We’ve all been there. Your child, who moments ago was energetically bouncing off the walls, now can hardly muster the strength to keep his head off the table. “Come on. Finish your homework,” you say sternly. He slouches, he sighs, he fiddles. “Just do it,” you plead. “Then you’ll be done. This doesn’t have to take this long!”
It’s moments like these when you’re tempted to make a picket sign and circle the school chanting, “No homework! No homework!”
But before you give up on homework all together, let me tell you, there is a way to transform homework from busywork into a very important learning opportunity.
Do you remember learning the Dewey Decimal system in school? If you do, you probably know how to actually find information…in a book….in a library. We’re a select group of people with obsolete skills! But did you know that John Dewey, the man for which the Dewey Decimal system is named, was a lot more than a librarian? He was a passionate educator whose ideas still form the way we teach today. He believed that the best way to learn was to do. Get your hands dirty. And that’s not all. He famously said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
So what does this have to do with homework?
Sometimes homework can feel like a punishment or busy work, but it becomes neither if you can help your child reflect on his learning as he’s doing it. Then homework time becomes a conversation, an opportunity to reflect on how he’s learning.
Think of it like this. Let’s say you drive to the new Chinese restaurant, across town. When you return, a friend asks you, How did you get there? If you say, “I have no idea. I just followed the GPS,” you likely will not be able to return there again, unless you have your GPS. But, if you stop, think, and mentally retrace your steps and explain how you did it, the next time you get in the car, you’ll be able to go get delicious Dim Sum on your own. Take a hike, GPS!
By asking our kids to reflect on how they learned, we’re teaching them to not just follow their textbook or worksheet or teacher. We are helping them learn the way to do something for themselves. And when you take away the textbook, worksheet or teacher, they will still be able to do it.
Consider these kinds of questions:
- “How did you know when you got the answer?”
- “I know you’re working on fractions. How is that going? Would you say you are confident in your ability to add fractions? Why or why not?”
- “How did you start to figure out what that word was?”
- “Where did you learn that word?”
- “Remember when we talked about_______? How do you think ___________connects with _________?”
- “What did you do to help you remember that?”
- “How did you do that?”
Note that these kinds of questions can really be about any kind of learning–not just academic. And all these examples are positive. This is very important.
Asking kids to reflect when they do something wrong–”Why did you do that?!?”–seems to come naturally to parents. But how many times has that been effective? For me, never. Number one: My kids likely do not know. (Do you know why you keep repeating bad habits?) Number two: Even if they do hazard a guess, they probably don’t like the answer they come up with. (“Because I’m a bad sister who hits babies!”) Number three: Reflection takes a cool head and some higher order thinking. I know we hope that kids will say, “Oh, I did that because I lost my temper, and next time I’m going to count to ten to keep my temper!” But that’s A LOT to ask of a kid (and an adult) in the heat of the moment. Better to let it go and discuss later.
We all know that it is better to catch and praise your child for doing something right than it is catch and yell at your child for doing something wrong–and it’s the same with learning experiences. We want to reinforce the positive and the things they are doing well.
Of course, if your child is having trouble with something, it’s worth talking about and addressing underlying problems. But when I was a teacher, I once had a student say to me, “I hate talking to my mom about my tests because she’ll always ask me to go through and explain the two I got wrong! I want to say, Mom, but I got 38 of them right! Can we talk about that?!” Of course! We should talk about the ones they got right!
Let’s go back to our poor son, struggling to finish his homework. If you sit with him and ask him to explain what he is doing and how he is doing it, will he perk up and say, “I love homework!”? Probably not. But it will open up a conversation about how he’s learning and that will make those thirty minutes of homework worth the struggle.
QUESTION: What question would you like to ask your child the next time it’s homework time?
CHALLENGE: The next time you’re helping your children with their homework, ask them two questions about what and how they are learning.
Image from Shutterstock; graphics by Anna Jenkins.