Helping with homework

Last spring, I had a conversation with a parent that has stuck with me ever since. She initiated a meeting with me because she wanted a textbook (or similar resource) so that she could study the same math content as her child in order to be able to help with homework. At first, the request sounded totally reasonable, and even admirable. I love the idea of a parent modeling life-long learning by learning along with her child; however, I felt uneasy about the request and couldn’t put my finger on why.

Stalling for a bit of time to figure out my own confusing reaction to the request, I asked the parent why she felt responsible for helping with homework (again, a weird question since I’m totally in favour of families supporting learning at home). She explained that both  her parents were teachers and were very helpful to her as a student, especially when a teacher had covered content too quickly, or when she didn’t understand the way a teacher had explained something.

That’s when the penny dropped. As a teacher, one of the reasons I assign homework is to gauge whether students understand the content and whether they’re ready to move on. When parents help with homework, the product that I see gives the impression that everything is going well… even when it isn’t. As much as this parent appreciated the help of her parents, her teachers never found out that they weren’t meeting her needs: the homework was complete and correct, indicating (perhaps incorrectly) that the pace and approach were fully effective.

In contexts where there are marks to be earned from homework, there is an incentive in helping children earn as many of those marks as they can; however, if homework is really going to be about learning  – the student learning the content and the teacher learning about students’ progress – then that kind of incentive needs to be removed (as I have argued before). Students must be able to present their skills honestly so that teachers can give helpful feedback and adjust their instruction.

So, how can parents help more helpfully? Here are some ideas that come to mind…

  • instead of correcting work, prompt your child to check their own work using appropriate resources and strategies (like an answer key, spell-check)
  • if your child is unsure whether something is correct, or why something is correct, prompt them to follow-up with their teacher before school or during class (ideally before the assignment is due)
  • remind children to use the feedback that they have received… this could mean doing corrections (just for the sake of learning, not for extra credit), or perhaps they can use the feedback to improve subsequent work

If you have additional suggestions, please post them in the comments.

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