Maths: when giving help is not necessarily helpful

October 24, 2012 — 1 Comment

We are in the business of building children’s confidence in maths. Children are confident in maths if they can work independently at their maths.

Asking for help is not always the right thing to encourage a child to do. Of course, it is important that a child should feel they can ask for help in a classroom setting – essential. However, when working with children on a 1-to-1 basis, I am often discouraging children from asking for help. This is because, if they are low on maths confidence, they will ask too freely when they don’t actually need it. I know that if they risk failure but then get the answer right, it will build their confidence. If they ask for help and get it right, it will do nothing for their confidence. If they get it wrong, their confidence is still intact because they already knew it was a tricky question. Don’t get me wrong – I am not depriving them of help. But DoodleMaths encourages children to attempt the question for themselves before pressing help.

This is particularly important since DoodleMaths has an unusually high proportion of inductive questions – linking and sorting questions, mainly. Tackled carefully, these will allow the user to induce the answer on their own. These are extremely rewarding questions to attempt and succeed at for a child. And after all, children learn through doing things for themselves far better than by listening to an audio explanation.

If you have a one-to-one maths tutor visiting your house, you will know that they are doing a good job if they are quiet 90% of the time: if they are talking too much, the child will not be developing independence skills that can be transferred back into the classroom. It is also likely that the tutor is making maths seem more complicated than it is, or setting work that is too difficult.

DoodleMaths is a tuition app. Its questions are not fired out randomly: they are carefully selected. The 7/8/9/10-a-day questions are mainly chosen according to the child’s ability, previously learnt concepts, and concepts that require more reinforcement. Our programmer, Leo, nearly had a heart attack when we told him that we wanted to track a child’s performance in all 171 concepts contained in the Key Stage 2 version of the app. But he has managed this, and the information that the app records about a child’s strengths and weaknesses is far greater than any record-keeping I have managed in my various teaching roles. It allows us to make sure each question is pitched at exactly the right level to give the child a fair chance of doing it themselves without asking for help.

But to be able to do this effectively, we need to ensure that an accurate record of a child’s ability is being kept. It is instinctive for parents to try and help their child, especially during the assessment process, but if this happens excessively, children end up with a program that is too hard for them. They are then caught in a spiral of frequently asking for help and rapidly losing confidence. If help is continued to be given at this point, the app has no way of recognising this and self-adjusting, which is why you can do this manually in the Parents’ Pages of the app. Allowing children to get an answer right even if they press the ‘help’ button, which has been suggested, would create similar problems.

This was borne out through the extensive beta-testing of DoodleMaths that we undertook in our education centres. The fact that a child will not get a doodlestar if they press help does not prevent them from pressing help, but they almost always attempt the question first. If they get the question wrong, they are happy to accept that, just as they are happy try to improve their score if they haven’t obtained sufficient in a question set.

In short, what I am saying is that it doesn’t matter if a child gets a question wrong. Children don’t respect false praise and don’t want to be rewarded for stuff they don’t know. I occasionally use a piece of educational software that screams “Excellent!” at the child even if they get 1/10. Unfortunately, once this has happened, every subsequent “Excellent!” is meaningless. The praise element of the software confuses younger students and may as well not exist to the older ones. Children need to know where they stand. Praise needs to be earned. And if we help children when they don’t actually need help, they will never develop into independent learners.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. When too much praise is counterproductive | DoodleMaths - October 31, 2014

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