Don’t help with homework! Talk about math instead.

A couple of interesting pieces of research have been published recently involving parents, children, and math. There’s good news and bad news. But the best news is that the good outweighs the bad.

The short version.

Don’t do this.

Do this.

math-stick-14

Bad news first.

When parents who are anxious about math help their kids with homework, they tend to pass that anxiety along. This has a negative impact on children’s learning. The researchers ruled out genetic effects as a leading cause, isolating amount of time spent helping with homework.

Now the good news.

The same research team looked at usage of the Bedtime Math app and found that even small amounts of use with children by parents who are anxious about math resulted in substantial gains in school math achievement.

The researchers are careful to point out that the study was designed not as a test of this particular intervention, but of the idea that non-homework-based math talk could be more supportive of kids’ learning than homework help. What the Bedtime Math app seemed to do in these cases is make talking about math something that kids and parents do together. No pressure; no deadlines; no “ways to do it”.

Maybe parents started to talk more about numbers with their kids as a result. Maybe kids started to talk more about numbers with their parents. Maybe parents started to notice kids’ math talk more often. The team hasn’t studied this yet. But when math-anxious parents used the app as little as once every other week, it seems to have opened up a world of math talk in the home.

An important subfinding is that the app had no effect in homes where parents like math! My kids won’t benefit from this app because we already talk about shapes and numbers in our daily lives.

Summary

Talking about numbers and shapes as they arise in our daily lives is beneficial for all kids—more beneficial than helping with math homework.

Of course I understand that expectations in schools and at home make homework help necessary. So if you must help with math homework, maybe you can read my book (available for purchase, and probably available at your local library). But the most important part is to talk math with your kids. That’s the mission on this blog, and the Bedtime Math app is a helpful tool for getting started.

If you’re interested in the research details on the good news part of this post, click through to the supplement. It answered many more of my questions than the published Science article did.

P.S. Those tiling turtles in the picture up above are now available in the new Talking Math with Your Kids store.

A tale of two conversations

Here are two conversations about hot chocolate.

The first one didn’t happen. The second one did. Read them both, then I’ll tell you about their meaning.

Both conversations begin on a cold November night in Minnesota. Unseasonably cold. Fourteen degrees, to be precise (–10 Celsius).

A cup of hot chocolate

Zero marshmallows for me on this cold night.

Tabitha (7 years old), Griffin (10 years old) and I get in the car to head for Tabitha’s basketball practice.

What might have been

Me: Wow! It is cold!

Tabitha (7 years old): You know what you do when it’s cold? You make hot chocolate.

Me: Ooooo! Good idea! We can do that when we get back home after practice.

T: Does it count as dessert?

Me: If you have marshmallows in it, it does.

T: I won’t have any marshmallows, then. So I can have some Jell-O.

Griffin agrees that this is the way to go, and the conversation moves on to other things.

What actually happened

Me: Wow! It is cold!

Tabitha (7 years old): You know what you do when it’s cold? You make hot chocolate.

Me: Ooooo! Good idea! We can do that when we get back home after practice.

T: Does it count as dessert?

Me: If you have two marshmallows in it, it does.

T: I’ll have zero marshmallows in mine, then, so I can have some Jell-O.

Griffin (10 years old): I’ll have one marshmallow, and a small serving of Jell-O. Wait, no! I know! I’ll cut a marshmallow in half!

I presume that this is in order to maximize his allowable Jell-O serving, while still retaining some marshmallow in his hot chocolate. It’s a scheme nearly as complicated as credit default swaps.

So what do we learn?

One small difference changed the course of the conversation—my use of a number word. I could have said, “It counts as dessert if you have marshmallows in it.” But I did say, “It counts as dessert if you have two marshmallows in it.”

Using numbers—two marshmallows instead of just marshmallows—invited the children to talk about numbers. It invited them to use numbers to maximize their benefit. It invited them to think about numbers.

This invitation is important.

A few years back, researchers paid careful attention to the ways preschool teachers talked with their students. Those teachers who used more number words and concepts as they talked with children stimulated greater growth in math than those who used less math talk.

This was not a study about math instruction; it was a study about the math language that these teachers used when they weren’t teaching math. “Yes, you three may help me.” versus “Yes, you may help me.” is the sort of difference that matters.

Using number words and math concepts in everyday speech invites children to notice and to think about number. That’s what Talking Math with Your Kids is all about.

Link to full study ($)