Category Archives: Education


Visiting an art museum with your children is one of those-meaningful. Aducational activities can always aspire.

But what happens-once-you walk through the gallery doors? Maybe you haven’t had an art class since high school (or earlier). Maybe you’re not quite sure how to talk with your kids about an exhibition in the same way you would about a picture book or a favorite TV show.

Once you’re at the museum, how can you actually get your kids thinking and talking about art?

We asked Eve Ewing, an educator, artist, and writer, if we could share the conversation starters she originally published on the Boston Children’s Museum’s Power of Play blog. As the museum’s inaugural artist-in-residence, Ewing created an installation called “A Map Home,” which encompassed themes of place, childhood adventure, and how we make meaning of our everyday surroundings through text and image. In addition to her work in the arts, Ewing is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where her research focuses on race, social inequality, urban policy, and public schools.


In her post, Ewing outlines six ideas for parents who want to use art as a point of connection with their children:

  1. Let children lead the way. “What would you like to look at?” or “Take me to a painting that you want to see!” invites them to survey the space and find something that looks interesting to them.
  2. A question like “What do you see here?” or “What do you notice?” is a simple but fruitful place to start.
  3. You can use a pretend game to invite children to describe what they see in detail. “Let’s pretend we’re calling (grandma, auntie, friend) and let’s tell them about this painting. They can’t see it so you have to tell them everything!”
  4. Encourage children to share emotional responses. “How does looking at this make you feel? What parts of the painting make you feel that way?” Emphasize that art does not always need to be pretty, and it’s okay to have a range of feelings (including sadness or anger) when looking at a piece of art.


Who gets to attend school, and for how many-years? In many parts-of-the world, these are questions without a straight-forward answer and they grow far more complicated in the context of refugee education.

A new case study of decision-making in Kakuma, a refugee camp in Kenya, examines the problem. Set within the framework of a monthly meeting between the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its NGO partners, the case demonstrates the difficulty of providing schooling to an ever-growing, under-resourced, and possibly impermanent population, and it poses questions about the role of education in refugee camps. It’s one of a series of new refugee-centered teaching cases co-authored by Harvard Graduate School of Education researcher Sarah Dryden-Peterson.


The Kakuma case, co-authored by Michelle Bellino, Ed.D.’14, of the University of Michigan, describes how a previous policy emphasis on access to education in the developing world resulted in large numbers of students completing school without basic literacy or math skills. As a result, the UNHCR’s most recent educational strategy emphasizes access alongside quality, protection, and sustainability of educational programs. UNCHR now frames education not only as a service to provide, but also as a “tool of protection and an essential element of any durable solution for refugees.”

But with the new strategic direction, one particular problem continues to vex: how to provide quality education to all in resource-constrained settings.


Kakuma, a large camp in northwestern Kenya, received more than 20,000 refugees fleeing violence in South Sudan, Somalia, and other countries in 2012 alone. These numbers have increased, with the population of Kakuma spiking to 125,000. Many of the inhabitants are long-term refugees, with little hope of returning to their home countries.

Providing an education to each child in Kakuma is hugely challenging. At the time of Dryden-Peterson and Bellino’s study, in a single month 800 more children enrolled in primary schools that were already serving 10,000 children. With the population continuing to rise, many leaders realized that building more schools was no longer an effective option. UNHCR had built fifty additional classrooms in Kakuma, and within one year they had all been filled beyond capacity.

To increase access, UNHCR introduced a “double shift” in primary school, in which children came to school either in the morning or the afternoon. But while this innovation increased primary enrollment by 65 percent, it compromised quality. Many classes had one teacher serving 150 students. Without enough space for desks or chairs, students knelt on the floor, and few had textbooks. And those students not sitting in the front rows could barely hear or see the teacher.

This struggle between access and quality intensified at the secondary level. With only four secondary schools to serve tens of thousands of children, the schools used a cutoff score on an entrance exam to determine which students would enroll. The selective entry avoided many of the problems existing at the primary level, such as overcrowded classrooms, damaged infrastructure, and overwhelmed teachers. In other words, the students in the secondary school received a higher quality education.

But this selective entry had a clear downside. “The cutoff score was essentially arbitrary in terms of academic performance on a national scale,” one of the partners in the UNHCR meeting realized. “It was merely a decision about allocating resources, and in this case the decision favored quality for some over access for all.”


Teaching cases are instructional tools aiming to place learners at the center of real-life dilemmas. This case does just that, introducing deeper questions about the purpose of education in Kakuma, and in refugee camps in general. Is the goal to support the success of individual students right now, or to improve educational systems that will, eventually, support all students?

In Kakuma, by limiting the amount of students permitted to attend secondary school, the educators were ensuring that those few students would receive a higher quality education. And, in the long run, those same students would likely become teachers themselves in the camp, increasing educational access for future children.

Solve Your Hard Brain

Stress happens, especially in education. A packed schedule,  papers to grade, an accidentally-missed-appointment, spilled coffee. your Feel like head pounds, your shoulders tense, your eyelids droop. You feel stuck. Then, How can you get a better handle on this?

One valuable, often overlooked, and durable way to manage stress is to build positive habits, slowly and over time. Our brains are hard-wired to focus on the negative, but by practicing mindfulness, we can reprogram them — teach our brains to accentuate positive experiences and maintain serenity.



The human brain evolved with a “negativity bias,” says mindfulness expert Metta McGarvey, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Negative events and thoughts have a proportionally greater impact on our memory and psychological state than positive ones do. From a survival standpoint, it makes sense — strong recollections of bad experiences means we’re more likely to learn from mistakes and avoid a life-threatening situation.

This negativity bias also means that smaller, day-to-day stressors tend to take precedence in our thoughts, leaving less room for positive framing or constructive action planning. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Our brains can change, physically, as a result of learning, says McGarvey. In a process called “experience dependent neuroplasticity,” neural connections grow based on what we’re learning. Repeating the same thoughts, feelings, and behaviors increases synaptic connectivity, strengthens neural networks, and creates new neurons through learning. In other words, practicing a positive habit can predispose our thoughts to be more affirmative.


The key to developing these positive habits? Mindfulness.

According to researchers at the Greater Good Science Center, a project at the University of California, Berkeley, mindfulness has two core components: maintaining an awareness of our immediate thoughts, feelings, and surroundings; and accepting these thoughts and feelings without judging them. McGarvey explains it as “single-tasking,” or approaching any situation with your undivided attention and keeping that attention on the present moment.

By approaching your work with mindfulness, you decrease the amount of energy you spend worrying about the past or the future, and you increase the amount of attention you give to present and positive experiences. But because stress and worrying can be so engrained, McGarvey explains, you need to practice (and keep practicing) the skills and habits you need to keep your attention on the present.

She offers five mindfulness exercises that build brain-strengthening positive habits over time:

  1. Several times a day, take a short break from whatever you’re doing — step away from the computer, put down your phone, close your book — and look at something different. Savor the feeling of calm for a minute or two.
  2. Practice looking for small moments of beauty or kindness throughout your day: raindrops moving across your window, a moment of warmth in the sunshine, an amiable exchange with a stranger. Focusing on the positive will strengthen your ability to turn your attention away from worries.
  3. Search for and comment on the positive qualities and actions of others. This behavior is especially important in exchanges with loved ones; research has shownthat successful marriages have five positive interactions for each negative one. Appreciating the good in others, says McGarvey, “creates a ‘virtuous cycle’ that builds positive communication and relational habits.”
  4. Exercise. Calming meditations, yoga, and tai chi can all activate the parasympathetic nervous system and evoke a physically relaxed state. Making any of these practices into a habit can make it easier for your body to relax after a stressful event.

Teacher partnerships is the best solution for your study

After you’ve learned to do something, how do you learn to do it better? For teachers, who still work mostly in isolation, or getting-stuck in a bad habit of practice is high.

But “learning by doing” can work in a more focused way when the “doing” is guided by a successful peer and structured around a particular task. A new working paper just out from the National Bureau of Economic Research has demonstrated that for teachers (and perhaps workers in many other sectors), there is a tangible value in learning from colleagues.

Researchers from Brown University and the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that pairing highly skilled teachers with lower-performing colleagues at the same school, then asking them to work together for a year on specific skills, produced meaningful and lasting improvements in teacher skills and student performance.


The study, carried out with the Tennessee Department of Education, encompassed 14 elementary and middle schools and 136 teachers in Tennessee. Using data captured by that state’s intensive teacher evaluation protocol, researchers identified teachers who were weak in one (or more) of a constellation of assessed characteristics, and then matched them with teachers who were strong in corresponding areas. School principals reviewed the matches, revising them if needed, and then approached each pair and asked them to work together on improving instructional skills in the areas the low-performers needed to bolster.

Principals encouraged the pairs to look at each other’s evaluation results, observe each other’s teaching, talk about strategies for improvement, and follow up with one another throughout the school year.


The study found that the program — called the Instructional Partnership Initiative — has substantial effects. Researchers found that students of low-performing teachers who’d been randomly selected to join a partnership scored 12 points higher, on average, on standardized tests than students of low-performing teachers who didn’t join a partnership.

That gain is roughly equivalent to the difference between being assigned to an average teacher and a low-performing one, the researchers say. It is also at least as large as the difference in performance between a novice teacher and a 5- to 10-year veteran. And the researchers found that these improvements in teacher performance lasted and perhaps grew over the year following the experiment.


It’s easy to draw inferences about the importance of coworkers in our development on the job, but until this study, there hadn’t been much quantitative evidence of the role they play in our learning, the researchers say. They cite one earlier study that found that teachers’ performances improved when higher-performing teachers joined the faculty in the same grade. This new study is more direct in its measurement of the effects of a focused partnership between colleagues.

The findings — that teachers at all levels of experience can learn new skills from peers that translate into gains for students — might help fortify a new and less costly approach to professional development.

“The peer partnerships we study — a kind of one-on-one, personalized approach to on-the-job training — are designed to focus on practical, day-to-day problems,” says Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Eric Taylor, who co-authored the study withJohn Papay, John Tyler, and Mary Laski from Brown. “They offer as a solution to those problems the experience and advice of someone you know, someone who works under the same challenges.”


  • Based on evaluations and your observations, identify teachers who show promise but need improvement in a given instructional area. Pair those teachers with others who are strong in corresponding areas. Ask the pairs to work together — with the specific goal of improving skills in the areas low-performers need to bolster.
  • Encourage teacher pairs to work closely with one another, and to meet regularly — discussing each other’s evaluations, observing each other teach, talking regularly about strategies for improvement.
  • Create the time and space for this regular collaboration; show support for the partnerships and for the benefits of peer learning.

How to success just at home

All parents love their children. At this times, grow frustrated with them, especially when those children are young-and still-developing their self control skills.

But for low-income families, the strain of limited resources and a lack of security can push emotions so much higher when a child refuses to eat his dinner or makes it difficult to leave the house on time.

A new social-emotional learning (SEL) intervention from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Stephanie Jones and her research team offers a promising source of support for low-income families. With the tools Jones and her team have developed, parents can learn to manage frustration and use simple moments with their children to bolster their relationships and build important executive function skills — for themselves and their children. Even under the weight of poverty, those interactions can begin to replace intergenerational stress with happiness and stability.


For many adults, lasting poverty and adversity can tax executive function (EF) skills, such as self-control, planning and prioritizing, and focus, leading to heightened stress, impulsivity, and negativity. For adults with children, this challenge can be especially precarious. Over time, as Jones and researchers Rebecca Bailey and Ann Partee explain in an upcoming article in the Aspen Journal of Ideas, stressful encounters such as yelling and persistent negativity can undermine the relationships that buffer children from chronic stress. Parents may lose confidence in their ability to respond to tough parenting situations and manage children’s behaviors. Children, in turn, may learn to act with impulsivity, aggression, or withdrawal. In such a cycle, neither parent nor child is drawing on or building the essential skills of emotion regulation, reflection, and problem-solving.


While many schools are now emphasizing SEL, much of the work to build self-regulation skills starts at home — and few programs have existed to support home- and school-based learning in alignment. Jones and her research team, using the SEL curriculum they’d already developed for schools, have now created just that kind of aligned intervention, called SECURe Families — a set of workshops for parents that mirror the strategies children are learning in schools.

The workshops, piloted in 2014–2015, give parents a concrete set of tools and activities designed to help manage stress and frustration and improve relationships.


One such tool, co-developed by Rebecca Bailey, Gretchen Brion-Meisels, and Jones: A set of simple strategies parents of young children can use to build self-regulation skills at home — for themselves and for their children.  

  1. Stop and think. Instead of yelling “no!” when your child is growing upset, overexcited, or disruptive, ask him to “stop and think”: pause, take a break, and reflect for a moment before acting.
    Game tip: “Simon Says” can help children remember to think before acting.
  2. Focus, pay attention, and listen. When your child is talking to another person, remind her to stop what she’s doing, look at who is talking, and “hold on to” her ideas rather than interrupting.
    Game tip: “I Spy” and “Name that Sound” can help children practice looking and listening carefully.
  3. Remember directions and follow through with daily tasks. For multistep chores such as setting the table or getting ready for school in the morning, post a list of steps in that area or make up a song to help your child remember what he has to do.
    Game tip: “Going on a Bear Hunt” and “Going to Grandma’s House” can help children practice keeping track of and updating lists of items.
  4. Plan and set goals. When making plans, talk through them with your child. For example, if she wants to have a birthday party, write out list of steps (sending out invitations, buying decorations, making a cake, etc.) you both have to accomplish before the big day. Set a timeline and cross off tasks together as you both complete them.
  5. Practice being patient. Explain to your child what you do when you have to wait for something. Try out different strategies for the two of you when waiting at the doctor’s office or in line at the grocery store, such as counting all the red things you see or singing a song.

Closing the Gap

Thanks to the particular choice of a particular 17 year old . A lot of the world is talking about gap years.

But as Malia Obama’s decision to defer her Harvard admission shows, the conversations can carry some very privileged associations — seemingly distant from the post-secondary options available to many less-advantaged or nontraditional students and families.

So are gap years just another enrichment lever that only highly advantaged students can pull? Or is there a way to make gap year opportunities broadly accessible, without making college less attainable for the kids already at risk of not getting there?

An Equitable Gap Year
• Tied to college, conceived as a bridge year
• Highly structured
• Debt-free, financially sustainable
• A guided transition from high school, supported by school counselors
• A guided transition to college, with acclimation support from campus counselors
• Connected to service and career pathways

Richard Weissbourd, a developmental psychologist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), believes in the benefits of taking a year between high school and college — to explore work and service opportunities, to grow, to gain perspective — for many students. “There’s a conundrum here, in the sense that a gap year really works well for a lot of young people — those who want to explore service opportunities, travel, or work, but also for those who really need to decelerate, who need to think about their purpose, who may be very stressed, with some mental-health concerns.” For those young people, the merits of a year to refocus on their own sense of self while engaging in service to a broader community are persuasive, says Weissbourd, who is leading an initiative calling for broad reforms to the college admissions process.

But for economically disadvantaged kids, there’s a risk of falling off the college track altogether. “Many less-advantaged kids can’t afford a gap year or are tenuously connected to college as it is,” Weissbourd says. “School counselors are working to move those kids toward college, not away from it. You worry that if kids go to work for a year or step off the path in some way, they’re not going to come back.”

As gap years become more popular, says Mandy Savitz-Romer, the phenomenon has the potential “to give advantaged students even more advantages. The worry is that gap years become one more thing for less-advantaged students not to know about, and not to have.” The lack of parity could mean more than missed opportunities, says Savitz-Romer, who directs HGSE’s master’s program in Prevention Science and Practice and works on research and policy related to college access. It could make college admissions an even tougher hill to climb, as less-privileged students compete with gap-yeared peers who can demonstrate a range of skills and experience.


One way to broaden the gap year opportunity is to tie it explicitly to college. “To work well for less-advantaged students, gap year programs have to be structured, with the expectation of postsecondary planning baked in,” Savitz-Romer says. “When the gap year occurs outside of an educational setting or another structured setting, now students lack the access to counseling and supports. They’re not attached to a college, but they’re no longer attached to their high school supports. So there are risks.”

Benefits of a Gap Year — for All Students
• Developing one’s identity and self-knowledge
• Developing maturity and judgment
• Promoting civic engagement and service
• Exploring and preparing for diverse career pathways
• Deceleration for fast-track students
• Health and wellness
• Support through the college acclimation process
• Preparation for academic, cultural, social realities of college
• Positive impact on college persistence for students at risk.

But the solution is to mitigate those risks, she says — “not to say that certain kinds of students can’t or shouldn’t do this.”

Colleges have a role to play in finding those solutions, Weissbourd says. “For many economically disadvantaged students, you could imagine a gap year as being a bridge year, where they’re doing some academic or service work and they’re also getting some preparation for college, so that when they actually get there, they’re more likely to stay,” Weissbourd says.

He cites a program at Florida State University, where all students who apply for deferment are automatically considered for financial assistance to support their gap year — rare for a public university. The University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill runs its own service-oriented gap program, offered with financial assistance to a small number of its incoming students who wouldn’t otherwise be able fund such a year. And Princetonoffers a tuition-free year for select incoming freshmen who want to do a service year abroad. (Harvard is among many top-tier institutions that encourage students to defer admission but don’t offer or fund gap programming.)


Employers could also play a key role, says Savitz-Romer. “For many low-income students, exposure to a variety of career pathways and options is limited. So you could imagine a system where companies or industries would pay into a gap year program, developing structured experiences that would help them build a pipeline to future employees — and that would connect students to careers, or even expose them to a range of careers within one industry,” she says.

In this model, the work experience would be explicitly tied to college-going — framed as a temporary opportunity leading to matriculation.


This post is republished from Into Practice. Into Practice shares evidence. Based teaching advice and pedagogical practices of faculty from across Harvard.

“By sharing perspectives and differing approaches, classmates can in some cases teach their students more effectively than the professor,” says Lani Guinier, describing the teaching practices she employs at Harvard Law School — practices that could be instituted in almost any educational setting. Guinier incorporates collaboration into her late-semester assignments to provide opportunities for self-improvement and self-reflection.

The benefits: Whether encouraging lecture course students to take their final exam in small groups or asking seminar students to prepare and lead portions of late semester discussions, Guinier believes collaborative endeavors show students that understanding how to get the answer is as important as getting the answer.

The challenges: Guinier says that because merit is malleable, it is difficult to construct assignments that truly measure learning. The efficiency and quantifiable criteria of traditional tests are appealing, but do not wholly capture ability.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Collaboration combats competition. Guinier finds that students gain confidence working together, “and they don’t worry that others know the answers that they don’t. It creates a climate in the classroom I find very effective and engaging.”
  • Diverse perspectives yield stronger work. When collaborating with others, students have to explain their perspective and opinions, which ultimately produces a stronger outcome. “People look at problems from very different perspectives, and it’s helpful to have to deal with those alternative interpretations.”
  • Student-led learning is lifelong learning. Guinier first employed a group learning practice at the University of Pennsylvania where students helped to develop a seminar curriculum. She has continued the practice because it more accurately reflects the environment students will find upon graduation: “Your colleagues will give you feedback that can refine and expand your thinking. No matter how ‘smart’ you are, you alone may not know what your client needs.”


When the time to renovate an old school or build a new one, many teachers have a simple wish list.

They just want buildings that work. They’re thinking about windows that are operable, good air handling systems, enough classrooms to fit everyone in — the building blocks of a basic, functional school.

But learning has changed, says Stephen, and it’s time for educators to seize the chance “to think beyond the traditional school blocks that they’re accustomed to.” So how can educators help design 21st-century learning spaces?

Usable Knowledge asked Stephen to share some advice. We also asked Daniel Wilson, the educational chair at Harvard’s Learning Environments for Tomorrow Institute, and Grace O’Shea, an eighth-grade teacher in New York City and a member of room2learnat the Harvard Innovation Lab, to share their thoughts.


Changes in technology and in teaching methods are making it possible to think of school buildings in far more dynamic terms, says Stephen. Schools no longer have to be “collections of classrooms, administrative spaces, and a gym, auditorium, and cafeteria. They can be high-performance work environments that promote the 21st-century soft skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication.

“Schools are becoming interconnected ecosystems — less compartmentalized and departmentalized. Classrooms and the spaces between them, as well as shared amenities such as the cafeterias and media labs, are becoming more flexible and agile.”

What does this look like in practice? A focus on project-based learning might mean that workspaces are more flexible — desks can move and stack easily against the walls or connect to form large, flat working surfaces. An emphasis on high-quality learning might mean that classrooms are more physically transparent, so that passersby can see students working in a robotics lab or an art studio. A fully wired school might mean that learning can take place anywhere, so hallways become extended-learning areas.


But an architect designing a new school can’t construct these changes on his own. To work in a space that supports their goals and sense of innovation, educators need to be prepared to describe precisely what kind of learning environment they want to create. Wilson, the Director of Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, thinks the conversation between educators and architects should cover four broad points:

  1. Visions and goals. Educators should be ready to share a broad vision of the school’s mission and what teachers are trying to achieve, such as “We want students to be global citizens” or “We want students to be collaborators and creators.”
  2. Illustrations of those goals. Once educators have articulated their general goals, they need to share examples of what success might look like in daily practice. If a principal wants students actively engaged in current events, then the school might need gathering spaces where students can watch and discuss the news during free periods. If teachers want students regularly working in groups, then classrooms might need easily maneuverable desks.
  3. Current obstacles. Educators can use this chance to consider some of the biggest challenges they face in their current setting. Are they lacking storage for project materials? Are they missing common spaces for bringing together multiple classes of students?
  4. Supporting teacher learning. A new school is an opportunity for teachers to consider the ways they learn and grow at work. They should think about how they collaborate best with colleagues or generate lesson plans, and recognize that a new building is a chance to help them on their path of professional development.

The idea to easy learning mathematics for the kid

The idea of learning math often conjures the image of a student hunched over his-desk. Solving problems using a set formula copied down from the teacher.

Math, we tend to think, is a strict set of algorithms, practices, and rules — all emanating from inside the classroom. New resources from the Harvard Family Research Project(HFRP), though, paint a different picture entirely — elevating the role of the family as a source of math knowledge.

In its latest initiative, HFRP is focusing on the idea that children’s knowledge of math is “broad and deep,” developing anywhere, anytime, and even starting at birth. Families are instrumental to their children’s success in mathematics, as they can help children recognize and use mathematical thinking in everyday activities.

But today’s math assignments can be confounding for parents who learned math in a pre-Common Core era, or in a different country — or who still harbor math anxiety from their own days at school, or never fully learned to connect the dots between everyday actions and math lessons. To ensure students are ready to thrive, educators have to partner with parents, acknowledging how diverse families already use math — and how they understand and grapple with math in their own ways.


To start, educators should keep in mind three broad ideas about mathematics and families, as explained by Diane Kinch and Marta Civil of the group TODOS: Mathematics for All.

  1. Mathematics is cultural. Families, especially parents who went to school outside of the United States, may have learned math differently than the way their children are learning it. They may have indicated decimals with commas instead of periods, or relied more on mental math in long division — and they may become confused (or confuse their children) when not introduced to the methods taught in their children’s school.
  2. Mathematics exists in many different ways in many different communities.Research often concludes that lower-income homes don’t do as many math activities as upper-income homes. But all families use math with their children, whether it’s through halving a recipe, calculating gas mileage, or figuring out the right angle to shoot a basketball. It’s up to teachers to connect with their school community and understand the practices and strengths of the families they work with.
  3. Students learn best when their families and teachers are co-learners.Teachers should help cultivate the mindset that everyone has different beliefs about what’s important in mathematics, and how that should be taught and learned.


How exactly can educators connect with families about mathematics? HFRP offers specific suggestions, drawn from TODOS, the case study “Daddy Says This New Math Is Crazy,” and the program Nana y Yo y las Mathematicas:

  • Leverage parents’ mathematical strengths. Seek out opportunities to identify math content and approaches with which parents are familiar. Look for and encourage instances of parents using math with their children, such as counting or noticing shapes, before asking parents to try out a new technique.
  • Make communication with parents the focus of homework. It’s easy for children and parents to grow frustrated when children can’t remember how to do their homework, and parents don’t understand the method that their children are supposed to use. Circumvent this problem by assigning students homework specifically asking them to teach the new method they learned that day to their parents.
  • Organize math discussions with families. Coordinate get-togethers to discuss content, ways to solve problems, and which skills are most important — meetings in which everyone is open to learning from each other.
  • Invite parents into the classroom. Ask parents to speak to their class about times that they have used math in their everyday lives. To demonstrate how mathematics is different — and the same — across cultures, invite parents to teach the class a lesson using the methods they learned in school, or using the same methods, but in another language.
  • Capture classroom lessons on video. Visits during the school day are not feasible for all families. Use smartphones to text short videos of lessons, to ensure parents feel included and aware of new learning methods.


It’s tough to imagine filling a-lazy-beach day with fractions, or stretching out in the back seat on a road trip and practicing long-division.

But across the socioeconomic spectrum, kids arrive back at school every fall much worse off in mathematics than they finished in the spring. On average, students lose approximately 2.6 months of learning in math over the summer — and teachers have to give up weeks of class time, or more, to make up for that loss.


The research is clear: Summer learning loss is a significant problem, playing a surprisingly large role in creating the achievement gap. Low-income kids can lose vast amounts of learning over the summer when they don’t have access to the same enriching activities as their higher-income peers, such as vacations, visits to museums and libraries, or even just time spent with family discussing academic concepts or everyday events. Schools and communities have tuned in to that challenge, finding more ways to partner with low-income families to ensure their children keep reading throughout the summer.

But it’s actually easier for kids — from all socioeconomic backgrounds — to forget what they learned in math over the summer than it is for them to lose reading skills.

The reason? Many parents — and their children — don’t think about math as existing outside of the classroom. “Parents often think that their kids learn math in school, and that it’s sort of the school’s domain,” says Harvard Graduate School of Education(HGSE) doctoral student Kathleen Lynch. Many parents “may just be less inclined to do math at home,” she says.

“Reading activities are often part of the fabric of a family’s daily life,” says Joanna Christodoulou, an HGSE faculty member and an assistant professor at the MGH Institute of Health Professions. “But if you try to imagine a bedtime math routine, as you might for reading, the idea of winding down by completing math equations doesn’t elicit the same interest. The issue isn’t that engaging math activities are not available outside of school, but rather that it is easy to overlook the presence of math in everyday activities, like measurement in cooking, calculation when dealing with money, or distance while driving.”

As a result, when the school year ends, kids may have very few opportunities to engage in any type of mathematical thinking. It’s likely that most of the resulting loss involves procedures, not general concepts, the researchers say. An incoming fifth grader may retain the conceptual idea that division means separating things out into equal groups, but it’s easy for her to forget the set of steps to solving a long division problem.

But getting students to remember those procedures isn’t as easy as just assigning them summer math homework.

In a recent study, Lynch and summer learning expert James S. Kim, an associate professor at HGSE, examined the effects of a summer math intervention in which students were given access to an online math program and asked to do three “playlists,” or worksheets, a week. While the majority of students did use the program, their math scores showed no improvement at the end of the summer. So just assigning worksheets without mentoring or guidance, Lynch concludes, probably won’t correct summer math loss. Families will need to adopt a more integrated approach.


To understand what specific interventions and home supports would alleviate summer math loss, more research is needed. But here are four fun ways for parents to help their children practice math skills over the summer, based on work by Christodoulou, Lynch, and HGSE’s master teacher in mathematics, Noah Heller.

  • Highlight the math in every day activities. When shopping, help kids calculate change or discounts. When watching a baseball game, talk about what players’ statistics mean. When cooking, try halving or doubling a recipe, and assist kids in figuring out the new proportions.
  • Read short math stories together. Studies have shown that reading math-focused stories to children, such as Bedtime Math books or the Family Math series, can help boost math scores in school.
  • Play math games. Games like Yahtzee, Racko, Blokus, Monopoly, and Set all rely on skills necessary for math, such as counting, categorizing, and building. Even playing with blocks and assembling jigsaw puzzles can help kids learn spatial skills and recognize patterns.
  • Find small ways to practice math at home. While worksheets alone won’t solve summer math slump, small amounts of practice with basic formulas can help. Problem-of-the-day math calendars are a great way to practice basic math problems on a small scale. Parents can also find resources on Investigations about what types of mathematical procedures they should be practicing with their children.