Staying Involved

Krzysztof Grabarek
January 1, 2005

Families are important teachers

A common view held by parents with children in middle school and high school is:

?Since I don?t know how to teach chemistry, literature, algebra, or (choose a subject), I can?t help my child with schoolwork?.

This view is far from true. In fact, parents can play a central role in helping their adolescent children grow into independent learners. By helping children learn the vital skill of learning, parents can support their children?s success not only in secondary school, but also as they move on to work and higher education.

During middle school many parents begin to struggle maintaining the teaching role that they have identified with during the preschool and elementary years. There are fewer resources available to support us as we try to remain connected to our children?s learning. As students begin to learn more specialized subject matter, many parents lose confidence that they can be helpful. It also doesn?t help that our children turn into adolescents who seek to increase their independence from us in all aspects of their lives.

Despite the more difficult educational environment in the older grades, parents remain one of the most important learning resources children have. Even in late adolescence, our children can greatly benefit from family support.

Understanding how children learn and how parents fit into this learning process are the first steps in being able to help our older children with schoolwork. This article introduces a model of how we can begin to understand learning, and then provides practical advice on how parents can help their adolescent children learn.

Adolescents and learning

In the rush to complete homework as quickly as possible and the stress of passing high-stakes exams, many students see education as nothing more than an information transfer process. Many students believe that learning is the same thing as memorizing and success is based on a good memory. They do not learn how to learn. Some students are able to get by using memorization in secondary school, further reinforcing the belief for themselves and their lower performing peers. However, in the college and work setting, memorization is only one small part of learning and being successful.

Students who know how to learn typically understand (whether consciously or not) that learning is a process that always begins with a question or problem. Learning takes place when we answer these questions and then make the new-found understanding part of our prior knowledge. We can say that we have learned when we are able to do something that we weren?t originally able to. Figure A illustrates one way we can visualize the learning process.

Figure A: Learning occurs when a new understanding is incorporated into our established knowledge (green). New questions and problems can emerge out of our new understanding.

In order to answer a question we need to effectively use resources that are available to us. Examples of common resources that students use in completing schoolwork are:


Family members



Other print and media sources



Trial and error

Knowing how to begin solving a problem and what resources are most appropriate for answering a particular question is based on the student?s ability to connect the question to some prior knowledge about the topic. Successful, independent learners know how to use the process described above to achieve academically, and do not only rely on memorization.

Since learning depends on making meaningful connections with what the learner already understands about the world, using memorization as a primary learning approach is limiting. Memorization is unreliable. It rarely requires us to incorporate new understanding with prior knowledge, and so that which is memorized is quickly forgotten.

How do parents fit into this learning process?

Using TRIGGER QUESTIONS, providing RESOURCE HELP, and using BIG IDEAS when working with your child are three ways that parents can play an important role.

Trigger Questions

Students at the secondary school level (and in my experience at the university level as well) struggle with making connections to prior knowledge when they are doing their schoolwork. It is a skill that many students do not develop. They approach their schoolwork as if each new assignment is an independent, isolated piece of information that has no connection to what they have done previously.

In science class for example, this inability to make connections commonly manifests itself as students trying to memorize specific types of equations. They memorize the form of equations and believe that their success will depend on their ability to successfully use equation type A when problem type A appears on homework or on an exam. The problem with this approach is that true scientific problems are not so straightforward. Success in scientific learning depends on the student?s ability to understand the concept that a problem is describing in order to make a decision on the equations that needs to be applied. This is why science teachers, for example, typically advise students to draw a picture before attempting a problem. So few ever do.

Parents can use questions, which I call trigger questions, to help children make important connections between new problems and what they have learned before. I use the term trigger questions because these types of questions trigger, or spark, the association of the new question with the child?s prior knowledge base. Figure B illustrates how trigger questions fit into the learning model I described previously.

Figure B: When students are unable to make connections between material that they have learned before and current problems, then trigger questions can help them make those associations and complete schoolwork.

Even if parents are not comfortable with the material being taught, knowing how to use trigger questions can help the child make their own connections. Here I offer some examples of what trigger questions are and offer them for your use at home with your children.

Resource Help

Family members play a crucial role in helping children identify, get access to, and learn how to use the resources they need to successfully complete schoolwork. Many students struggle because they do not know where to turn to for the information they need to solve the problems and answer the questions that their schoolwork focuses on. Some students also lack the skills needed to understand and use the information that a particular resource provides.

For example, consider these questions:

Do your children have the books that they need to complete an assignment?

Do they know where to look in the book to find useful information?

Are there family members that can serve as content experts and help with an assignment?

If you or your children do not understand an assignment or how to complete it, do your children have targeted questions to ask their teacher the next day in school?

Is your child spending unproductive hours searching the internet for information to complete their assignments?

Are there libraries, museums or other community resources that your child does not know about?

Parents are only one of many sources of help that adolescents can turn to. Helping students access and use the other resources available to them is a further role that parents can take on.

What?s the Big Idea?

Not all of us can teach our child algebra, literature, or biology and that?s ok. If parents are knowledgeable in a particular subject, then ?teaching? at home is a good use of a family?s resources. Expert knowledge in a subject, however, is not necessary to be helpful.

It is helpful for parents to be curious about what our children are doing in school. Curiosity leads to learning and parents should be encouraged to learn with their adolescents. Parent science nights, ESL classes, and curriculum information sessions are examples of programs that some schools run to encourage parent learning. When parents use these programs as a way to learn a little of the material that our children are learning, then it is a good way for parents to model for their children that learning does not end after we leave school.

At minimum parents should try to learn about the ?big ideas? that their child is covering in class. All subjects are organized around big, or essential, ideas that define how experts think about their discipline. It is these organizing concepts that become the basis for the questions and problems that teachers ask students to answer in their schoolwork. Identifying helpful resources and using trigger questions at home can become easier if parents understand these big ideas and how they are interconnected.

For example a chemist might consider the big ideas being taught within a typical first year high school chemistry class as those presented in the box to the right. A full year?s syllabus could come out of this concept map.

I am not proposing that parents need to understand each of the concepts in detail, but knowing what they are, combined with some initiative to learn along with their children, parents can help students understand the connection between topics they are learning.

For example, instead of asking the following general trigger question when helping with chemistry homework:

How does this gas law that you are looking at relate to what you did yesterday?

parents who have been introduced to the big ideas might be able to ask:

How does this gas law relate to the Kinetic Molecular Theory of gases that you were talking about in class on Monday?

Again, I am not suggesting that parents need to understand what a gas law is, how to mathematically manipulate it, or what the Kinetic Theory of Gases says. This is the student?s job. But in this example, if we can recognize that our child is struggling to understand a problem about gas behavior, then we can attempt to trigger the problem?s connection to the large idea of Kinetic Molecular Theory (which the class has already discussed). Thinking about the problem from the perspective of the organizing idea might help the child figure out how to approach the problem.

So where do parents learn about these big ideas? The ideas that are most important to a particular assignment were most likely discussed in class in the recent past. Referring with the student to a recent reading assignment, checking the headings in the text, looking at their notebook, or accessing an on-line resource are some ways to identify these big ideas.

The best source, however, is your child?s teacher. It is the teacher who decides which ideas to emphasize and what the goals for a particular class, unit or lesson are. Working with the teacher (whether at the parent?s, teacher?s or school?s initiative) is the best way to understand what your child is expected to do. Teachers can help you understand what big ideas are being discussed in a particular week or month. Teachers can help you understand how these ideas relate to what has already been done, and to what will come afterwards. Many teachers are reluctant to communicate with parents about subject matter, for a variety of reasons. Initiating a discussion about your child and asking questions about how you can help at home can go a long way in overcoming that reluctance. Here I offer a few conversation starters that you can use when approaching your child?s teacher to learn about the big ideas your child is learning.

Final Thoughts

Learning is a process that requires the use of available resources to connect new understanding to prior knowledge. Learning this skill is what becoming an independent learner is all about. Yet, it is a difficult skill for many students to master. In today?s educational climate, where increasing standards and high-stakes exams force teachers to convey large amounts of information, there is not much time left for students to hone the skill of learning. Family members, as more experienced learners, are critical resources that can help students develop their skills, and eventually become independent learners.

PARI offers customizable workshops for parents, parent groups and schools that focus on teaching the skills described in this article. More information on our programs can be found on our workshops page.