Can’t Do My Homework Anymore

It’s not a clever title but it leads into a great Fleetwood Mac song, guaranteeing one worthwhile feature of the post:

On with the post, which concerns a study conducted by academics at the University of South Australia and Nova Scotia’s St. Francis Xavier University, reported in their 2023 paper, Mathematics homework and the potential compounding of educational disadvantage. The study was announced a month ago in a UniSA media release, Numbers do not add up for maths homework, and was accompanied by the subsequent Educator report, Maths homework causing more harm than good – study. This all sounded like nonsense, so I took a quick look at the paper. I gagged, considered the work required to even skim the nonsense and decided to ignore it. Then frequent commenter Dr. Mike lobbed a Science Alert report at us, Math Homework Can End Up Doing More Harm Than Good, Study Shows. A third temptingly silly headline made me ponder further but I still decided to ignore it. Then then on the week-end Greg Ashman wrote a little about the study in his weekly curios. At which point I decided “to Hell with it”, and here we are.

What is the study, and how can maths homework end up doing more harm than good? Let’s begin with the abstract:

Parental involvement in schooling has been shown to have a positive impact on children’s educational outcomes. With changing mathematics curricula and pedagogical approaches as a context, we explore how mathematical dispositions emerge through gendered and classed experiences with mathematics homework. We share the experiences of mothers from eight Canadian families as they negotiate mathematics homework with their children. We consider the impact of their differing access to resources and highlight the way mathematics homework disrupts family time, creates tension, and contributes to a sense of inadequacy for some mothers. This results in mothers and children having negative experiences with mathematics homework, which can lead to the compounding of intergenerational negative mathematical dispositions and identities.

Heaven forbid we compound intergenerational negative mathematical dispositions and identities. But in brief, in English, the researchers interviewed the children and parents in eight Canadian families, and they pondered the consequences of the burden and tension that mathematics homework evidently brought to the families’ lives. Fine.

The organisation of the paper is indicated in the final paragraph of the lengthy introduction:

This paper is organised into three parts. First, in order to foreground a common barrier which may be experienced by mothers supporting their children with mathematics homework, we consider how mathematical dispositions and experiences underpin children’s identity formation as capable (or not) ‘doers’ of mathematics. We draw on the work of Bourdieusian scholars (e.g. Boaler 2002; DeWitt, Archer, and Mau 2016; Lareau 2011; Reay 2004; Vincent 2017) to understand interactions with mathematics homework as an aspect of family habitus and consider how the intersection of gender and social class may further impact mathematical identity formation. Families’ lived experiences with mathematics homework are shared, and through their narratives, mother’s mathematical dispositions and identities come to the fore.

Got that? Hands up who even read it to the end.

There’s no labelled “second” or “third” in that paragraph, and the paper contains six sections, not counting the introduction and two final sections for discussion and conclusion. So, it is not exactly clear what the “three parts” are, but the paper’s concerns are: (1) kids come with an attitude to mathematics; (2) the manner in which parents, usually mothers, deal with their kids’ maths homework depends significantly upon the family’s economic status; (3) the details and interplay of (1) and (2) is fleshed out in interviews with the kids and their parents.

Of course one can simply read the paper, and of course that is difficult and painful. The paper is turgid, replete with “Bourdieusian analysis” and “gendered performances” and “problematise the assumptions” and so on. Still, with work, one can glean the message. In brief, the researchers are claiming of the families they interviewed that:

*) most of the kids have a negative attitude to mathematics and thus also to mathematics homework;

*) the more working class the family, the more difficult it is for the parents, typically the mother, to find time and ability to help with homework;

*) exacerbated by changes in mathematics education, mothers struggle to help their kids with homework;

*) inevitably, everyone gets really pissed off and too little mathematics is learned;

*) the working class kids fall further behind, mothers become less confident with mathematics and about girls doing mathematics, and so on.

There’s a thing or two to say about this study, and the first thing to say is there is not a lot to say. A few interviews of eight families is not strong evidence of anything and it certainly fails to justify the grandiosely conclusive headlines of the media reports. Why do education journalists have to suck so badly? Indeed, in this regard at least, the authors of the study suck less than the journalists, the former making no strong claims for either the generality of their conclusions or for any pedagogy-policy implications. Of the small number of families in the study, the authors note,

While this is a small sample, and the findings cannot be generalized we also acknowledge that throughout our years of experience our findings depict a common narrative.

This disclaimer is a confused marriage of modesty and immodesty. The authors noting their beliefs based upon their “years of experience” doesn’t make the eight any greater than eight. At the same time, the disclaimer is underselling the potential power of such a focussed, personalised study. Anyone who has read Oscar Lewis’s brilliant The Children of Sanchez needs no convincing of this. Unfortunately, the authors are not Oscar Lewis and their study is not The Children of Sanchez.

I have a few more thoughts about the study, for which I found the authors’ Bourdieusian analysis less helpful than a Bordeauxian analysis. This latter technique involves considering any question regarding Western schooling and education with the understanding that modern education is fundamentally nuts; such analysis is properly undertaken whilst drinking plenty of good red wine, with the slim hope of preserving the sanity of the analyst.

Using the Bordeauxian technique our first conclusion is: Well, duh. Of course better off families will do better with homework. Their homes are likely to be more conducive to study. Parents are likely to be more able and more willing to help with schoolwork, and more connected with the school. Access to tutoring is likely to be more readily available. And of course the more the schools suck, the less that is taught in schools, the greater this home advantage for better off kids. Eight families is eight more than is required to come to this conclusion.

The second conclusion, predictably missed by the study’s authors, is that almost certainly the kids’ homework intrinsically sucked. The authors give some unknowing hints about this, when referring to the parents’ needing to “adjust to new mathematical strategies and approaches”, and their “decode new approaches and mathematical terminology”, and so on. One quoted line from a parent is particularly telling:

‘It’s almost that far out there, you’d never think that I wouldn’t be able to help my child … with math’

If the homework was “that far out there”, and of course it was, then of course Joe Blogs and Jane Blogs will be screwed, will go nuts trying to decipher the new nonsense in order to help their kids.

The third and final conclusion, the immediate consequence of a detail that I have consciously held back, is that this entire discussion is insane. Why? Because this study, this whole discussion is about 8-9 year old kids in Grade 3. It is Grade 3 maths that is “that far out there” that parents cannot help. And much much more to the point, why the hell do these Grade 3 kids have any maths homework at all? The school has these kids for ballpark six hours per day and yet somehow cannot manage to teach them the required maths. Which is insane. Giving an 8 year old kid any homework much beyond a book to read and a few tables to practise is insane. What it tells you is that the poor kids are learning bugger all in school, and then everything else follows. It is simple Bordeauxian analysis.

Which is a reminder, it’s time to open another bottle. After immersing oneself in that nonsense it is definitely time for a sizeable dose of analysis.

20 Replies to “Can’t Do My Homework Anymore”

  1. It’s interesting that the authors didn’t notice that there is a Canadian charity specifically established to create free material targeting parents that has been around for over 20 years and won multiple accolades.
    I am referring to jumpmath.org

    You could argue their material could be improved in some aspects. But at zero cost there is no excuse for people not to try it if they are going to try at all. And no excuse not to suggest it to anyone struggling with helping their kids with math homework.

      1. The relevance would be to the headline perhaps.
        The conclusion we are led to is to abandon homework.
        But an obvious alternative is to provide the parents who are struggling to help their kids with free materials specificity designed to help Canadian parents help their kids with math homework.

        1. I don’t believe that the authors’ conclusion (or a sensible conclusion) is to abandon homework, and I don’t think the authors can be (entirely) blamed for the absurd media headlines.

          As I read it, the paper itself is simply saying assigning homework for which the kids will require help creates difficulty for kids with less access to such help, which compounds the inequity. The paper as I read it is not really suggesting what to do about this. The UniSA media release perhaps points to what the authors are thinking, however, that homework should be more along the lines of routine practice, where help is less required.

          Greg Ashman seems to take the same basic line, that “homework should always be independent practice of content addressed in the lesson rather than project work or work that students will need help with, such as from parents or tutors”. While I think I would agree with that, I don’t think in practice it’s going to come close to addressing the concerns of the authors (which I agree are valid concerns).

          As for jumpmath et al, as great as it is to have free quality materials available, I’d have to be convinced that does, or can, address such concerns in any large-scale manner.

          I cannot see any proper fix other than to fix schools. Which, of course, is impossible.

  2. “Parental involvement in schooling has been shown to have a positive impact on children’s educational outcomes.” Okay, where does that “parental involvement” take place? At home. Could that reasonably be considered as “work”? Yes. Therefore, the first sentence of the abstract can be rewritten as “Homework has been shown to have a positive impact on children’s educational outcomes.” End of.

    1. Cute, but not really fair.

      I don’t think the authors are arguing against the possible or even common value of parents helping kids with their homework. I think they’re arguing that, especially for lower SES kids, such value may be slight and should be weighed against the negatives.

  3. Observations from small samples can suggest questions that should be pursued with further research. What is the purpose of homework? (One of my Year 9 students asked this very question recently.) Is homework necessary? (Surely, teachers ought to be able to teach students during the time allotted at school.) What are the impediments to students in completing homework, and to teachers in setting and correcting homework?

    1. Thanks, Terry. I agree with you on the value of small samples properly considered. I cannot see any evidence, however, that the authors are considering any reasonable questions for further research.

    1. It is hard to disagree, but I think you’re being a little too dismissive here.

      The authors obviously have a downtrodden-women agenda, but that can be judged on its merits, and there are no idiotic gender games of the type AMT and ACER love to play. Just replace “gender” with “sex” and I think the paper is fine (in this regard).

  4. “homework should be more along the lines of routine practice, where help is less required”
    Agreed. The basic problem seems to be that not enough routine practice is done in class. Crowded out by what? the latest fashion in pedagogy? or is it the continual rounds of assessment, often on topics outside the core syllabus?

    I cannot remember doing homework before Year 9; it would have been difficult by the light of a spirit lamp.

    1. Yes, it is interesting that our Dickensian past had so little homework, at least in the early years. As for what’s crowding out the RRR, you really really don’t want to know.

      1. Just to make it clear, my town had no electricity while I was in primary school. Reading was possible after dark with the spirit lamp, but very tiring.

  5. Well, well, well, the ‘math homework anxiety’ is rising on the horizon. It is interesting how long it will take for this new ‘psychological condition’ to become a matter of hot debate and discussion. Not too long with so many sophisticated words used in the articles.
    Also talking about the changes in the maths I can’t help myself but post here another good song on the topic https://youtu.be/UIKGV2cTgqA?si=LsozbgWkcCHoDfgM

    1. The paper does not once mention anxiety. Jesus, you guys. I hate the paper, too, but you should all stop being so obtuse and so tribal.

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