Why Not Helping is Helping


I have taught math in  public schools for thirteen years.  Each new batch of students comes with a handful of parents who grapple with how best to help their children wrestle with math homework.  You, yourself, may be one of those parents.  When faced with math tasks asking for explanation of reasoning, or when the new-fangled curriculum wields a new strategy in place of familiar algorithms, the kettle of parents minds starts to bubble, roil, and whistle.

Dear Parents,

I have good news, a simple mandate which will both alleviate this internal pressure to perform math miracles AND will be better for your child’s math.  The advice?  BE LESS HELPFUL.

Don’t answer their questions.  Don’t show them shortcuts.  Above all, DO NOT teach them the old tried and true shortcuts of the standard algorithm.

I am not giving you a free pass, here.  Notice, I did not say, “Make them do their math all by themselves.”  Rather, I want you to enter their world of confusion with them.  Pull up a chair.  Grab some scratch paper.  Do the problem with them.  Not for them.   With them.  Answer their question with more questions.  Verbalize when you get stuck.  Normalize the struggle.

One common deficit in our students is their inability or unwillingness to ask questions.  But if a student can verbalize what they don’t understand, if they can formulate a question, then they are in an infinitely better place than if they quit before really diving head-long into the pool of problems.  Your best way of helping them is to role model these skills.  Make them teach you.

When you get stuck on a math problem, don’t give up.  Persist.  If you have no idea how to do a problem, guess.  Make an assumption and run with it.  If that assumption helps you solve the problem, hallelujah!  If not, even better.  Now you can go back to the assumption and say, “Now I know that this is wrong!  Therefore, it must mean blah blah blah instead!”  Then off you go, down another rabbit hole of problem solving.

Another deficit in our math students is learned helplessness.  Many are unwilling to even try.  Show them how to make mistakes. Gracefully!  With aplomb!  With pride!  What’s more, celebrate those moments, for this is where true learning lies.  Do a happy dance!  Pump your fists!  Cheer!

Now, if on a particular problem, you have reached the dead-end of this logical alleyway, you and your student are in the prime position to express what you don’t understand.  Have your kid write down this question in place of an answer.  Have them staple together all their failed attempts to turn in.  If your math teacher is worth their mustard, they will honor this work and highly appreciate it.  This makes their job far easier: they no longer have to guess why their kids aren’t getting this.

In conclusion, I would like to say thank you.  Thank you for being involved in your children’s education.  If you are reading this blog, then you are truly exceptional in your level of commitment to their education.  You already know that helping kids with their academics is difficult.  It is a problem.  It is your homework problem.  Math is the process of identifying problems, then methodically going about solving them.  This is the perfect opportunity to practice what I’m preaching.

So don’t look for short cuts.  Don’t look for easy fixes.  Look for a solution.  And this part is probably self obvious (but for some reason, not always in math): don’t give up; persist; the solution is out there somewhere, sitting right next to your kid.

3 thoughts on “Why Not Helping is Helping”

  1. You have said everything I have been trying to tell my parents, but kindly, concisely, and with wisdom. Thank you for sharing this!

  2. Thanks Matt for this reminder. I have to remind myself every day of ‘not helping’ as I provide just the right guidance in my classroom.

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