her sister does (who is in grade the public system. I think they teach eye rolling on a daily basis more than anything else judging by her mastery of it).

    • I remember you mentioned the Montessori and Public School thing at your house. Amazing, isn’t it. The entire situation boggles my mind. Drills, daily drills in school, are sorely lacking in my son’s class (although they may do some for a week or so and then drop off altogether) so I gotta do it at home. SIGH.

      Thank you for the response. I’m happy to hear I’m not the only one struggling with this.

  2. I’m also a huge, huge fan of daily drills. I make my kids to daily math drills over the summer, and although of course they haaaaaate it, I really feel like it has paid off. This year my oldest is in grade 5 and his teacher (who is FANTASTIC) did a baseline to find out what his class’ basic math skills were like. My son was shocked to find out many people didn’t have a handle on basic multiplication and division – so now they are doing a review/catch up unit where they are doing – guess what – drills. For him it’s super easy (wish I could say the same about the writing side of things, DOH), and I feel like he’s actually understanding now that the summer work was WORTH IT. Mommy win!

    • Awesome. You did the right thing and I will try to do the same over the summer, although maybe not necessarily as diligently. I get the writing part too…Ben doesn’t like it, but Sonja loves it. Both can use the practice. We have family on the west coast, in Europe and other far places, so I make them (encourage them) to write letters for practicing their writing. There’s grumbling but ultimately it’s more fun than writing ‘homework’. πŸ™‚

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