What Indian parents teach us about helping with homework

Want some help with that? Aswin Anand, CC BY-NC-ND

Homework is the perfect platform for parents to help children unravel the mystery to learning. Parents are in a unique position to hang the academic concepts that children learn at school onto their real-life perceptions of the world.

Through homework, parents and teachers can communicate and support their child’s learning. Parental involvement in homework activities can help make learning academic concepts meaningful while potentially motivating them to learn. But how can parents make academic learning fun?

Over a period of four months, I had the privilege of observing five families in Chennai in India, and looking at how they dealt with homework. I have always been intrigued by the emphasis middle class parents in India placed on academic success. I wanted to record how that emphasis is embedded in their everyday practices. Homework activity surfaced as a significant experience across families that communicated the importance given to school work at home.

The predominant strategy used by most parents in India when it comes to homework is “read aloud, recite aloud and write”. Recalling the responses to textbook questions can potentially strengthen a child’s visual and auditory memory and when they write their responses, children learn to pay close attention to spellings, syntax and punctuations.

At home in Chennai

It’s worthwhile looking at a typical Indian family and their experience of homework. During my many visits, I documented conversations between Savi, an eight-year-old girl, her mum, Sita, her four-year old brother, Dev and her father, Ram. Savi’s teacher had taught a lesson on Independence Day and assigned reading to do at home. The nation’s capital, New Delhi, was featured prominently. Her mother associated the reading with a recent family trip to New Delhi, the monuments they had seen and the role of the prime minister on nationally important days. Their exchange stretched to discuss the similar role of the chief minister in their state.

Unfamiliar terms and concepts can be obstacles to learning. Sita was cooking while Savi read another lesson on science, stumbling over the words “solution”, “solute”, and “saturate”. Ram elicited several examples for both Savi and Dev and taught them that soap does not dissolve in water and therefore is not a solute – an additional insight that was not provided in the textbook. Savi had become so fluent with these concepts that she was able to define the terms in English.

An emphasis on children’s thinking and questioning was evident in the family’s interactions. When Dev, the four-year-old, made loud noises with his plastic buckets and the rolling pin, the mother objected.

He immediately challenged her with the rejoinder: “You say it is nice when they play the drums at the temple and how come when I do it here, I should stop?” The mother explained the different effects of sound in a small room and a big hall.

Cultivating lifelong skills

These Indian parents provided meaningful information that went beyond textbooks and teacher explanations and connected the school readings to their everyday life. They encouraged the children to be independent and assertive and set their expectations high. Reading the textbook was given high priority, but an equal amount of stress was put on connecting new knowledge to what they saw in their immediate environment.

These parents were not simply aiding their children to learn concepts and complete homework. They were cultivating important academic skills. Such “concerted cultivation” shapes how children use language to negotiate, reason and develop persuasive arguments. These are vital skills necessary for academic achievement, nurturing knowledge, and positive attitudes toward learning and school.

What the Indian parents demonstrated was their commitment to helping their children gain academic and independent thinking skills. Homework should not be taken nonchalantly. Investing time and energy promotes joint focus by both the parents and the child on the task, helping the parents to shape their children’s disposition to learning.

But homework is not an end in itself and it is important to remember it is just a means for setting a positive trajectory for lifelong learning.