Friday, October 12, 2012

Parents Want Kids That Are Clean, Not Smart

A recent survey conducted through the Intel Corporation found that parents are more comfortable talking with their kids about drugs than about science and math.

Of course this may be due more to their own ignorance or fear of science and math than to a desire to keep their kids ignorant. Indeed, the data suggest this is part of the problem. According to the survey, 53% of parents admit that they have trouble helping their children with math and science homework. 23% said their lack of knowledge of these subjects was a barrier to helping their children and 26% said they would be more involved if there was a clearing house or similar resource for refreshing their memory on the subjects.

Yet parents are often ignorant and scared of drugs and that does not keep them from talking to their kids about this subject, sometimes with disastrous results. According to Wired Magazine, which covered the story, parents find it easier to talk about drugs because it is “vague” and you can get the message across quickly with a few choice examples of burn outs and bums who’ve ruined their lives with drugs.

In reality, parents who talk to their kids about drugs like this are simply attempting to beat them into submission with scare tactics, much like the federal government has done with the war on terror. (e.g., If you don’t do drugs, you won’t end up living under the freeway, and if you let us monitor your internet activity you won’t end up bombed by Al Qaida).

To really understand the risks involved with drugs and alcohol, it is helpful to know a little about how drugs act pharmacologically, which requires at least a basic level of secondary school science. Telling kids to “Just Say No” is as vapid and useless as telling them to remain chaste because it’s God’s will. It also obscures the fact that there are many drugs out there with legitimate uses and others that are legal, but that still have abuse potential. Indeed, the number one and two preventable causes of death are tobacco and alcohol, both of which are legal drugs for those of the appropriate age. And while caffeine has a much lower risk of injury or death associated with it, it is still a drug and one that can lead to social or physical problems if abused.

Parents and children do not need to have a degree in biochemistry to understand enough of the chemistry and pharmacology to make informed decisions and engage in intelligent discussions. It is something I teach my high school students as a “hook” for learning about the nervous system and molecular biology. It is something that parents can pick up by reading their children’s textbooks or by going to the library or even from the internet, if they are savvy enough to bypass the moralistic fear mongering that is out there.

The same is true of science and math, in general. If their teenagers are old enough to read the text books, and if they themselves learned it once before, then what is so hard about looking over their children’s textbooks and relearning it? This is the one-stop clearinghouse for refreshing parents’ knowledge of science and math.

Wired correctly identifies a more challenging problem for parents who wish to help their children in math and science: they often do not know how to relate what they do understand in a way their children can understand. This should not be surprising considering that few of them have been trained as teachers. They do not know the content standards. They do not know how to develop lesson plans or how to sequence a unit. They do not have the benefit of having seen hundreds of kids make the same mistake or get caught up in the same misunderstanding of a concept. They do not necessarily know what prerequisite knowledge is required to understand the material or how to deliver it in a way their children can grasp.

Yet there are many other ways parents can help their children. For example, when a child is struggling with a math problem, a parent can read the appropriate section of the text with the child, both to gain an understanding for himself and to help his child understand it better. They can do some of the problems together and the parent can watch to make sure the child is following the necessary steps to do the problem correctly.

Even without helping children directly with math and science problems, parents can do much to support their children, like ensuring there is a quiet place to study and a regular routine and time period for doing homework. They can help their children organize their binders and backpacks and update and maintain daily planners or smart phone calendars. As a teacher, I find that the majority of my students who do not do well in my classes also have disorganized binders and backpacks. This makes it harder for them to find assignments when it is time to turn them in, resulting in unnecessary zeros. It also makes it harder to study, as they cannot find lecture notes, handouts or worksheets that could help them prepare for an exam.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges parents face is lack of time. The survey’s finding that they needed a one-stop shopping center for updating their math and science skills could be interpreted as a desire for an easy, quick route to competency, something that cannot be achieved for an entire subject area. Providing more resources to parents still requires that they read, think and take time out of their busy schedules. This may be the real reason why they are more comfortable talking about drugs than science. With drugs, they can simply preach “don’t do them, they’re bad for you,” whereas with science and math they must actually think and help their children understand.

Ultimately, support from Intel will do little to make parents better able to relate to their teens or give them the time necessary to read and understand the content their children are expected to learn. But it might encourage them to buy more software “solutions” for their struggling students.

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