It’s the middle of September, so your school-aged kids are likely back in the rhythm of classes, extracurricular activities, homework, and maybe even part-time jobs. Busy schedules are taking shape, and the effort to fit everything in will likely mean some trade-offs. To the extent that your kids still look to you for help with their homework, take this moment to remember (or learn) this: Letting your children struggle at first will lead to better outcomes than if you simply provide the answer in the name of expediency.
In a study published earlier this year, education researchers compared the performance of math students in two groups. One group was given direct instruction when learning a new concept. In other words, they were told at the start how to solve a new type of problem. The second group was given the problem and asked to come up with as many approaches to solving it as they could before receiving any formal instruction. In several comparisons, researchers found that both approaches were effective at imparting basic knowledge of the new concept. However, students in the second group formed a much deeper conceptual understanding and were better able to transfer their knowledge to different situations.
This was the case even though the second group usually failed to come up with a completely correct solution. Researchers call this approach “productive failure.” Their study also showed that a higher number of incorrect solutions correlated to increased learning when those students were finally given instruction on the topic. The more we struggle to figure something out, the better we understand it when we finally do understand it. Why is that?
The theory behind the difference in performance has to do with the learning process. It seems that when we try to solve a new type of problem without new information, our brains have to lean on what we already know. When we are finally presented with correct approach, our brains make connections between the existing knowledge that was called up and the new knowledge. This seems to be a fundamental part of successful long-term learning.
Here’s the sad part for American students and where you, as parents, can try to help your kids. Math education in the US typically follows the direct instruction model. By contrast, consider how students in countries that outperform the US in math learn a new mathematical concept. The section of the video below that starts at about the 1:43 mark discusses the TIMSS 1999 Video Study of eighth-grade mathematics and science teaching in seven countries. Consistent with the “productive failure” study, the TIMSSS videos showed that teachers in countries that outperform the US allow their students to struggle with new math concepts first.
In the best case, your child’s teacher already uses the “productive failure” approach. Keep up the good work at home when it comes to homework help. If the teacher uses direct instruction, then try encouraging your child to think of various ways of approaching the problem before attempting to explain the teacher’s way. Many of us at IMACS are parents too, so we know this is easier said than done with the busy lives that kids and parents lead today. In the long run though, it’s well worth the effort.