Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Theory of Everything

Recently I've taken on a few tiny Test Prep clients.  I do this for free as part of my research.  In this article, I'm going to talk about my Academic Consulting Practice of Awesomeness® in the context of Test Prep of little kids, but these methods apply to all kids of all ages up to Engineers that work for me who are in their 40's.

First, I grill the parents on their attitudes, habits and values.
Next I watch the little ones think while they respond to test questions.
Then I make up stories about what is happening.
Finally, I tell the kids what to do and they go on to be geniuses.

The scientific part of this research is the work with kids, cataloging their behaviors.  The common sense part is working with the parents.  The totally unscientific part is my story telling of why the kids behave the way they do.

Here's the brief version of me working with parents.  After quizzing them for a while, I'll ask this question: "If a person practices golf all day long for 10 years, what do you think will happen?"  "The person will probably get good at golf."  "OK, your kids watch TV and play video games all day long."  I'll do a separate post on the parents later.   I'm the Suzie Orman of raising kids.   (She's a financial consultant that states the obvious and the rest of us are stunned with her genius).

Most Test Prep Consultants have stated to their clients and publicly on their website the limits of their practice.  "I can't take a kid with test scores in the 50% range and improve their scores to 95%".   I can.  I'm going to start talking about how.  Of course, I'm not taking $1,500 from a client.  If I were, I would make the parents feel great about how great a parent they are and what a genius their child is so they would feel good about me stealing their money.  Instead, since this is free and I'm already out of patience from my own kids, I'll tell them point blank with expletives that they stink as a parent and their kid needs to be whipped into shape.

Sometimes the parents just underestimate their kids and consider thinking exercises to be torture for their kids.  Sometimes the parents think their child is obviously the smartest child on earth and forget to actually compare their child to other ones or they would find out that their child needs a lot of work.  Sometimes the parent doesn't want consulting or test prep for their child, so I have to track them down like the Terminator until they get a restraining order on me.

Here's my guidance on the kids.  I'm the Yoda of thinking training with girls, but the Drill Sargent From Hell with Boys, not because I'm nice, but because they are from different planets.  My goal is to watch the problem solving skills and fix them.  

It's starts with the question.  Test questions are really hard and imply things that one has to figure out before answering the question.

The question is a problem in and of itself.  It's a trick.  It's confusing.  It's designed to make you cry.  "Are you going to cry like a little 4 year old?"  Oh, I see.  You are a 4 year old.

Step 1 in test prep is to get the kids to understand the question and not just skip to the answers.   When your kid gets to 4th grade math, and then 8th grade math, and then Calculus proofs, you can do this all over again.

Where have you seen this question before?  (It was the previous page but since you are a 4 year old boy you don't care enough to remember it for more than 7 seconds.)  What did you do last time you saw it?

Is the question missing some key bit of information that you have to figure out for yourself and insert?

When you are finished reading the question, did you catalog all of the nuances of behavior in the question before you started looking at the answers?

When I'm finished, I want the kids never to trust test questions again.  I want them to stare at the test question and ask how this adult is trying to trick me.

When  you look at test prep questions like figure matrices or series, you see squares rotating or getting bigger.  I see vocabulary in action.   For this reason, to improve a child's problem solving skills, add concept rich vocabulary.  This will improve the reading of test questions. (See my math chapter.  I wrote the math chapter when I was doing hard core test prep).

Here are some examples that we came across in test prep:
1.   Wider and taller are specific cases of bigger.
2.   A 180 degree rotation is the same as a flip.
3.   Shapes have different number of sides.

When a kid looks at a question quickly assuming that they know what it is, but not really thinking about it because he thinks he knows everything already (like my oldest when he was young) he gets to the answers and either doesn't see one that applies or gets it wrong.   If he doesn't see one that applies, is he going to bother to read the question again and start over?  Don't assume kids know they can start over.  Just tell them. Over and over and over and over again.

Some kids skip over vocabulary words in the question that they never saw before, or skill a concept that doesn't fit with what they already know.  95% of 4th graders will answer 12 to this question when it's buried in a simple arithmetic test:  4 + 8 = ___ + 6.

"Smart kids take as much time as they need with the question.  Smart kids are under no time pressure.  Smart kids read the question 5 times before they are ready to answer it.  Smart kids get something wrong (in the form of not seeing an answer they are looking for) and start over repeatedly.  Are you going to be smart?"  This is me yelling at a student like a Drill Sargent.   "Here, I'll write down Smart on a green post it note and Dumb on a pink post it note.   Pick one and stick it on your shirt. You decide what you want to be."  I can get pretty mad when I'm working with an older kid who makes the same dumb mistake over and over again and it's because they are lazy and don't give a stuff.   I now know that he is missing skills and not lazy, but even though I know it I still respond emotionally like it's a character flaw.   Maybe if the parents didn't drop the ball for the last 4 years I wouldn't be screaming at their kid.  Can you find a paid consultant who will go the extra mile like me?

If this is math catch-up or test prep, the question is 50% of the battle.   If the child really doesn't know the material, you can teach the material on the spot, but do it patiently because Test Prep is on hold if you are talking.   Mostly it's just a matter of question reading skills.

If your child is doing work and not stuck on the question, then you're not teaching him anything and he is not progressing.  You think he is really smart but he's a dummy.  Find really hard questions to raise the bar so you're not disappointed whey you get the test score.  My rule of thumb is that the child should be getting 50% wrong during test prep, and about half of these should be because he doesn't read the question if your child is normal.

I like to use reading comprehension, vocabulary and grammar questions for standardized test prep books 2 or 3 years up because the questions are really hard and the kid doesn't know what half the words mean.   "Learning that questions can be hard, you are" I say in a Yoda voice.  The point is you force the kid to realize that they don't know everything and to begin to mistrust test questions.  (This approach teaches cheating and guessing as well, but that is a different article because I've been burned repeatedly by teaching cheating.)

By the way, before I use Smart and Dumb in teaching older kids, I make list of behaviors that make a kid smart or dumb.  You'll see some of these behaviors above.  It's pretty obvious to the kid that Smart or Dumb requires a choice and some practice.   When I ask "Are you going to be Smart or Dumb today?"  two things are obvious - anyone can choose to be smart and your test prep coach thinks that dumb is a horrible character flaw.  Kids below 4th or 5th grade can't understand what smart or dumb means so I just use a bowl of skittles and feed them one skittle per question like they are a seal.  Again, can you find another Test Prep consultant who will do that?


  1. How do you overcome a disaster session with your kids? I had a few rough evenings where my kids weren't cooperating and didn't want to think or look at workbooks even with candy reward. I am even having doubts - is my effort really worth it? are they really getting into GAT if I do all of this every day?...etc. What a disaster night again tonight (sigh)!!

    1. I've had disaster months. I've made it even worse by then yelling, resulting in crying, and the whole night was a write-off. If you patiently read my posts from years ago I found my true calling when I realized that my kids were un-gifted or even anti-gifted and I still managed to get them into a GAT program, which they love, by the way.

      Tip #1 - They will be tired or sick and you won't realize it until later. This is about 20 to 40% of the time. Do they get the needed 23 hours of sleep a night?
      Tip #2 - Catch up Saturday morning after a good night sleep. Or Sunday.
      Tip #3 - Read them great picture books by award winning Illustrators. This is great test prep and fun. Set aside an hour for this on a bad night.
      Tip #4 - Have more than one workbook available, even from different subjects, and give them a choice. (Make up real material on Saturday).
      Tip #5 - It takes 6 to 36 weeks to get beyond this phase which all kids go through, and after they get over the hump, they will have a whole new level of concentration. It's not fun and you're not the first parent to complain. I am.

    2. Thank you. Feeling much more encouraged now. Off to a brand new day today!!!

  2. I had these same doubts and didnt know what to do. My daughter would just stare at the workbook and do nothing. Rewards didnt work for us. I was frustrated and didnt know what to do. Then I found this advice from Norwood..

    "In my mind, there are 3 categories of children. Average kids, those in the 65 percentile, and those with IQ's above 150 who were born into the 99th percentile. For those in the 65 percentile, there are 2 subcategories. A) Those with parents who get frustrated during homework time and B) those with parents who figure out a way to get beyond this issue."'

    And it helped a lot. :)