Harvard study reveals that “homework help” isn’t really helping, so what should we be doing to ensure that our children are successful in school and in life? homework help, teachable moments, schoolwork help, scaffolding independence, harvard education study comments

Harvard Study Shows What Online School Families Already Know

By: Steven Guttentag

I just read a new study by Harvard Professor Nancy Hill concluding that parents’ helping children with their homework does not help them do well in school (article by Deborah Blagg, 2009). Wait a second, I thought, that is what good parents do! My wife and I take turns working with our three children on their homework because we assumed that our efforts would help them succeed in school and beyond. I guess if the world always worked as we expected, we wouldn’t need research.Brian King, Connections Academy Student and Spelling Bee Winner

So if “homework help” isn’t really helping, what should we be doing to ensure that our children are successful in school and in life? According to Professor Hill, volunteering (e.g., PTA, helping out in the classroom) helps a little, and educational activities (e.g., trips to the library or a museum) also can’t hurt, but what really can make a difference is our ability to connect children’s schoolwork to their life’s work. Hill writes, “Our study shows that helping children understand the value and utility of education correlates well with higher achievement levels in middle school and high school.” Children need to understand that mastering their times tables, reading Shakespeare, and learning the state capitals all have a connection to higher education, meaningful work, and ultimately a good life. If you can convince them of that, then they will get their homework done on their own—and you will just need to get out of the way.

So how do you do this? Hill’s analysis recommends several concrete strategies:

  • “Scaffolding independence” is a fancy term for letting students stumble (or fail) and then learn from their mistakes. She gives the example that I am sure many of us are guilty of: running to school with that forgotten homework or lunch. Instead, let your children experience the consequences of their actions.
  • Signing up children for extracurricular activities forces students to develop time management strategies. Children with busy schedules cannot put off tasks until the last minute.
  • Provide opportunities for extra schoolwork, such as enrichment programs, summer school and just plain old reading instead of TV.
  • Finally, parents should continually find “teachable moments” to demonstrate that the knowledge and behaviors learned in school will help them later in life.

While I think that students in traditional schools with strict bell schedules, seat-time requirements, whole class instruction, and a one-size-fits-all approach to learning may struggle to find these types of opportunities, virtual schooling is all about real-world preparation—and this concept of “scaffolding independence.” I touched on this topic in my recent commencement address at the 2010 National Connections Academy graduation where I compared a virtual education to the “real” post-schooling world everyone must eventually enter.

At virtual schools, like Connections Academy:

  1. You can go to school whenever you want or need to…during the day, evenings, and/or weekends.
  2. You can spend more time on the subjects and assignments that are more difficult or more important to you.
  3. You have opportunities to work and socialize with children and adults of all ages.
  4. You decide when you move on to a new lesson, and you decide when you have studied enough to take a test.
  5. You have to keep yourself on track, make sure you don’t get too far behind, and do the practice problems even if they don’t count.

So, let me tell you a secret about the real world:

  1. You may have a job where you have to get to work at a certain time, but more likely you just have work you need to complete.
  2. You won’t spend an equal amount of time on history, math, science, and social studies; depending on what your job is, you will spend more on one than the others.
  3. You will be working with people older and younger than you, and you may have to supervise someone 10 years older or find out your boss is 10 years younger…and you have to work well with all these people.
  4. No bell will ring at your desk to remind you to attend a meeting or start working on the next task.
  5. Your boss is not going to remind you of deadlines or ask to see your rough draft.

So the good news is that the concepts that Professor Hill found to correlate with school success seem to be very much built into the framework of virtual education. Beyond the flexibility, personalization, and quality instruction, your children are developing a perspective and habits that will help them in the future.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that parents never help their children with their homework. I am suggesting that making connections for children between academics and life opportunities is something for which parents are uniquely qualified. Looking back, all of us have made choices in our past that have helped or hurt our future opportunities. Help your child understand how the decisions he or she makes today will impact the decisions he or she will have tomorrow.