One of the most common complaints that I hear from parents and carers, is that their HSC student no longer let’s them “help” them with their homework. Now when you offer assistance all you get is your head bitten off or an eye roll that you can hear – and this hurts your feelings. You were their first teacher. You taught them to walk, talk, eat, go to the bathroom, kick a ball, ride a bike, count, the alphabet, write their name. I am also sure that you are still teaching them all kinds of important things.
At primary school, knowledge was acquired through activities like spelling lists, times tables, vocabulary words and reports that regurgitated information. Learning was all about drilling to remember. Of course you helped them memorize things and perhaps filled in some teaching gaps along the way. Or you supervised the drilling in something you didn’t have the skills to teach; like making sure that the bagpipes was practiced. Our neighbour’s son was desperate to learn the bagpipes, so she did what you do when you don’t have the skill, she outsourced to a bagpipe instructor. Then she made him practice his bagpipes outside and directing the sound towards the nearby freeway.
Now they’re in high school and the learning environment has changed. Most likely they are biting your head off because they are first and foremost a teen, but more importantly, what you are offering isn’t helping them. This isn’t the “I can do it” statement of a three year old, while you wait half an hour for them to struggle to put their socks on. The hard truth is that what you have to offer may not help. They are transitioning their learning style to think critically and you may not be trained in how to help them with this. I think it’s harder for the teen as they realise that you are no longer the super hero with all the answers.
It can be frustrating to watch your student struggle when you know you can help, but just like with the socks, you need to back off. But there are some ways that you can help them build their critical thinking skills:
- Just be there to give them a sounding board. They may need to bounce an idea off someone and just being present and listening without judgement gives them the opportunity to hear their idea out loud. Hearing the idea helps them form and modify it. I recommend that homework be done at the kitchen table. That way while you are doing things in the kitchen they can talk to you. You’re also monitoring their progress and ensuring they aren’t just watching YouTube by stealth.
- Ask them a specific question about the research or planning they’ve been doing. Asking the open end question of how the project is going sounds like nagging to them, as it’s not due for another week and it’s probably going really badly, so thanks for bringing that up. Telling the knowledge story helps them to understand and analyze. As a bonus you may actually learn something new yourself! Be mindful of asking questions, as they may not know the answer and become defensive. Try reframing a question with “I wonder…”. They may know the answer and have left it out of the story for some reason, or it may point them in the direction they need to go. Either way you’ve provided positive feedback and helped.
- Call in the troops. It takes a village to teach a child, so tap into your community and outsource. If you know an expert, invite them to dinner to start a conversation. I ate a lot of dinners talking to teenagers who wanted to become marine biologists. Maybe a relative can lend a hand. Khan Academy evolved from Sal Khan’s math videos he would make for his cousins to help them with their homework. In the past you hired an expert if you didn’t have the skills, think back to that need to learn the bagpipes, and it might be worth it again.