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Updated: Oct 2, 2020

At the risk of sounding like broken record, it would seem that the distance learning train keeps chugging along with no end in sight. Last week I wrote a wonderful new post to help ensure a safe return to school, but alas, it is now sitting on a shelf collecting dust until the time finally comes for our children to go back to class. Sigh. When I'm faced with a problem, though, I try to change my perspective. In this case, instead of telling you how kids can best deal with online schooling, it's time to help parents get better at helping with distance learning, i.e. help them help their kids study! Here we go:



You need to remember that when students are studying something they need help with-- something they don't understand -- they are likely feeling a) Frustrated, and b) Insecure. These are not mental states that are conducive to learning or retaining information. We must therefore avoid certain words and expressions which can trigger or amplify these feelings. For example, when someone makes a mistake or answers incorrectly, we often tend to say "No", quite bluntly and with no follow-up, which is very condescending. As you can well imagine, being told "No!" like that would make anyone feel pretty childish and therefore quite annoyed; you may as well wag your finger while you're at it! Another phrase to avoid is "Why aren't you doing (so and so)?" It makes students feel small and incapable. If they knew how to do (so and so), they wouldn't need your help. In fact, the word "Why" should be changed altogether to a much milder and less accusatory "How come?" You will instantly see a difference in the response; instead of a defensive answer, you'll get a real explanation.



It may take seconds longer in the short term but will save students time and grades in the long term. Many student do not write out their steps, and I've heard every excuse in the book..."It's easy so I don't need to", "I want to challenge myself by doing it mentally", "It takes too long and I'm lazy", and my personal favourite: "But in the exam, I will write out the steps"! Let me save you the suspense, kids: If you don't do it effectively now while you study, you will certainly not do it effectively when taking the exam. Of course, students who DO write out all their steps almost always perform better on tests. The advantages of doing so are many:

1. By writing everything out, we no longer waste mental effort trying to remember any step (most of the time, we forget it anyway!)

2. We free up precious real estate in our minds to make room for any other new ideas

3. It greatly reduces the chance of making small errors, and also allows us to retrace our steps when we are looking a mistake.

I can also point out the proven link between writing and remembering and understanding, and the fact that you may get partial marks for work done in case of a wrong answer. The list of benefits really is quite long, so insist on writing out all the steps. It's essential.



You probably have very little time in your already busy life to sit and teach math and science. Your child probably has very little attention to give (not for math and science anyway)! For those reasons, you need to come prepared to each session in order to be efficient, sharp, and get buy-in from your kid. That last one is important: if you come in and try learning on the fly and try to wing it, you will lose the confidence of your student, and that will make it difficult for them to put effort into understanding you. Abraham Lincoln once famously said: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Planning is everything. It takes a little time to prepare, but we shouldn't be short-sighted: that one half-hour of prep will serve you for multiple effective lessons ahead, instead of scrambling during each one and leaving both your and your child feeling frustrated.



Needless to say, everyone makes mistakes, especially when solving exercises. All students, however, have certain tendencies and mistakes which they keep repeating. An essential part to helping students progress is to help them eliminate the repeated errors. If the error is being committed due to forgetfulness (as opposed to a lack of understanding), then you need to be able to identify the mistake they keep repeating, help them recognize it just as it occurs, and have them correct it before moving forward. This practice should get quicker each time, until the repeated error goes away. A simple way to do this is to come up with an additional step that breaks up the pattern in which the student is solving. As a simple example: if someone keeps forgetting to carry the one during addition, make them put an asterisk in the corner of the page each time there's a sum over 10. This breaks up their regular sequence and forces them off of autopilot and helps them remember the correct step to take next. Identify, recognize, and correct. That is the key.



The only way to truly understand why one way works is to also understand why other ways do not. This is because knowing why something doesn't work automatically highlights the difference between the incorrect and correct ways, and reinforces understanding of the latter. It is a very underrated aspect of learning, and I encourage you to focus on it greatly: always include a couple of incorrect examples and, together, discuss why that way doesn't work. Whenever a student of mine asks me "Why can't we solve that way instead?", I calmly say "Good question" (because all of them are!) and I secretly rejoice inside knowing that they are on the right path, and if I successfully answer them, their understanding of the correct method will be solidified. So after teaching students how to perform an exercise correctly, I implore you to show them a few typical errors and wrong ways as well. It's better to teach them why two or three examples don't work rather than show them 100 examples of the ones that do!


THIS WEEK'S BRAIN TEASER! (The answer to last blog's riddle: DROPS!)




Until next time!

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