One of things I was taught over and over again when I was in education school was the importance of getting parents involved in kids’ learning. If you get the parents on your side, my professors insisted, then you’re going to be much more able to get through to the students. I didn’t last long enough as a teacher to see how well this advice worked, but as a parent, I’ve certainly experienced the process from the other end. From an early age, our kids were given “homework” that they couldn’t possibly do without the help of their parents.
Sometimes it seemed as if these assignments were really not for the kids at all; they were for the parents to do alone, perhaps with a little “help” from the kids. In first grade, Jim came home with a sheet describing a puppet-making project. Jim wanted to make Barnum Brown, the paleontologist who uncovered the first Tyrannosaurus rex. Jim’s idea of “helping” was to draw a picture of the scientist and have Greta craft the puppet based on his drawing. It was a beautiful puppet, but I’m not sure what Jim learned from the experience. I looked through our closet and found that we still have the puppet! Here’s a picture of Barnum Brown the puppet, and the man himself:
It’s only recently that I’ve had a chance to look closely at some of the research behind the idea that parents should be involved in their kids’ homework. It stems from the idea (promoted by Lev Vygotsky and others) that learning is a social process, and so things learned in more authentic social contexts are processed more effectively than in other environments.
Of course, doing a child’s homework for him doesn’t exactly constitute an authentic social context. What several studies have confirmed is that work done collaboratively seems to be more effective than work done alone. Kids even misremember their own contributions to a collaborative project: They think they did some of the work that was actually performed by others (but they don’t make similar errors and believe that others did their work).
But the early work on misremembering collaborative work had some problems. It’s possible that the memories came from the planning phase of the work. And it was still not clear that collaborating actually leads to better long-term retention.
Jessica Sommerville and Amy Hammond improved on these earlier studies by asking 4-year-olds to work with an experimenter to build toys collaboratively following a set of photo-instructions like this:
Half the kids worked collaboratively with the experimenter: the experimenter would pull out the first picture and do the step illustrated there. Then she would pull out the second picture and ask the child to do that step, taking turns until the toy was completed. The other kids took turns with the instructor building entire toys, so that no toy was truly built collaboratively. After six toys were built, the kids were quizzed on who performed each step (“did you do this or did I do it?”). Here are the results:
Kids who collaborated with the experimenter to build the toys mistakenly said they had completed a step significantly more often than those who built the toys by themselves (and watched the experimenter build them).
Next Sommerville and Hammond had the same kids return four months later to see if they remembered how to build the toys: they were given the same parts and asked to assemble them from memory. The kids who had collaborated with the experimenters were significantly more likely to remember how to build the toys.
So while they misattributed credit for performing the task earlier, the kids who collaborated were better at doing the task than kids who worked by themselves. It may be that the misattribution itself is related to the performance. The kids who collaborated were more involved in the task, and internalized it better than other kids.
Of course, this still doesn’t mean you should do your child’s homework. Helping with homework is okay, but unless the child actually does some of the work, learning is less likely to occur.
Jessica A. Sommerville, Amy J. Hammond (2007). Treating another’s actions as one’s own: Children’s memory of and learning from joint activity. Developmental Psychology, 43 (4), 1003-1018 DOI: 10.1037/0012-16188.8.131.523