Saturday, January 31, 2015

Tools of the Mind

Every 3 months I go to the library and get a stack of books on education, early childhood development, science, math, or anything else inspiring I see on the way to the checkout lane.   Telling my kids to read while I sit here typing on the blog doesn't work.  So I read.

 I'm a big fan of Tools of the Mind, but it seemed to have disappeared from literature and the internet shortly after I discovered it.  Tools was created to turn poor, lagging, underprivileged children into gifted kids, and it succeeds in putting these kids into the GAT program in urban areas.  Unfortunately, I don't see evidence of Tools of the Mind spreading, other than to high priced urban day care centers for the wealthy, and the parenting practices of the educated.   That's pretty sad.

The purpose of Tools of the Mind is to teach little kids how to regulate their behavior, a junior version of project management skills.   Kids with these skills learn effectively.  Since my children (not from a very poor neighborhood) already have fairly regulated behavior, I used the Tools approach - and still do - to teach them a higher level of project management skills, like how to teach themselves brand new material and how to focus on homework for long periods of time, if necessary.

I read Born To Rise by Deborah Kenny, subtitled "Autobiography of an Insane Mom Who Is Way More Insane Than Me."   Quite inspiring and requires a box of tissues to get through the stories of the kids.  When Kenny is visiting schools while planning her charter schools, she describes Tools type classrooms. Perhaps good teachers just adopt the methods, even if they don't call it Tools.  I wonder if this theory (tools) manifests itself in later grades by engaging children in exciting learning activities.

I was very surprised and pleased to see "How Children Succeed" by Paul Tough which discusses Tools of the Mind.   "How Children Succeed" goes way beyond Tools down to the research that hopes to explain where regulated behavior comes from.  It's pretty convincing stuff - all experiment and no unsupported theories passed off as Education Literature.

One of my rules is that kids have to read if they are out of bed between 7am and 8pm on the weekends.   You can stay up as long as me, but you have to read.  Last night I found my oldest son drawing at 8:45 pm.   He was planning his Mindcraft thing on paper, whatever that was.   Drawing like this is a Tools exercise and trumps my rule.   I also push off home-homework or music practice if either kid is engaged in a project that they designed.

Here's what I got so far from "How Children Succeed":  1.  The way to make your child succeed is to hug them a lot and give them a lot of safe, nurturing support.

My whole parenting world has just come crashing down around me.

Are you kidding me?  Baby your kid?  Fortunately, all of the research involves only the Mom and thankfully dads aren't mentioned.  I'm hoping the Dad's role is to expect a high standard of behavior and push your children. To be on the safe side, however, I'm gong to be doing lots of hugs and "What an awesome job you did on your math homework, little Billy, you almost got half of the correct.  Let's hug."  Actually I should say that anyway because I am providing material at the level where they will get half wrong or I give them harder material.  But instead, I pick apart their approach and show them where they failed and say things like "You aren't even reading the question."

There's a lot more in this book than I expected, and I'm adding it to my list of required reading for parents. In addition to #1 Hug your kids (gack) I'm also discovering support in this book for #2 Make your kids do chores.  As you know I've been researching the impact of chores on grades.  This book presents research that connects character and success in a very clever way.  There's a lot more in there and I recommend reading it.

The big question here is which of these options is the best way to raise your child:
1.  A warm nurturing environment where the child feels safe to fail, grow and explore.
2.  A regimented environment where the kid learns the value of hard work and responsibility.

I'm going to guess, without any further thought, that the answer is the same as the Phonics/Whole Language debate, or the Thinking/Doing debate of math.  I'm guessing answer is both.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Chores and Test Scores

My latest project is investigating Chores as the super secret ingredient of academic success.  You may note that I've come up with many Break Through Success Factors like Executive Functioning, Reading (this one deserves a response of "duh"), Playing an Instrument, Sleep, Problem Solving Skills, Cheating and certain types of Test Prep.

I think if I could title my upcoming book, it would be "How To Get Into Stanford Graduate School Without Really Trying".  Unfortunately I've found that "not really trying" is an enormous amount of super hard work.

Playing an Instrument works really great for us at ages 5-7 because I make the kids figure out music notation and music theory on their own.  In later years, it becomes a part of their social well being, and since our practice time is about 2 hours and 40 minutes short of 3 hours, music is not having much of an affect on their brains.  (That sentence was a bit wordy - we only practice 20 minutes a day so a music scholarship seems unlikely.)

Anyway, back to the topic at hand.  Last night I was at dinner with a small group of 4th graders, including my son.  "How is school going?" I casually asked as I pulled out my clipboard and pencil to begin the grilling. Apparently it's going well.  "I'm getting all A's."  "Me too," said the subjects.  My eyes became fiery lazer guns and my eyebrows curved into the Parent "Oh?" look for a glance at my son.  "I'm glad your friends are getting all A's,"  I said as his face melted under my gaze.   He's not getting all A's.  His work is sloppy and illegible and sometimes he give new meaning to the term "Not Trying".

What does this group have that we don't?  They don't sleep as much, have more computer time, have more activities that interfere with studying and academic pursuits.   They do sports, which is a minus.  But I've been thinking about chores for a while.  "Do you do chores at home?" I asked.  "Yes. I clean up after dinner and anything my parents ask me to do."  "I do anything my parents ask, except clean the basement which is too hard."  My kids go downstairs and hide when I ask them to do something.

That it.  The new magic bullet.  When a teacher asks for neat, careful work, one group of kids will comply because they are trained that way at home, and one group of kids will just ignore her because they have determined that it is not a priority.  It's the fault of the parent.  In this case, the parent is me.

Now for the hard question.  Will this have a negative impact on creativity, focus, effort, ownership, and achievement? Insubordination is by definition a requirement for innovation, and creativity does not come from following the rules.  Do I crush my kids gifts in the name of grades?  Or is following the rules required to take innovation and creativity and turn it into a sellable product?

It's time to find out.  Daily chores begin today.  Also I'm upgrading vocabulary and math "home" homework because we've made a lot of progress but it's apparently not enough.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Fighting Back in Math

Each winter around this time I'm unpleasantly surprised by my son's sinking grades in one or 2 subjects.   It's usually a combination of exhaustion and being a boy.  This year he tanked in math.

Normally I wouldn't mind him taking a break in math, since we're really going to turn in on in middle school, but I didn't expect it.  First, we've been doing 6th grade algebra with a fairly challenging Kumon workbook that has questions that would stump an 8th grader, and it's going well.  Secondly, he did poorly because he is not reading the questions and as far as I can tell, he is making up the answers.  Not good.  I wrote a few months ago that I'm disgusted with the boring calculation that passes off as math in America (like teaching language without reading any books), and my son read my post.  Oops!

All of my recent articles about test training apply directly to math.  I'm very excited about this material even though, frankly, my articles are pretty anticlimactic and dry.  You'd think the secret to acing the COGAT would be more thrilling than "read the question" but it's not.

To avert the current 4th grade math disaster and counter my wife's determination to ban all computers for life, I created a reward system that is equivalent to Clash of Clans and other popular online games.  I listed the 12 levels of Math Achievement (starting with Read the Question) and set up a point system wherein my son will get 20 minutes of weekend computer time for doing a page of math (minimum 5 pages by the weekend) and bonus points for demonstrating problem solving skills.  He gets 5 bonus points for doing a page in 25 minutes using an effective approach and other bonus points I make up on weeks when we have a clan war and I need him online to support my army.

Here's the interesting thing.  I bought the 5th grade Every Day math workbook used at school and we started one chapter ahead.

The problem with 4th grade in GAT programs in Chicago is that the teachers don't assign homework.  This is a transition year wherein the children learn to take ownership and learn to work efficiently during the day. Sounds like a great idea, but it doesn't work for all kids.  It especially doesn't work for little boys with extra gifts in the social department, if you know what I mean.

Every Day math works great if you do all of it every day.   When my son is assigned just the minimum, he does just the minimum and that's worth about a C.

We started with this problem.

I think he's seen this type of problem before, but he was stumped and very frustrated.   I'm taking problem solving steps one at a time, and spent the whole night focused on Read the Question.  It took quite a while, but I had him describe to me every thing he saw.   It was hard for him.  Here's what we ended up with, after lots of encouragement, cajoling, demanding, correcting:
  • There are 3 numbers.
  • There is a number line with equidistant tick marks, meaning each blank is an equal increment
  • There is a hard side of the problem with 32 and 60, and an easy side of the problem with 60 and 74.
  • The blank on the right is in exactly between 60 and 74.
  • The blank on the right is in the middle.
I was tempted to go on to additional problem solving techniques or algebra, but reading the question was a lot of progress.  The challenge in this particular case is that he reads a question for 10 seconds and spends 15 minutes getting it wrong.  He should spend 4 minutes on the question - which seems silly to a 9 year old - and 1 minute answering it.  

Reading the question fully is equivalent to an artist who sees things that the rest of us don't, only it's math.

This is my replacement for the content of Homework Trap at the 4th through 6th grade level.  Teach the skills that are missing.  Really bright kids who aren't challenged in school lose their skills over time because they are not exercised on easy work.  Gifted kids have to relearn the skill set every few years.  We will repeat this process again in 8th grade. 

The immediate payoff from working together in math is renewed interest in math and school, a better attitude, and confidence restored.  

Here is my list posted on the refrigerator that we will be spending the next 12 weeks on:
  1. Read the question 
  2. Understand the question
  3. Think about and organize the question
  4. Write the equation to be solved
  5. Transform the equation into an easier one
  6. Split the problem into two easier ones to solve
  7. Do the easier part first
  8. Use a relationship, identity or trick to solve the problem
  9. Use an example to solve the problem
  10. Write the answer neatly 
  11. Check the answer
  12. State something interesting about the solution
Take any one of these items in the list, give me a sample problem, and I could talk for 5 hours.   I'm spending an entire week teaching a fairly smart kid what Read the Question means.   Think about the artist who sees things that others don't.  That's what I'm going for.

5 pages per day, must be done by the weekend in order to even use the word "computer" in a sentence, let alone see one.   We'll focus on each level each week (roughly) and when he masters the skill per my standards, he gets an extra hour on the internet.  There will probably be catch up on Friday night or Saturday morning.