Monday, May 11, 2015

Helping with homework

who: a high-school student in a semi-public venue
what: stuck on a homework question

A few weeks ago, J1, J2 and I witnessed a frustrating scene: someone stuck in a corner of a party trying to finish math homework and a parade of adults failing to break through the block. The three of us, briefly, tried to help as well. I'll describe what we observed, and then offer an idea I had when reflecting on the experience.

The Block

The problem was about graphing functions of one variable for a high school algebra class. As far as I could tell, the student felt moderately comfortable with this topic, but hadn't achieved mastery. However, the meta-problem was a perception that the teacher was asking for something very specific, that idiosyncratic definitions were being used, and that the student didn't have the information required to answer the question. To be concrete, the problem/meta-problems were something like:

Problem: Graph the function , show your data set
  1. my teacher defines "data set" in a particular way
  2. A "data set" for graphing a function is the set of characteristics of the function we investigate to understand what the graph looks like (for example, is it symmetric across an axis, does it have a max or a min, etc)
  3. I don't have my teacher-supplied "data set" for these functions
  4. Thus, I cannot do this work

Strategies that were tried

I basically saw two approaches. The first was for the helper to offer their own interpretation of the questions, including supplying their own definition of "data set." These approaches all failed, I think because the definitions did not match the student's required form of definition and because they were presented without confidence. The latter meant that the student expected these weren't the same "data set" as what their teacher would have supplied and the former confirmed that.  I wonder how it would have continued if the helper had said: "Oh yeah, I remember this. Let's talk about it and you can help me remember what the data sets are for these other functions."

The second approach was to focus on completing as much of the work as possible. For example, "so just graph the functions and do that part, even if you don't know how to include the data sets." Honestly, I don't know why this advice was rejected, but I've seen it before. There seems to be a common aversion to doing an intentionally incomplete job. I guess the message that the incomplete work sends is "I couldn't do everything," while the student would rather send the message "I chose not do bother with this assignment." In other words, non-compliance is better than inability.

Strategies to try in the future

As I said, I've encountered this myself in the past and expect to see it again in the future. Here are my ideas for strategies to try:
  1. Say, "I can't help you with this question, but let's play a game related to this part of math." In this case, the game could have been asking each other questions about the functions, say yes/no, with the objective of getting the other person to answer incorrectly or say they don't know.
  2. Bluff that I know what the teacher wants but need their help remembering. Along the way, work through the actual concepts together.
  3. As a last resort, tell the kid to leave the work and come do something else together. Even a 5 minute break could be enough of an emotional release. Also, my objective sense is that no single piece of work is worth the unproductive battle.
In the first two, at least the student will get to have a conversation about the actual content of the homework and may even learn more than doing the assignment. There will will probably be some lingering confusion about definitions, so those will need to be addressed later.

What do you think?

I would love to hear ideas from other parents. What do you do in these cases?
Also, it would be great to hear from teachers, too. What do you think parents should do when this happens?

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