Family chats can help students learn, especially in richer countries, study shows

July 22, 2010

Taking the time to talk to your children about current events like the Gulf Oil spill -- and using mathematical terms to do so -- can help students develop better reasoning and math skills and perform better in school, according to a study by a University at Buffalo professor.

"When families chat about societal issues, they often create simple mathematical models of the events," says Ming Ming Chiu, a professor of learning and instruction at UB's Graduate School of Education with extensive experience studying how children from different cultures and countries learn. "Unlike casual chats, these chats about societal issues can both show the real-life value of mathematics to motivate students and improve their number sense."

The findings, published in the current issue of Social Forces, an international journal of sociology, was the first international study on how conversations among family members affect students' mathematical aptitude and performance in school. Chiu's findings were based on data from the Organization for and Development; its Program for International Student Assessment collected almost 110,000 science test scores and questionnaires from 15-year-olds from 41 countries, including 3,846 from the U.S.

Interestingly, Chiu found that family chats about society and current events are uncommon, regardless of ethnic background or level of affluence. "They occur less than once a month for 58 percent of the children in the 41 countries," he says. "Students in richer countries, richer families, or with two parents do not have more family chats about societal issues than other students do."

However, Chiu's findings conclude that the impact of chats and other family involvement is much greater in more affluent countries than those in developing countries. So these discussions often do more good in families within richer countries.

"In rich countries, most students have rulers, books, calculators and other physical resources, but they do not spend much time with their parents (family involvement)," he says, "So family involvement becomes more important to student learning in richer countries."

Chiu, whose previous published research includes how overconfidence can stunt reading skills among teenagers, used the data to make the following recommendations for parents and teachers:

  • Chat with children about current social and political events. Chiu suggested creating simple mathematical models of current events ("The BP oil spill leaks 1 ½ million gallons of oil a day for 80 days. Half of 80 is 40, so 1 ½ times 80 is 80 plus 40 or 120 million gallons of oil spilling into the gulf."). These models or meaningful computations allow children to use their basic in a concrete way that not only gets them to practice their math faculties, but also shows how math can help put the world in a more understandable context.
  • Use familiar terms to describe quantities. For example, ask children to estimate how many gallons it would take to fill up their house, apartment or swimming pool.
  • Ask for and listen to children's ideas about current events. Chiu says the research suggests that children's reasoning skills improve when their parents ask them what they would do if they faced a similar situation. ("How would you solve the oil spill?") Can they explain their decisions? ("Does burning the oil help?") Can they compare the real costs of different solutions? ("Does it cost less to burn the oil or use booms to contain it?")

Explore further: Low-income US children less likely to have access to qualified teachers

Related Stories

Worldwide study finds few gender differences in math abilities

January 5, 2010

Girls around the world are not worse at math than boys, even though boys are more confident in their math abilities, and girls from countries where gender equity is more prevalent are more likely to perform better on mathematics ...

Recommended for you

Who you gonna trust? How power affects our faith in others

October 6, 2015

One of the ongoing themes of the current presidential campaign is that Americans are becoming increasingly distrustful of those who walk the corridors of power – Exhibit A being the Republican presidential primary, in which ...

Ancient genome from Africa sequenced for the first time

October 8, 2015

The first ancient human genome from Africa to be sequenced has revealed that a wave of migration back into Africa from Western Eurasia around 3,000 years ago was up to twice as significant as previously thought, and affected ...

The hand and foot of Homo naledi

October 6, 2015

The second set of papers related to the remarkable discovery of Homo naledi, a new species of human relative, have been published in scientific journal, Nature Communications, on Tuesday, 6 October 2015.

From a very old skeleton, new insights on ancient migrations

October 9, 2015

Three years ago, a group of researchers found a cave in Ethiopia with a secret: it held the 4,500-year-old remains of a man, with his head resting on a rock pillow, his hands folded under his face, and stone flake tools surrounding ...

Mexican site yields new details of sacrifice of Spaniards

October 9, 2015

It was one of the worst defeats in one of history's most dramatic conquests: Only a year after Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico, hundreds of people in a Spanish-led convey were captured, sacrificed and apparently eaten.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.