I was in the third grade the first time I taught mathematics to my father. He was helping me with a homework problem that involved fractions but I figured it out before him and showed him how I did it. His reaction made me feel proud. After that, we never returned to the one-way homework help. Sometimes he taught me, and sometimes I taught him. It changed how I saw myself.
That memory came back recently while I was visiting South Bronx Preparatory, a New York City district middle school that is one of 20 sites using Family Playlists, a programme developed by educational non-profit PowerMyLearning.
Family Playlists are interactive homework assignments through which students practise a set of learning activities and then teach them to a family member, usually a parent, who then provides feedback to the teacher about the experience – like how well the child understood or explained the lesson, and how much the two enjoyed the mutual learning.
Over the last seven years, PowerMyLearning has worked with over 70 schools to strengthen the triangle of learning relationships connecting students, teachers and families. Among other results, its partner schools have experienced annual gains in maths proficiency that outpace comparable schools by seven percentage points.
PowerMyLearning has built an extensive digital learning platform. Teachers in over 30,000 schools have registered for its free basic edition. In 2016, it piloted the Family Playlists feature to further reinforce the relationships in the triangle, particularly the link between teachers and families.
To make communication as frictionless as possible, all the interaction between teachers and families can be handled easily on a computer or smartphone, with notifications by text messages or e-mail.
Ms Elisabeth Stock, the chief executive and a co-founder of PowerMyLearning, said: “If you ask an adult, ‘What’s the educational system?’, they’ll usually say, ‘Well, there’s the superintendent… there’s the teachers’ union.’ But if you ask a student, they’ll say, ‘I have my teachers and my family.'”
Family engagement is essential. Research indicates that learning happens best when what’s happening in school is reinforced by what’s happening in a student’s home. But teachers say they and the parents both need help in making the interplay effective. That can be challenging in high-poverty communities, where parents often lack the knowledge, English language skills, or confidence to help their children with their schoolwork.
Family engagement is essential. Research indicates that learning happens best when what’s happening in school is reinforced by what’s happening in a student’s home. But teachers say they and the parents both need help in making the interplay effective.
Unless the process starts with schools insisting parents are a part of the triangle, teachers tend to reach out to parents mainly when there’s a problem with behaviour, homework completion or grades.
The fundamental premise behind Family Playlists, which teachers assign as homework intermittently – typically at the end of a unit – is that when students are asked to teach something, they learn it at a deeper level and that strengthens their sense of self-reliance. That was my experience as a child, and it appeared to be shared by the eight sixth graders from South Bronx Prep I recently interviewed.
Jesmari Cruz, 11, was surprised to discover that her father, Luis, was good at maths. However, she found he had forgotten some things, like how to calculate perimeter. “So I had to teach him,” she said. “First I explained it and gave him his own shape and let him do whatever work he understood, but then I had to explain it more to him, and help him break it down.”
Madison Toro, 12, had a similar experience teaching her father, Eugene. “When we did polygons and shapes, I made mistakes and he corrected me,” she said. “But I taught him about dividing fractions and how to make an improper fraction and a mixed number.”
The students found that after leading parents and other relatives through a number of lessons, their parents started reminding them less often to do their homework – reflecting, perhaps, increased trust and confidence.
The two fathers I interviewed were enthusiastic. Mr Luis Cruz, 36, who works as a housing certification agent, said of his daughter Jesmari: “Since she was little she’s been smart, but she’s shy and she used to hold herself back. I’ve seen a big change. She’s opened up a lot. She’s grown and she’s got a big smile on her face. I like that.”
Mr Eugene Toro, 45, who works on immigration affairs in the mayor’s office, said of his daughter Madison: “I think she’s more confident in what she’s learning because of this. She really understands the material and she has no problem explaining it to me, which is great when you want to become a leader. She’s taking charge of her academic learning.”
Ms Arelys Arenas, a sixth grade maths teacher at South Bronx Prep, who began using Family Playlists in 2016, recalled: “When I first started with this, my students used to say, ‘I can’t imagine teaching my father’.” But, she added: “When kids have a chance to go home and explain something to their parents, they really learn it… ”
Ms Meghan Wells, director of family engagement for PowerMyLearning, modelled Family Playlists on a paper-based family engagement programme developed at Johns Hopkins University named Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork or T.I.P.S. In a two-year study, T.I.P.S. had been found to have significantly improved family involvement and attitudes about maths homework and boosted maths scores on standardised tests.
Said Associate Professor Steven Sheldon of the School of Education at Johns Hopkins: “Right now the conversation about homework is whether we should have it, or is it effective.
“We’re not asking a more important question: Is there a different kind of homework that can give us better results? And I think interactive homework is much more effective. It’s actually engaging all the resources at home to support learning, and it’s much more enjoyable.”