Parental Beliefs About Productive Struggle and Their Link to Homework-Helping

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Mícheál Marsh, Los Angeles, CA  michealmarsh@cpm.org

The March 2020 issue of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education published a study titled “Parental Beliefs on the Efficacy of Productive Struggle and Their Relation to Homework-Helping Behavior.” One of the recommendations is for school districts to provide guidance to parents on how to help their students with homework. The study specifically looked at the influences that parents’ implicit and explicit beliefs about productive struggle have on how they help their students, along with the influence of the specific parent’s or student’s sex.

CPM, research, and the Common Core State Standards Mathematics (CCSSM) support productive struggle as an effective teaching strategy in mathematics. But parents have doubts. The study suggests that these doubts are related to how often parents help their student. The study reports that more fathers than mothers believe that productive struggle is an effective teaching tool. The study also observes that if the parent believed their student was good at math, then they were more likely to believe in the effectiveness of productive struggle.

The study defined productive struggle “as the act of expending effort to make sense of something that is beyond one’s current level of understanding.” Implicit beliefs are those that a person holds but they do not know they believe them, while explicit beliefs are the beliefs someone purports to believe. To determine parental implicit and explicit beliefs about the benefits of “intentional struggle-filled learning,” the study used two different survey techniques. To capture the explicit beliefs of parents, parents filled out a survey in which they rated various statements about productive struggle. To determine the parents’ implicit beliefs, they were shown a clip of a lesson that engaged the students with productive struggle and asked the parents to imagine the lesson happening in their student’s classroom. This was followed by a survey with questions about the effectiveness of the lesson. They were also asked questions about how often they help their student and their perception of their student’s math ability. The study has some limitations in applying it to CPM classrooms since the parents were parents of elementary school children. The authors suggest these parents have a perceived understanding that they can help their child with the level of math they are doing in elementary school. The authors also noted that the online platform the study used to solicit participants tends to include people with more years of education and who are underemployed. While this study has limitations, the results have implications that apply to CPM classrooms.

The study results suggest things to pay attention to when preparing for parent nights and other materials for parents. The authors suggest that when schools request parental involvement, this is interpreted by some parents as meaning helping their student with their homework. Other research was cited that when parents help their student at home, they tend to do so in the method  in which they were instructed. For many parents this method was direct instruction. This direct instruction approach does not enhance CPM. The three pillars of CPM (collaboration, problem-based learning, mixed spaced practice) can be included at home if the parents are given specific guidance on how to employ these practices. Parents may welcome this help, particularly when the course is beyond what the parent believes they are capable of themselves. The CPM Parent Guides give suggestions to parents, but these suggestions might need to be overtly included in Parent Nights where parents can practice the suggested techniques with their student with guidance. Mastery takes time, even for parents.

The results revealed that even though parents had an explicit belief in productive struggle, their implicit beliefs did not necessarily match. The authors found that 70% of the parents said they believed in productive struggle (explicit), but when shown the productive struggle lesson, almost 50% of the parents rated the productive struggle video lesson low (implicit). Citing other studies, the authors noted that “parents might misunderstand the role of productive struggle in a child’s learning and cause more harm than good when they seek to alleviate any signs of disfluent learning.” Parents who rated the video lesson as effective (implicit) also reported helping with homework less often. The study also found that parents thought the use of productive struggle was more appropriate for their sons than for their daughters. Additionally, the study observed that parents who perceived that their student was good at math were more likely to believe implicitly and explicitly in productive struggle. Interestingly, the parental belief in their student’s math abilities did not have any relation to how often they helped their student with math homework.

Even though parents may think they support productive struggle, they should be encouraged to be mindful of the indirect messages they send to their students about productive struggle and gender equality in math. As parents, it is important to model how struggle and failure help one learn. Schools need to actively help parents implement strategies for working with their students at home.

References

Vazquez, S. R., Ermeling, B. A., Ramirez, G. (2020).  Parental Beliefs on the Efficacy of Productive Struggle and Their Relation to Homework-Helping Behavior.  Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 51(2), 179-203. doi: https://doi.org/10.5951/jresematheduc-2020-0019

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