Math Outreach to Parents?

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Cover Article
February 2024 TOC icon
Cover Article
February 2024 (Vol. 56, No. 1)

As a parent in a smaller community, fairly distant from any big cities, I’ve had first-hand experience of how limited the reach of outreach programs can be. Despite all of my connections, I often remained unaware of the opportunities that have been created, and many of the other parents I knew were even less informed. Some parents are working long hours just to put food on the table. Some need or expect their kids to be working part-time as soon as they can. Some are much more interested in sports and recreation, or in cultural events, than in academics. Even among parents who have a strong focus on academics, have time, and are looking for programs their kids can take part in, most focus on the programs that they hear about from their friends, or the programs their other kids are in. It can be tough to reach our target audience effectively. Teachers are too often overworked and not particularly receptive to adding on new initiatives, or to sending more letters home to parents about opportunities. The result, unfortunately, is that opportunities are very far from being evenly distributed across all children. Some children (especially in big centres) have the good fortune go to schools that provide and promote abundant opportunities; many children do not have the same access to, or even awareness of, all the programs that are out there.

Most of the math outreach I’ve seen in our communities tries to attract the attention and interest of kids. We aim to draw them in and show them that math can be fun and exciting! When this is done well (and there are many people in our community who are very effective at outreach), it really can inspire young minds, and the impact can be life-long. But typically the interaction is very brief: the mathematician spends a handful of hours with a group of kids over a span of weeks or perhaps a single day, and this may be repeated every year or so for some span of time.

Even when I was regularly volunteering in my kid’s classroom, the most time I ever spent with a child was half an hour a week for a few months, and that was in a small group setting (not individual). Typically the teachers wanted me to work with kids who were struggling rather than on enrichment. One young person in particular saddened me: in middle school, he knew that multiplication was repeated addition, but had not made the leap in understanding that (for example) you could work out 7 x 7 from 7 x 6 without starting over again from the beginning. With the time I had available I was not able to do much for him, and became convinced that he needed significant individual instruction that he was never going to get at school. 

At the same time, I regularly attended school council meetings, and several times heard parents at these meetings asking: “The teacher doesn’t have time to help my kid with math. I don’t know how to help them, and can’t afford a tutor. What can I do?”

These experiences inspired me to develop an outreach program aimed at parents in my local community. With the assistance of Math Education students and resources from our Faculty of Education and the Alberta curriculum, I developed an evening drop-in program for parents of middle school children. The program was intended to teach parents about what their kids learn in the middle school math curriculum, brush up their own skills, and introduce them to a variety of games and fun activities they could use at home to practice those skills with their children. I chose the middle school level because I felt it was where many parents start to lose confidence in their own math skills, yet the skills required aren’t too overwhelming or scary.

My program was far from perfect. Numbers were often small, and dwindled over time; we stopped running the program when the pandemic made in-person activities more challenging. For a variety of reasons, I haven’t yet revived this program. Perhaps the main challenge is still, how do we get our message out to the parents who really need such a program? Many of the parents who did come to my sessions were not what I’d thought of as my target audience; they brought their kids and were not always really wanting to participate themselves. Some school councils are effective at communicating broadly with parents, but many have only a small number of parents involved. Holding sessions on “meet-the-teacher” nights, or at least advertising on those nights, might be more effective.

Despite the problems I encountered, I still believe in the idea: parents are to a great extent an untapped audience for math outreach. These are the people who (in general) spend the most time with their kids and who know them the best. They are the ones who take to heart (if anyone does) the message that reading to their children from infancy binds the family together and builds lifelong literacy skills. The challenge is to convince them that playing games and cooking with their children also binds the family together, and builds lifelong mathematical skills.

Joy Morris completed her PhD at Simon Fraser University in BC, in 2000. She has been working at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta ever since, where she is now a Professor, and has won the student union’s teaching award. Her research revolves around group actions on graphs. She has an interest in math outreach and math education; she has written or co-written a couple of open access math text books, and developed a math outreach program aimed at parents of middle school children.

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