Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Winning the Math Battle

When I first discovered cognitive skills, one of the first things I learned was that these skills could be lost by age 10.   There are a number of reasons.

First, a super bright child at age 5 or 6 is going to spend the next 4 years not using their brain.  When the curriculum finally shifts in 5th grade, they are skill-less.  The first few years of school should build the skill set for 5th grade, but unless the child is way behind in 1st grade, few skills are required.

The second cause of the 4th or 5th grade disaster is the emphasis in the US math curriculum of telling a child something followed by practicing it.  This is not learning.  A child who devours learning before entering first grade is starved to a waif 4 years later.  The child begins to expect to immediately know each concept.   5th grade is a wake up call.

The final reason for the 5th grade train wreck is the concept of "correct or incorrect" that is enforced in math.   It's either right or wrong, and generally speed is involved.  This approach provides a child with attitudes and skills that I would define as the opposite of smart, something like anit-academic skills.  "Did you get it right" is the opposite of "Did you learn something?"

If you dig through my blog you'll see over a year ago I predicted this for my 4th grader, and then later in the year confirmed it.

As part of my research, I've been tracking down parents of children that were enthusiastic learners in Kindergarten, did lots of extra work at home, and generally started school at the "A" level.  So far every single one of them is running into the 4th or 5th grade train-wreck.  Symptoms are frustration, inability to understand a new problem, tears at incorrect answers, sloppiness, impatience, and in many cases bad grades.

I've really enjoyed these discussions.  First, it confirms that I'm not wasting years trying to solve a problem that nobody else encounters.  Secondly, I have the antidote and I've been passing it on.

Here is the antidote.

#1.  Make sure your child has material that would take a person at grade level an hour to do 40 problems, but your child has to spend 45 minutes on a single problem because they are way below grade level for that material.  Think reading comprehension books.

#2.  Assign them a problem or two and let them flounder for 25 minutes.  Then go super slowly through the material to see what they can learn.   Focus on learning how to navigate difficult material, find clues, do things over and over and over.

#3.  Do not look up the answer.  When a 10 year old is doing a math problem for a 14 year old, it doesn't matter if they get it right.  You the parent have to break this bad habit - in yourself.  What matters is learning how to work with difficult problems.  If your child learns to work with difficult problems then the will eventually teach themselves how to get things correct all of the time.  If you announce whether or not they got the answer correct, you are providing a reward for the wrong thing.  (Of course, they will ask and you will have to tell them they got it wrong so that they can do it again.   My experience is that doing this on 100 consecutive problems makes both of you immune to any negative emotions associated with getting things incorrect the first few times.)

If your child spends 45 minutes doing a problem and gets it wrong 5 times, will you announce "Good Job!" with genuine enthusiasm?  If I had a child who spent 45 minutes working on a problem and got it wrong 5 times, I would be 100% confident that this child is prepared to get perfect scores in school at some point, maybe within 12 months, provided they practice this skill on a periodic basis. Conversely, if I had a child who zips through their work at lightning speed and gets 100% correct, I would expect a pending disaster without intervention.

We had our train wreck last year in 4th grade.  I spent all summer practicing this antidote   Picture the best your child could conceivably do in school and all of the best attitudes and practices.  The outcome was actually way better than that.  In math, we focus on these higher level executive skills because other than being good problem solvers, I don't expect my kids to become math professors.  I expect them to learn how to think with the official goal that they think better and do better in their other subjects.

19 comments:

  1. In our district, if COGAT test score is not good enough you can take a supplemental test such as WISC-IV or Stanford-Binet. Anyone familiar with these tests? After preparing for COGAT for many months, which of these two tests can be more similar to COGAT and can score better?

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    1. In my opinion, both of these tests are harder than the COGAT. The COGAT measures learning potential, but the others measure something else that's harder to fake, like how many hours your child reads and does word jumbles. Probably not the answer your were looking for. I wonder if anyone does better on these other tests?

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    2. We tried the first question with dragonflies and I had to really break it down for the child to understand and how to solve. Not sure if it's worthwhile or just try to go super slow maybe one question a week until your level 2 book is out.

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    3. I should make something clear. When I start out with children who have not experienced "the skill set" before, the first problem might take 5 days and 100 readings. By the time they are making progress, they're down to 45 minutes per question and only 1/2 a box of tissues. In this book, I designed the questions so that even by the end an easy question will take 25 minutes and 5 tries. They also get really goofy and some don't have answers, so no one is complaining that the questions are boring, which helps. I was expecting 8 or 9 year olds though. I'm not sure it is legal to make a 6 year old do one of these problems. I'm about to start proofing level 2 in 2 weeks. I got side tracked by this really great question type I came up with that will make GAT tests seem easy.

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  2. Hi Nordwood - thank you for your great post. I am looking for suggested book list on the subject of science, history, social science. Any insights?

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    1. Sorry, outside of my area of expertise.

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  3. Trying to schedule daily routine and activities for my kids in various ages. I remember from your old post that you had free fridays and sundays when you catch up and play unlike other weekdays and saturdays. That's what we are doing. Wondering starting what grade we can't have that and doing some work even on fridays and sundays because homework load or project (either from school GT or parents) is or should be increased?

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    1. This is easy to answer, now that my oldest has 1 to 2 hours of homework every day - every day. You can increase the workload as soon as they want to play on the computer all of the time. Then you'll find out they could easily handle an unlimited work load as long as they get to use the computer afterward for 15 to 20 minutes.

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  4. Hi there - I am one of many parents who are waiting for your test prep level 2 book for younger kids. While I am waiting for your book, is there any book we should try to help cognitive math skills?

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    1. One reader suggested mind benders. We love it. It's a lot like math. By the way, The second grade book I'm working on is going to be a game changer. I'm going to have to redo the 3rd grade book next year because I've raised the bar so much. I fully expect that a child that completes my book never misses a single math or quantitative problem anywhere ever under any circumstances. The challenge I had was how to make 3 + 4 hard without the long convoluted word problems from Level 3. It turns out I stumbled onto so much more.

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    2. Thanks. I just purchased your test prep level 3 book as well to see if my soon to be 6 year old child can do some problems in the meantime. Any idea when that will be available for purchase?

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    3. I designed Level 3 so that a 2nd grader would get all of them wrong, and he did. I'm not sure a 1st grader would even get through the questions in the 2nd half of the book. But, maybe someday you can use it.

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    4. We tried a couple of shower and easier questions with my almost 6 year old for example question #1, 5, 30. I had to really break it down for the child to understand the question and explain a lot. I feel like I am spooning it by doing most of the work. Do you think it's worthwhile doing a question or two a week like this or should we wait for your level 2 book until next year? I want to stretch his brain until test prep season kicks him about a year and don't know how. Doing building thinking skills right now but it's not super hard like your book.

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    5. Sorry - "shorter" I mean.

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    6. This is like learning to read. It just comes on it's own and your child is still a few years away. I think Level 2 is going to be super hard as well. If your child is ready for level 2 by February or March, that would be great. If it helps, I make my child do the spoon feeding and breaking it down. Very slow and painful at first, but eventually your 7 year old can explain the role lower case I (can't get blogger to print it) plays in the square root of negative 4. I feel a post coming on.

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  5. I have a question regarding science projects ....are there any good books or web sites for that? My child wants to participate in his school science fair. Do the projects submitted in a school science fair have to be original or can we get ideas from books or web sites?

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    1. Start with the web. Our library has entire sections devoted to catalogs of science fair projects. The library downtown (Chicago) and Evanston are the best. It's a lot of fun just to get ideas from the books. Original is a skill that comes much later. I think it's better for a young child to redo someone's overly ambitious award winning science fair project than to dream one up. The creative part can come with the presentation and the write-up.

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  6. Did you use any writing/grammer workbook when your boys were K or 1? Not a strong in this area and what do I need to do besides reading a lot?

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    1. We did a 12 year old copy of hooked on phonics going into K. Then at some point in K we started Vocabulary Workshop. During test prep we did some but not a lot of reading comprehension questions, maybe 10 questions in a year. My goal is to teach thinking (vocab helps a lot) but when it comes to grammar and subjects like that, I don't worry about them because a thinker figures it out quickly on his own. Reading and being read to and vocabulary workshop all help with thinking. You don't have time to teach other things.

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