Maths during lockdown: a testing time

Parents' experiences of helping their children do maths at home during the COVID-19 lockdown varied widely depending on the school, a University of Auckland survey has found.

Maths specialist Dr Lisa Darragh from the University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work surveyed 630 parents from around New Zealand on how they found supporting their children’s maths during nearly eight weeks of distance learning.

Questions focused on what went well, what was challenging, the levels of stress in the household and parents’ overall experience of being their children’s de facto maths teacher.

While the particular schools and teachers were anonymous, the wide variation between experiences of children in the same household was surprising, says Dr Darragh.

“It was really clear when the parents had two children in different classes at different schools because they would talk about how the teacher of one child was doing all these Zoom meetings and making great instructional videos; but then for their other child, they weren’t really getting much contact from the school and were sent inadequate work.”

However she’s not interested in using the research for “school or teacher bashing”, rather as an indication of what ideas worked well and could be used effectively in the future.

“Teachers were under a lot of stress and it’s not like schools were expecting to have to suddenly provide all their classes online; you’ve got some teachers who are amazing in the classroom, but they weren’t able to suddenly transfer their whole teaching style into that environment.”

Dr Lisa Darragh: “Some parents really enjoyed the opportunity to actually sit down and do some maths and find out where their child was at.”

Dr Darragh expected schools would turn to online resources for maths, but that wasn’t the case.

“Those who were already using the programmes continued, but typically provided additional activities during lockdown. But we did find that 42 percent of parents looked for their own online maths resources to supplement resources from the schools; so you could speculate that gives those providers more of a foothold in the market to be making a profit from our education system.”

It was also interesting to discover how well some parents responded to spending as many as four hours a day doing schoolwork at home with their children.

“Some parents really enjoyed the opportunity to actually sit down and do some maths and find out where their child was at. But this also led to them to being suddenly unhappy with the school and realising the child hadn’t been catered for or didn’t seem to know something basic like their times tables.”

In these cases, there was the sense that parents had compared their experiences with their friends and, having ‘chosen’ a particular school for their children, weren’t impressed with that school’s management of distance learning – nor with its maths teaching in general.

“Parents may have felt they’d ‘invested’ in the wrong school and made the wrong choice.”

We’re meant to all be in this together, we’re a “team of five million” but educationally we weren’t a team during those weeks.

Dr Lisa DarraghFaculty of Education and Social Work

The highly competitive and inequitable education system that has evolved in New Zealand since the 1980s was simply brought into sharper relief during lockdown, Dr Darragh believes.

“We’re meant to all be in this together, we’re a “team of five million” but educationally we weren’t a team during those weeks; there were large differences between schools and some were able to turn on a dime and provide these great activities, but I doubt they were shared with other schools.”

An assumption of the research was that parents would be under stress so this would affect their experience of home teaching, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.

“Alongside other questions, we gave them a ‘stress questionnaire’ which revealed that most were not feeling stressed in general but still had negative experiences of home schooling maths, so you could argue there was there was something instrinsically negative about that experience.”

She admits the high income demographic of responders is likely to have played a part in the low stress result, as economic pressure was less of a factor.

“The majority of respondents were Pākehā, well educated, high-income mothers who normally worked full time, so these findings would need to be complemented with research targeting other demographics also.”

So in terms of conclusions, Dr Darragh says it’s not so much about, “if there’s another pandemic, how would we do things differently?” so much as “what if we were able to share those practices of home-learning maths that were successful between schools, rejecting the competitive model as a general state of being?

“Then, in this kind of situation, it wouldn’t be so isolating, having to suddenly cope with it all by themselves.”

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