Conversation about news improves children’s reasoning: Implications for mentors

Happy Mixed Race Father and Son Playing with Paper Airplanes in

U. BUFFALO (US)—Taking the time to talk to children about current events like the Gulf Oil spill—and using mathematical terms to do so—can help them develop better reasoning and math skills and perform better in school, especially in more affluent households.

“When families chat about societal issues, they often create simple mathematical models of the events,” says Ming Ming Chiu, professor of learning and instruction at the University at Buffalo.

“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 are based on data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which collected almost 110,000 science test scores and questionnaires from 15-year-olds from 41 countries, including 3,846 from the U.S.

The research, published in the current issue of Social Forces, is the first international study to show how conversations among family members affect students’ mathematical aptitude and performance in school.

Family chats about society and current events are uncommon, regardless of ethnic background or level of affluence, Chiu says.

“They occur less than once a month for 58 percent of the children in the 41 countries. 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.”

Parents [and mentors] can enhance family chats in a several ways:

  • When chatting about current social and political events, create simple mathematical models to allow children to use their basic math skills 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 of oil it would take to fill up their house, apartment, or swimming pool.
  • Ask for and listen to children’s ideas about current events to improve reasoning skills.

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