Figuring out how to make the most of maths as homework moves online

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2011, 12:00am


My son is in Year Five, and over the past year the style and content of his maths homework has changed. He used to get one or more worksheets to complete weekly, but now his teacher often sets homework linked to maths websites. He seems to enjoy these tasks and gets on with them independently. The trouble is that it is much harder for me to monitor how he is getting on and to know what he is covering in class. Are most schools taking this new approach to maths homework and how can I help him?

Firstly, it is good to hear that your son is enjoying his mathematics homework and working independently. You have not mentioned the type of school he attends but certainly many international schools, in particular, are generally taking a more technology-based approach to homework.

Children today are digital learners and tend to be much more motivated by technology than paper-based activities. Educational research shows that our modern students are motivated by games in which quick decisions need to be made, especially ones in which they move up levels and get instant rewards. Research also shows that students learn, analyse and retain information more effectively when there are visuals involved. Therefore, your son is likely to find computer activities more stimulating and interesting than worksheets, and hence is also likely to be learning more.

With this type of activity, it is still possible to monitor what your son is doing and teachers do usually try to link homework to concepts being learned in the classroom. You can check the maths websites out for yourself and even have a go at the tasks set, which will give you a good idea of your son's level of competence. Talk to him about what he has learned and remember that positive praise is a great incentive.

You can also play a valuable part in your son's maths education outside school by helping him to recognise maths in daily life. For example, when you are out and about, estimate the length of journeys, look at timetables and encourage him to use money and check change. At home, you can measure ingredients in a recipe, look at different types of graphs in the newspaper, play board games (especially ones that help lateral and strategic thinking), look for shapes and angles in the environment, or cut a pizza into fractions. You will think of many more ideas together. Doing this will help your son realise the relevance of maths to his own life and will reinforce concepts taught in the classroom.

Teaching maths has changed over the years. Children no longer plough through textbooks as their parents did when they were at school. The focus in classrooms is less on simply manipulating numbers and more on problem solving and applying effective mental arithmetic strategies. The move away from the traditional type of worksheet is more challenging for children as they are not being spoon-fed but expected to think at a deeper level and make decisions. They are encouraged to 'have a go', estimate and experiment. The aim is to develop problem solvers who have high-level thinking skills, which are crucial to children becoming successful in their future lives.

This does not mean, however, that all traditional teaching methods are redundant. In fact, the opposite is true - teachers today take a more flexible approach, which allows for different learning styles and supports and challenges children of different abilities at their own level. Nevertheless, there is still room for a certain amount of repetitive practice when necessary and rote learning in areas such as times tables.

Maths can be an emotive subject among parents, especially those who lacked confidence in the subject themselves. It can be difficult for some parents to accept that teaching and learning styles have changed. Sometimes schools offer curriculum evenings to inform parents about current methodology. Do discuss any further questions you may have with your child's teacher or the maths co-ordinator at his school.

I fully understand that you want to support your son in his studies. Remember that homework is simply an extension of the wide range of maths activities that he will be doing in the classroom and, if planned properly, should be more than a useful time-filler. It is very positive that your son is completing his maths homework independently and organising his own time in preparation for secondary school and beyond.

Julie McGuire

My eldest son will soon be starting secondary school and we are worried that he is still too childish to cope with the new demands of more serious academic work. Our friends tell us that we should discourage him from wanting to play so much - that he needs to be more grown up, ready for the adult world. We feel torn between agreeing with them and allowing him to play when he wants to - which is often.

It is hard for us as parents to strike the right balance for our children: most of us would want them steadily to take more responsibility (to tidy up after themselves; not lose their belongings), yet we feel sad when we see their childhood innocence begin to fade.

If you feel pressured by your friends, that is a concern; there is no universal handbook for ideal parenting and you can be sure that whatever one parent believes to be an essential, unquestionably correct way to bring up a child, another will disagree with just as strongly.

It has recently become clear just how complex and controversial this subject is with the publication of Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. The book's opening is deliberately provocative, listing all the expectations of the stereotypical, traditional Chinese mother. Reading other people's views may well help you to decide on your approach. But peer pressure should not make you anxious - you are the ones who know your son and can best judge what is right for him. The dictionary definition of 'play' is 'an activity engaged in for recreation and enjoyment'. Research can be found to prove almost anything is bad, or good for children, but here are a few thoughts: If your son's idea of play is to run around a lot, he is getting vital exercise that will make him fit and healthy - including his brain. If he plays with friends or siblings, he is learning socialising skills valuable for the rest of his life. If he acts out situations (through role play), he is making sense of all sorts of complex issues in life. At secondary school, your son - like many children - may find it hard to adjust to new demands: a larger community where he might feel insignificant or 'lost', a far wider range of different teachers to adapt to and a steadily growing, greater academic workload.

The new school should designate staff whose roles cover the general welfare and wider academic success of students. If you have concerns, contact those staff early on. They will welcome your involvement.

Adam Conway

Julie McGuire and Adam Conway teach at international schools