Tagged: math

Helping with Math Homework (When You Don’t Understand)

Math HomeworkThis post was originally written for and published on the Presbyterian Day School blog.

Generally speaking, my wife and I take a hands-off approach to our kids’ homework. We certainly want our four children to do well in school. We want to encourage and assist them along the way, but Debbie and I also want them to be independent and resourceful so we think it’s good for them to struggle sometimes. Therefore, when it comes to our kids’ homework, we avoid being too helpful and encourage them to figure things out on their own.

For the most part, this approach has served our family well. Our children usually complete their homework independently, and homework rarely results in any familial trauma–but not always. Occasionally, we have homework agony when one of our kids struggles with an assignment they just cannot understand–especially when the endeavor involves math. I’m an English language arts teacher. My wife teaches the visual arts. Neither of us feels particularly proficient when it comes to math.

Here are five things we do to help with math homework (we don’t even understand):

  1. Watch the teacher’s tutorial or read through the student’s notes with our child. Then, we ask our child to explain the lesson in his own words. I’m amazed how often this solves the problem as my child sees or hears something he missed during the initial instruction. Additionally, if my child can teach it to me, he’s most likely going to understand and remember it.
  2. Check out a different video tutorial. Sometimes my child just needs the concept to be explained in a different way than the way his teacher taught it. Fortunately, we live in a time when one can learn just about anything through the internet. Two places we’ve tried for math tutorials are PatrickJMT and Khan Academy. Both provide quality videos on many different math concepts.
  3. Plug the problem into an online computational problem solver. Both Wolfram Alpha and Discovery Education’s WebMath are immensely useful tools. They not only answer problems but also provide explanations so my child can see how the problem is solved and have another explanation of how to approach the question.
  4. Have my child phone a friend. In the wise words of The Beatles: “I get by with a little help from my friends.” Indeed I do and my kids do, too. Everybody needs help sometimes, and it’s important my kids learn how to ask their peers for help. (We’ve been known to ask grandparents, aunts, and uncles, too.) In college, I always made new friends and exchanged phone numbers with other students in my classes. Then, if I missed a class or needed homework help, I had friends I could call.
  5. Have my child email his teacher, ask his question, and move on. I have my child send the email in order to take ownership of his own learning. And believe it or not, I’ve found most teachers to be helpful, reasonable people. While they may not respond to the email immediately, they’ve always taken the time to help my child understand the concept with which he’s struggling. Then, we move on. If my child needs additional help, he’s responsible for talking with his teacher or joining the next help session.

Having made an attempt to do his best, my child can leave for school the next morning with looming questions about last night’s math homework. That’s perfectly okay. As parents, Debbie and I are less concerned that our kids get all the right answers and more concerned that they learn to ask questions, seek help, and find creative solutions when they struggle.

Lennon, John, and Paul McCartney. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles. Capitol Records, 1967. Vinyl recording.