Helping Children with Homework

by Harry on October 23, 2006

spiked (my favourite) is sponsoring the Battle of Ideas conference next weekend at the Royal College of the Arts. My friend Adam Swift will be a panelist in the session on home-school relationships, Sending Parents Back to the Classroom (11-12.30 on Sunday morning). In the opening document Kevin Rooney says:

a profound change is taking place in the relationships between families, pupils and schools. What was once a relationship largely based on trust and informality is now being increasingly formalised into carefully regulated contracts and transactions. Parent-school contracts and homework contracts on the one side and inspection and auditing of teachers on the other are now the norm. At the extreme end of this spectrum are truanting orders, fines and the jailing of parents as well as a rise in litigation, with parents suing both schools and teachers.

Rooney’s piece is nicely provocative, and he raises most of the important issues. But I take issue with one thing he says in passing:

Most people over 40 struggle to remember their own parents spending any time helping them with homework.

Maybe, but perhaps that’s because most people over 40 think og helping the kids with their homework as doing it for them. My parents never, as far as I can remember, looked over my homework before I submitted it, or helped in any substantial way with the content. But they were helping me all the time. They made me go to bed early and get up in time for school, they encouraged me to listen to Radio 4 until I was addicted (at about age 6), they forbad homework in front of the TV, and provided space to do it without interruptions. They showed an interest in the work I did at school which resembled the interest my daughter now has in what I do at work — casual conversational interest, indicating that though it was no great concern of theirs they were genuinely interested. And, of course, at the limit I always knew that I could seek help. I can’t remember seeking substantive help from them, but the day I screwed up my first A/O Level paper in Additional Maths I called in a favour from the bloke down the street whom I trained in the nets for his annual work cricket match, and got him to run through how to do calculus with me. (Update — I should have added that he was bloody brilliant at it, and I salvaged a B, thanks to his incredibly clear explanations, in case anyone is considering taking a class from him, although the data is now 27 years old)

The difficulty with home/school agreements is not that they prevent parents from parenting, or encroach on their rights; by and large they don’t. The difficulty is, instead, the fact that this is a very blunt instrument for conveying to parents what really counts as helping kids with homework and giving them the means to do so. Basically, the help I needed was reinforcement of the message that this stuff was really really interesting and important for its own sake. That’s a very hard thing to get parents who don’t already know it, and feel that way, to do.



Matt McIrvin 10.23.06 at 2:36 pm

I think this is exactly right. I do remember my dad giving me some substantive help early on–he had been a math teacher at one time–but it got me upset at one point. When I was learning about subtraction he taught me all about negative numbers, and I came home from school crying that the teacher had lied–she said you couldn’t subtract a larger number from a smaller one, and wouldn’t hear of it when I said there was a way to do it.


John 10.23.06 at 5:51 pm

My mother typed my ‘O’ level history project. (last I heard it was still a ‘model’ for the examining board). Otherwise I can’t imagine what my parents could possibly have helped me with. I don’t resent this. They both left school at 16 and it was their hard work that created the economic conditions that allowed me to even dare the ascent of higher intellectual levels.


Tracy W 10.23.06 at 5:53 pm

It is interesting that when you failed an A/O level paper you called on your mate down the street, not on your school, for help. This was fine for you (and I called on my family resources quite a bit), but it implies a school failure for those kids who do not have such local resources to call on. My mother crashed and burned in maths at age 15, and the school’s response appears to have been merely that it was completely okay for her to drop maths, rather than stepping in and ensuring that she learnt it.

What Kevin Rooney doesn’t mention is that the reason for increasing formalisation of the relationships between schools and parents has been driven by how schools have been failing to effectively teach a significant proportion of the population – and this has been a historical problem independent of particlar educational programmes. Schools have defined their responsibility as delivering a curriculum, not as ensuring that their students learn it. The government, employers, parents, etc, are interested in students actually learning. Which is why there’s this pressure coming on from outside.

It’s sadly possible that the outside pressure will lead to worse results. And perhaps there is no way to ensure that all kids learn. But I think Kevin Rooney’s article would have stronger if it had discussed some possibilities for achieving the goal of all kids actually learning, not just being taught.


Galloping Goose 10.23.06 at 6:58 pm

Yes, things have changed. In the U.S. it is common in public schools for kids to get piles of homework and for the parents to be expected to participate — to the point where a lot of pre-printed lessons have the parent’s teaching role built right in. As you might imagine, single parents of multiple kids find this rather a burden.

On top of this, certain groups of parents choose to send their kids to supplemental schools. For example, it is common for Asian immigrants in the US to send their kids to after school programs in their native language — and these usually have additional homework that the parents are expected to help with.

Growing up, I remember attending a school in a highly rated district. We freely roamed the neighborhood during daylight hours and did homework by ourselves after dinner. Now most kids are not allowed outside their own yards without adult supervision and have little free time during the week — although they do get a few hours on the weekends in between soccer and taikwando.


harry b 10.23.06 at 7:40 pm

tracy — no, really, it’s not fair to blame the school in my particular case — the exams were one day apart, and it was only in the late afternoon of the first that I realised there was something I could do about the second. I had a brilliant maths teacher who aspired the best for all of us, and the refreshment was just that.


Tracy W 10.23.06 at 9:20 pm

If you only figured out on the late afternoon of the first that you had a problem with the subject matter for the second, this implies that somewhere there was a failure to test that you had actually learnt the material, and a failure to require you to use it frequently enough that it got engraved in long-term memory.

And I think your school could have done better on that part. My high school would have us sit mock exams half-way through the school year and again a few weeks before the nation-wide exams, which would have picked up on your lack of knowledge ahead of time. I did volunteer tutoring in maths in the last year of high school for the younger forms and would revise any weak spots based on those mock exam results with my tutorees. Probably I wasn’t that effective, but I was only 17 and without training. I think there is a good deal more schools could do to pick up on failure to learn things.

It’s cool that your maths teacher aspired the best for all of you. Call me greedy, but I think a maths teacher who both aspired and achieved the best for all of you would be better.


Nick L 10.24.06 at 4:13 am

On the subject of A-Levels, I think schools now build the teaching around the exams. For example, when I sat my modular A-Level in Maths a few years ago we spent half of the term learning the maths and the other half sitting practice exams, lesson in lesson out. First test everyone would always get a D, or worse, but you’d pick yourself up and slog at it until you got a good grade. It might seem a depressing way to teach maths, but I realised that I didn’t really know the maths until after I failed and had to learn from my mistakes.
This kind of teaching probably only works in maths though, I think exam-mania has been detrimental in most other subjects.


Tracy W 10.24.06 at 3:53 pm

Hmmm – of course, not being British I didn’t sit A or O levels, but I think NZ’s school cert and bursary are somewhat similar – and I think if it is a good exam it can be good practice.

Eg for School C and Bursary History we spent a fair chunk of time writing essays to past exam essay topics, was a useful discipline in learning how to connect historical facts into an argument. And all the memorisation of history, while I know it is deplored by modern educators, I’ve found very useful. Understanding modern claims and counter-claims about the Treaty of Waitangi make so much more sense if you can remember the Treaty.

And in Physics and Chemistry the working out of paper problems is important for testing whether you really understand something as in maths (lab skills were tested by some lab experiments during the year which were marked internally but counted towards the final grade).

And again for Technical Drawing, actually drawing things, eg plotting the location of a boat on a map given bearings off different heads, is important practice and also good exam preparation.

I have nothing to say in favour of New Zealand school’s English curriculum, either in terms of teaching or exams.

I think the American habit of entirely multi-choice exams can distort teaching, but a good exam should be testing the skills the subject requires, and often can.


peggy 10.24.06 at 3:59 pm

In science this phenomenon is known as not mastering the subject until one can do the problem sets.


peggy 10.24.06 at 4:03 pm

Multiple guess exams, of course, favor the mind which always reaches for a cliche. (like mine)


Maynard Handley 10.24.06 at 4:10 pm

“she said you couldn’t subtract a larger number from a smaller one, and wouldn’t hear of it when I said there was a way to do it.”

I find an astonishing discrepancy between what the mass media tell us about teachers (that they are the salt of the earth, christ’s vicars, the hardest working members of society, worth ten times what they are paid, etc) and what I learn on reading books by people with less of an axe to grind, but who, as adults, have actually looked closely at the teaching process. (I’m thinking, among others, of David Owen’s _High School_ and Martin Mayer’s older, but still very interesting, books on schools.) These latter books show teachers as, to put it bluntly, idiots, ignorant of any aspect of a subject outside the teacher’s guide, not much interested in learning about it, and quite happy to crush anyone with temerity to argue against what they have to say. There are, of course, those doing a great job, but they are rare exceptions. Mayer mentions a few; I don’t think Owen mentions any.

So what is it? Most of my teachers were, I’d say, pretty good, but
* I was schooled in white South Africa, not the US
* at a private school
* and even so, I’d rate my English teachers as so-so, my History teachers as not doing nearly enough to put material in context, and my Science and Math teachers as doing far too little to stretch and extend my abilities — sure they basked in the glory as I won prizes and medals, but that was based on my outside reading and working through the problems of whatever ratty old textbooks I could find in second-hand bookstores, not through their taking me aside and putting me on a course of calculus and field theory which would have been the appropriate thing to do.
All things considered the teachers are idiots theory strikes me as rather more convincing than the teachers are saints theory.

Does this matter? Well of course it does. If the primary problem with schools is lousy teachers, then the solution is better teachers, not more money, more computers, more PTA involvement. More money might be a means to that end, but not in the absence of a clear message that incompetence is not acceptable. Not matter how much you pay people, anyone who actually can think would rather choose to work somewhere he/she deals with other thinking human beings rather than somewhere that accepts mediocrity and punishes initiative.


Matt McIrvin 10.24.06 at 8:14 pm

In my experience growing up in a US school district reputed to be one of the best in the country (Fairfax County, Virginia), I’d say my teachers were all over the map. Several of them were undeniable idiots, several were excellent, a few were intellectually smart but somehow deranged, and most were in between. This was the case at every level from kindergarten through secondary school.


Ray 10.25.06 at 8:04 am

In my experience, my teachers were people. Most of them started, I’m sure, with a vocation, which had been worn down to a greater or lesser extent by pupils, parents, government rules and/or the restrictions imposed by the school’s owners, and poor working conditions. From this I conclude that in an improvement in some or all of these factors would have resulted in a better educational experience.


Peter Clay 10.25.06 at 8:12 am

Note that there will soon be stringent legal restrictions on helping kids with homework:

CRB background checks required


trueliberal 10.25.06 at 8:15 pm

I agree. Public school teachers are, by and large, not scholars. They are incurious bureaucrats. But neither extra money nor the strict message you suggest will make it otherwise. A bureaucracy can only produce bureaucrats. The perpetual cycle of reform and recrimination in public education has accomplished nothing.

People harken back to a mythic time when public education wasn’t so bad–when public schools were churning out plenty of knowledge workers. But public schools sucked even back then. They just had fewer demands placed upon them, because we didn’t really need THAT many knowledge workers. But now that we truly have an information economy, the paltry number of knowledge workers our inept public education system is able to wring out isn’t cutting it anymore. The public schools in other countries suck too. We only think they’re remarkable because we absorb much of whatever measly knowledge labor they’re able to squeeze out, because most of the rest of our economy (besides the all-important education part) is fairly liberalized.

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