Homework Should be for Parents, Not Kids

How to integrate maths into family life

Do you have a child at primary school?  If so, how much maths homework does s/he get?  It might be anything from a daily diet of maths problems to virtually nothing.  There is a never-ending debate about how much maths (or other) homework there should be, and what form that homework should take.

But maybe we're having the wrong debate.  Maybe it's not about what homework children should get.  Maybe teachers are giving homework to the wrong person. Maybe homework should be for parents, not for their children.

OK, you're now thinking I must be having a laugh, right?  Most parents don't have enough time to manage their busy lives as it is, without the burden of having to do school work on top.

But bear with me in this thought experiment.  Suppose maths homework WAS for parents?  It would only get done if it met at least one of the following criteria:

1.   It would have to be engaging and enjoyable.  Really enjoyable.  Whatever the challenge, it would need to be instantly appealing regardless of parents' maths ability and confidence.

2. It would fit into their busy routines, preferably serving as a useful way to keep the kids occupied, on a car journey for example.

3.  It would involve minimal preparation.

And what benefit would this hypothetical homework have? 

It would do something that the government and education community increasingly believe is vital, which is get parents engaged with their child's maths (in a way that happens in China, for example).

If it was pitched at the right level, this homework would be something that mum or dad would want to do with their child.  It would be a collaboration, and while there is no guarantee the child will enjoy it as much as the parent, having a parent who is excited about maths is a very good start.

So what might this homework be?

One of my favourite examples is a variant of a Spot the Ball contest.  Captain Blackbelly has buried treasure on an island that happens to be the shape of a triangle.  The only clue he has left is that the treasure is in the 'middle' of the island.  The challenge is to mark with an X where you think the treasure is.  The treasure prize (some chocolate is usually enough incentive) will go to whichever parent (or child) gets closest to the right location.   Putting an X on a map takes five seconds and requires no maths knowledge.  But most parents will reckon it is worth giving it a bit more thought before choosing the location.  What did Captain Blackbelly mean by the 'middle' of the island? Where is the centre of a triangle?  Actually there is no right answer, the centre of a triangle can be lots of different places, but Blackbelly has buried the treasure *somewhere* which is where judgment, debate and a bit of luck come in. This is a rich mathematical exercise that anybody can participate in.

There are plenty more examples that I don't have space to go into here:  puzzles, mind-reading tricks, and games that require no props.  What unites them is that they provoke curiosity, and stimulate lively interaction between parents and their children.  Something that is seriously lacking in most of the homework that I see.


This week I ran a half day INSET in Brighton for primary teachers and TAs called 'How to engage parents in maths'.  If you'd like to run something similar for your school, get in touch.