Does involving parents really help students learn? Depends on how they're involved

ResearchBlogging.orgOne 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: 10.1037/0012-1649.43.4.1003

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I'm a firm believer that parents should be active participants in their children's education. This is one of the reasons that I love the schools that my son and daughter go to. Both of them enforce parent participation.

Great post!

Four remarks:

First, I'm a bit confused as to why the portion of "I did it" v. "you did it" errors should be a good proxy for how much learning occurs. Can you clarify that possibly? I've skimmed the study and I didn't see in it any discussion of this.

Second, I seem to recall that there are studies showing that in many circumstances people estimate that they did more work than assistants and partners. One classic example is where with couples both routinely claim to do about 2/3rds of the chores. I wonder if there's any connection to that in overestimating what kids think they did?

Third, when such issues occur in the real world I wonder if cognitive dissonance causes kids to overestimate how much they did. After all, they know that they are supposed to do homework. If they can convince themselves that they did a larger fraction of it than they will have less cognitive dissonance.

Fourth, the vast majority of work that required parents in my experience has been artwork that has little or nothing to do with the material at hand. If any real collaboration is going to occur it should try to more involve the relevant material (I'm not really sure how to do that).

What on earth is the point of doing your kids' homework for them? Let's back up a minute and ask what the purpose of education is. Is it to teach our kids to regurgitate information and follow directions perfectly, or to be tenacious and creative in figuring out how to accomplish things? If we want our kids to thrive in the an ever changing world, it needs to be the latter. In my opinion, parent participation should consist of a parent teaching their child how to benefit from an assignment, by problem solving or trail and error. When a child doesn't know where to start, the parent should ask a lot of questions, such as 'what do you think is a good way to get started?' 'why do you think your teacher gave you this assignment?' It doesn't have to be 'perfect'. The process is just as important as the product. If my child gets a less than ideal grade, that is part of the learning process, and a good opportunity to discuss how to do it differently the next time around. And in my experience, teachers are much happier with an assignment that was labored over and thoroughly thought out, even if it isn't absolutely perfect, than something that is technically flawless but lacks thought and creativity.

Thinking back to when I was growing up, I think the best opportunities for a parent to teach were lost because back in the eighties, homework was still considered something I was to do alone.

I believe it is up to the teacher to teach core concepts, but there's some life lessons that the right homework assignment can help demonstrate:

1. How to break apart a large assignment into manageable pieces
2. How to organize your thoughts on a large problem
3. How to plan a large project that takes several days
4. How to find help when given 'stretch' work

These are things that the parent is uniquely placed to address, since they best know how the child thinks, plans, and remembers things. It's also just not something they teach in school. The only attempt I remember was a blanket method that simply didn't work for me (there was some silliness about index cards and numbering and such).

Both Carrie and Katie's emphases make terrific sense to me. By the time our daughters were in high school we had developed a strategic orientation to their education. In short, we focused on the material that would support the strategy of education as the ability to make informed decisions. Obviously, that's about decision making and critical thinking, however it's also about helping the kids understand a given subject from the perspective of that strategy. What that meant was that we often asked questions like how do writers go about gathering materials, how does your way of practicing this piece on the piano also apply to how you do the math? The focus was initially on how disciplines are organized, but later upon lessons that are transferable to other disciplines. At the time we were unaware of the research on deliberate practice, but today I recognize that we were helping them develop critical skills in thinking. It certainly paid off for them in college, grad school, and their professions.

Asking for help was at times a problem. Why should they bug their teachers or the librarian when they could get quick answers from their parents? Gradually they got over the issue, but not without a little pain.

Do you some of you find similar issues with your kids? Now, we're working with grand kids--and having fun at it.

I think it's very important for parents to be involved with their child's studies. Not only is this a way to bond, it's important to have an understanding for what is being learned in school. School is such one of the most, if not the most, significant thing in a kid's life. Parents should be aware of what's going on at school, to not only show interest in the childs education, but help with any problems that may arise when working together.

I'm still a student, and I disagree wholeheartedly with the idea that parents should get involved with their childrens' school lives. Ever since I could remember, I have always been insistent on doing work by myself. If I had questions on certain assignments, I went to my teacher, not to my parents. My parents always encouraged me in my schoolwork. They never really gave me constructive criticism on much (not that I'm complaining)and whenever they did, I pretty much ignored them. My parents have extremely high expectations, and it just gets me more frustrated when they do say something about schoolwork, and hit a nerve. My relationship with my parents is much better without their inteference with school. My point is... GIVE YOUR KIDS SOME FREEDOM!!!

To add to the discussion, please wander to the review of assorted new parenting books by Joan Acocella in the November 17 New Yorker entitled The Child Trap: the rise of overparenting.

I'm with Ha-Yon and enjoyed school years because my parents were perceptive enough to allow me the freedom for self-directed learning. Maybe the best gift a parent can give is to foster a love of reading and exploration early on. Encourage the process without stifling and guide a child toward resources that will help.

Do you remember the thrill of getting your first library card and being allowed to choose your own books?

I would like to help with my kids' homework, but they now realize that in the time it would take me to read the book, understand the concepts and then explain it to them, they might as well just figure it out for themselves! Calculus was a long, long time ago.

As a volunteer educator. I can tell that kids with parents interested in education do much better than kids whose parents do not give a damn. It is not about participating to homework, it is about how much parents believe in education. It is what makes the difference between a number of poor Jewish or Asian kids and a number of poor black kids. There is no difference at all between the kids themselves: How parents care is the clincher.