Walberg, H.J. & Paik, S.J. 1997. Home environments for learning. In:
Walberg, H.J. & Haertel, G.D., eds. Psychology and educational practice,
p. 356-68. Berkeley, CA, McCutchan Publishing.
This chapter emphasizes the influence of the home environment on learning within and outside school. It summarizes research on the home environment including home-based reinforcement, home instruction, homework, and other educational and psychological activities in the home. This work suggests that alterable features of the home environment may be changed to bring about substantial effects on academic learning.
Parents and educators tell children that time is valuable and must not be wasted, and various authorities recommend increasing the amount and quality of school time. However, estimates of the actual value of children’s time are unavailable; and research workers and policy makers rarely even account for the amount, let alone the value, of the time that children spend in school and at home.
The 12 years of 180 6-hour days in elementary and secondary school add up to 12,960 hours, which is only 13 percent of the waking time during the first 18 years of life. Some parents give up to five times more attention to their children than do other parents (Hill and Stafford, 1974). Children may spend even less time effectively learning in school since time may be wasted on absences, lateness, inattentiveness, disruptions, non-instructional activities, and lessons that are too easy, too hard, or otherwise unsuitable. Thus, lengthening school time and making it more efficient seem likely to benefit academic learning.
Through the formative years, however, until the end of high school, parents influence directly or indirectly 87 percent of the student’s waking time that is spent outside school including children’s neighborhood, peer-group, and other activities. This is by far the largest fraction of the student’s life, and it strongly influences the productivity of the time spent in school.
Demographic and Family Trends
Because of vast changes in the age structure of the U.S. population, parental effectiveness in developing their children’s abilities may be more important today than it was in past decades. Seven million fewer young people will be reaching working age in the 1990s than in the 1970s. If present fertility rates continue in about 25 years, only 2 members of the baby-bust generation will be actively employed in partial support of each retired person of the baby-boom generation–in contrast to the ratio of 16 to 1 in 1950. Even if adults today lacked altruism for the young generation, they need to think about its competence and willingness to pay for their pensions and Social Security.
Parents and educators, moreover, are raising a smaller generation of children than previous generations. But the demand for a large, sophisticated workforce may continue to rise; for example, it is suggestive that the percentage of all U. S. workers in the “knowledge industries”–those that produce, process, and distribute information goods and services–rose from 5 percent in 1860 to about 50 percent in 1980. The growth sectors of the economy, moreover, may require even greater verbal, quantitative, scientific, social, and other abilities if the U.S. is to remain internationally competitive (Walberg, 1983).
Family trends, however, may not bode well for children’s learning. During the century from 1860 to 1960, the divorce rate in the United States held between 30 to 35 per thousand marriages. Fertility declined after 1960, non-marital cohabiting relations rose dramatically, and divorces increased to unprecedented levels. At current rates, about one third of all American children will witness the dissolution of their parents’ marriage. The percentage of working wives, moreover, rose from 32 percent in 1960 to 56 percent in 1981 (Cherlin, 1983). Whatever one’s opinion of the value of these changes for adults, it is difficult to see how they may have benefited children’s learning at home and in school.
For these demographic and sociological reasons, educational psychologists today must be concerned about the academically stimulating conditions created by parents. For this reason, let us consider what can parents and educators do to foster learning outside school.
Time for Learning
Children’s time budgets serve as useful framework to reveal the educative potential of efficient time use. The typical child in the United States spends 175-180 days in school, equivalent in time to 27 full-time, 40-hour weeks or roughly a half-year’s adult work. This amount compares unfavorably with the average of seven hours per day in which television is on in over 35% of American households.
Not all time in school, moreover, can be counted in service of learning. Lost school time attributable to tardiness, absence, early dismissal, interruptions, and inattentiveness takes away from nominal hours. Given individual differences among children, much of the time might be wasted. Some students already have knowledge of what is presented; others are yet incapable of learning it. Depending on our assumptions, as little as 270 hours per year or about seven 40-hour weeks may remain for suitable instruction.
Considering that only a small amount of in-school time is actually educative, it may be less than surprising that corporate and military programs that require “total immersion” produce relatively impressive results. Efficient second-language programs for adults can produce near-native competence in non-Western languages in as little as 1,300 hours–the equivalent of eight months of 40-hour weeks of study. In contrast, many American school children lack mastery of their mother tongue to meet reasonable standards despite years of formal study.
Investment Value of Time
Assessing students’ time productivity and budgeting it well may help us raise students’ levels of academic learning as well as their proficiency in non-academic fields. Not only does educational productivity have value in itself, but it is required for accomplishments of excellence in fields in which performance can be measured and ranked. Doubling and even re-doubling educational time and its efficiency may go a long way toward raising student potential through education.
An hour a day of concentrated instruction, effort and practice may be enough to achieve excellence in mathematics, chess, and other competitively-ranked pursuits. World-class performance or one’s best in such endeavors may require four to twelve hours a day over periods of time from one to twenty years (Walberg, 1983). Knowledge of the time and means required to attain excellence is likely to help educators, parents, and students in making better informed decisions about time allocations among curricular, extracurricular, and non-school activities. The “Matthew effect” of the academically rich getting richer from formal education may be at least partly accounted for by large differences in parental investments in children’s efficiency in knowledge and skill acquisition during the school years (Walberg, 1983).
Classroom and Home Teaching
Time, opportunity, and concentrated effort appear to be the chief determinants of learning; and it is hard to find substitutes for them. Psychological studies of ordinary as well as distinguished accomplishments of children, adolescents, and adults show that experience, in whatever institution it takes place, is the pervasive determinant of achievement.
Ideas and findings about home and classroom learning, moreover, appear to be converging on the fundamental learning processes. These fundamental processes may be thought of as the amount and appropriate quality of :
1. Stimulation –or motivation, cues, and other information presented to the child by the teacher, parent, medium of instruction, and general experiences;
2. Engagement — or internal processing of new and stored information and experience in the child’s mind; and
3. Reinforcement –or feedback and other signaling of the correctness, desirability, and short- and long-term value of the child’s spontaneous or elicited responses.
Nineteen major reviews of research on teaching covered 35 teaching tactics that can be grouped under stimulation, engagement, and reinforcement. These reviews of research suggests consensus that these tactics promote student learning (Waxman and Walberg, 1982).
About a decade ago, Ann Brown and Annmarie Palincsar showed that careful delegating to students some control over learning goals and the monitoring of progress in achieving them yields substantial learning gains. That is, students can be taught to take increasing responsibility for allocating their time to these activities. Many studies have corroborated the Brown-Palincsar findings (Haller, Child, & Walberg, 1988).
To impart such “meta-cognitive” skills, teachers may employ 1) modeling, to exhibit the desired behavior; 2) guided practice with help from the teacher; and 3) application in which students act independently of the teacher. A successful program of “reciprocal teaching” fosters reading comprehension by having students take turns in leading dialogues on pertinent features of texts. By assuming the roles of planning and monitoring ordinarily exercised by teachers, students learn self management. Perhaps that is why tutors learn from teaching, and why we say that to learn something well, teach it.
Comprehension teaching encourages readers to measure their progress toward explicit goals. If necessary, they can reallocate time for different activities. In this way, self-awareness, personal control, and positive self-evaluation can be enlarged. Similar functions may be employed effectively by some parents, but there is little research to document this contention.
Laosa (1981) identified tactics of maternal teaching that promote young childrens’ development. They are similar to the three-way division of classroom teaching described above:
1. Informing: imparting information about the task.
2. Motivating: eliciting the child’s interest and cooperation by suggesting that the task would be a rewarding experience or by promising external rewards.
3. Orienting: developing an expectation in the child’s mind for the task to follow. (“I’m going to show you how to put these blocks in the right place.”)
4. Seeking physical feedback: getting the child to sort or group the blocks or complete other tasks.
5. Seeking verbal feedback: asking the child to identify attributes of the blocks, explain sorting principles, or otherwise verbally respond.
6. Positive reinforcement: confirming correct responses by the child.
7. Negative reinforcement: “No, that’s wrong,” and similar remarks.
8. Requiring discrimination: requiring the child to perceive and see differences among the relevant attributes of the blocks.
Although the fundamental processes of school and home learning may be the similar, they differ markedly in manifestation. Home learning, for example, may extend throughout the first two decades of life with the same parents and children except in cases of family disruption. School learning, in contrast, usually involves a new teacher in each grade of elementary school and multiple teachers starting in middle or high school. Home learning usually involves a smaller and more stable group of peers (siblings), although they are usually more varied in age than school classmates.
Home teaching, moreover, is more concrete, extensive, and happenstance; school teaching is usually more abstract, intensive, and intentional. Parents more often concentrate on character, morals, and socialization; teachers, on academic subjects and other educational goals.
Perhaps even more striking than these differences are the large inequalities in learning conditions among homes compared to schools. For example, one to six children and one or two adults are common in homes, but school classes usually range between 15 and 40 students with one teacher; thus, the respective child-to-adult ratios in extreme cases commonly range by a factor of six in homes but only 2.67 in school.
Similarly, family wealth and income ratios may range beyond 20, and the estimated maternal costs of child rearing vary by five to one between mothers of upper and lower socioeconomic status and beyond one in individual cases (Hill and Stafford, 1974). But capital investment and operating expenditures per student in school districts rarely vary by more than a ratio of four to one within states. Surprisingly, however, these inequalities in family size and wealth are only weakly linked to the achievement of children in school when compared to the quality of parental stimulation in the home.
About a dozen models have guided inquiry about the relations of learning to family and home characteristics (Walberg & Marjoribanks, 1976). Research shows that influences of parental education, occupation, and income indexes of socioeconomic status (SES) on academic achievement is surprisingly weak. Social ascendancy through education also may be far less constrained by social class than many have believed. A compilation of results from about 1,500 studies, however, concluded that the number of children in a family has a weak negative influence on achievement and socialization. More powerful negative influences are divorce, separation, and family strife.
Although socioeconomic status is a popular construct and easy to measure, it does not yield a comprehensive assessment of the factors in the home that foster ability and achievement. Detailed assessments of parental practices provide far better predictions of children’s achievement. For example, an early study of English homes showed that the quality of maternal discipline, even though statistically controlled for SES, predicts ability, and that children in intellectually demanding homes where rewards depend on achievement tend to score higher than others on ability.
Although several thousand SES and sibsize studies have been published, a search of educational, psychological, and sociological literature (Iverson and Walberg, 1982) turned up only 18 non-interventional, parent-interview studies of the association home-environment constructs and learning in samples of about five-thousand students in eight countries. Correlations (the units of analysis) of intelligence, motivation, and achievement with indexes of parental stimulation of the student in the home were substantial. These learning correlates are considerably higher than those involving SES. The magnitudes of the correlations do not depend on the sex of the student; SES, age, or nationality of the sample, or the type of learning measured.
It is dangerous to rely on mere correlations. Intervention studies in which investigators alter conditions in experimental groups that are then contrasted with control groups give a better assessment of the effects of changes suggested by case and correlational studies.
Barth (1979) found 24 studies of home-based reinforcement of school motivation, behavior, and learning. His review begins with the sentence: “It has been demonstrated frequently and incontrovertibly that classroom behavior can be controlled by teachers who are trained in the use of differential reinforcement and token economies” (p. 436). He might have ended with a statement that the same apparently applies to trained parents cooperating in school-based programs.
The studies in the Barth review are rigorously experimental in the Skinnerian tradition. Start-up periods of daily or weekly teacher notes or checklists on classroom behavior and no reinforcements are followed by a period of home-administered consumable reinforcers, earned privileges, verbal praise, or response costs geared to the reports of classroom performance. Reinforcement is phased in and out; and behavior consistently appears to be controlled.
Such programs are impressive in their impacts in normal as well as delinquent and disturbed children and have remedied a wide variety of problem behaviors and academic deficiencies at small costs to teachers, counselors, and parents. Permanent or long- term changes in character, intrinsic motivation, and other psychological traits, however, appear to be more difficult to demonstrate.
Another obvious but neglected home ingredient in learning is homework–the amount, standards, and usefulness of which is jointly determined by educators, parents, and students. Empirical studies of homework show that assigning and grading or commenting on it produces a huge effect of–about three times as large as computer-assisted instruction or family socioeconomic status. Homework appears to produce uniformly positive effects on factual, conceptual, critical, attitudinal, and other aspects learning.
Analysis of the High School and Beyond data, however, shows that American high school students average 4.5 hours of homework and 30 hours of television per week. The television hours are far beyond what is optimal for learning (Williams and others, 1982); and educators, families, and students might do well to insure that more of this discretionary time is spent on academic study and other active and constructive pursuits.
In addition to more narrow reinforcement approaches, broad academic conditions in the home correlate moderately with learning. As Iverson and Walberg’s (1982) quantitative synthesis indicates, what might be called “the curriculum of the home” accounts for three times more learning variance than does family socioeconomic status. This general curriculum refers to informed parent-child conversations about everyday events, encouragement and discussion of leisure reading, monitoring and joint analysis of television viewing and peer activities, deferral of immediate gratifications to accomplish long-term goals, expressions of affection, and interest in the child’s academic and other progress as a person.
Moreover, deliberate, cooperative intervention efforts by parents and educators to modify academic conditions in the home have an outstanding record of success in promoting achievement (Graue and others, 1983). In 29 controlled studies, 91 percent of the comparisons favored children in such programs over non-participant groups. Since few of the programs lasted more than a semester, the potential for programs sustained over the years of schooling are great since the programs appear to benefit older as well as younger students.
These home-enrichment programs are less precisely defined than home-based reinforcement programs; but, like effective classroom instruction, they generally include efforts to improve stimulation, engagement and reinforcement as well as efficient management of the child’s time. That is, the parent serves broader roles of teacher, co-teacher, or assistant teacher rather than only executing the amount of reinforcement corresponding to the degree called for on reports by the school teacher.
Because of the convergence of research on time, school-teaching effects, home environment, home reinforcement, and home-coordinate teaching, there seems little doubt that parents can directly and indirectly exert strong, consistent causal influences on academic and other learning. Programs that expand and systematize these influences might contribute much to the expansion of learning and to the further development of talent.
Although parent-teacher interventions targeted on achievement goals may show the greatest learning effects, Williams (1983) at the Southwest Education Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas described other constructive roles for parents in school programs. These roles include the following: audience for the child’s work; home tutor; co-learner with the child; school-program supporter; advocate before school board members and other officials; school committee member; and paid school-staff worker. Although parents view their participation in some of these roles more favorably than do teachers and principals, all parties agree that there should be more parent involvement than now exists.
An Exemplary Program
Chicago educators and parents developed an exemplary early parent-education program for grades 1-6 and asked one of us to evaluate it. “Operation Higher Achievement,” at the Grant School in Chicago’s severely-depressed near Westside illustrates what educators can do in inner-city public schools with parent partners (Walberg, Bole & Waxman, 1980). A joint school staff-parent steering committee at Grant initially formulated seven program goals such as “increasing parents’ awareness of the reading process” and “improving parent-school-community relations.” Seven 10-member staff-parent committees met periodically to plan and guide the accomplishment of each goal. The goals were based on a parent survey that showed that they wanted closer school-parent cooperation, stricter school discipline, and more educational activities conducted in the school and community for their children.
The committees wrote staff-parent-child agreements to be followed during the school year. The district superintendent, the principal, and teachers signed contracts for educational services to be provided to each child. The parents pledged such things as providing a quiet, well-lit place for study each day; informing themselves about and encouraging the child’s progress; and cooperating with teachers on matters of school work, discipline, and attendance. The children also signed improvement pledges. Small business merchants in the community raised funds to provide book exchange fairs and other school activities.
Evaluation of this program, along with other research, shows that inner-city children can make middle-class progress in achievement. To help them, educators need to sustain active cooperation with parents on joint goals.
Educational and psychological research in ordinary schools shows that improving the amount and quality of instruction can result in vastly more effective and efficient academic learning. But educators can do even more by also enlisting families as partners and engaging them directly and indirectly in their efforts.
Those concerned with human resources find surprisingly large differences in family time-investments in children. As discussed above, even before school age children differ by as much as five to one in the value of time mothers have invested in them. Such vast differences may go a long way in accounting for children’s varying capacities to profit from schooling and other educative experiences.
The present chapter need not end with a limp statement that more research is needed. The effects of home environment interventions on learning are plausible, robust, and moderate to large in size. Research also suggests that the effects might even be larger if home-intervention programs were to be more sustained and systematic. Thus, while continuing local evaluation and further research are in order, there seems little reason to hesitate in implementing more widely and comprehensively extensions of the kinds of programs that have been reported.
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