Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Mega Skill

When I was in college, I had 3 roommates who were striving to be either pre-med or chemical engineering majors.   There were 2 classes that stood in their way.  One was Organic Chemistry, and the other was an engineering class.  

Two of my roommates started studying two weeks ahead of time for the big tests in these classes.  At 11:00 pm, these two would come back to the room for a break and a quick game of cards before heading back to their study hole for another 3 hours.  The third roommate would come back at the same time from playing basket ball or a date and then go to bed.

I asked the other two about this odd behavior.  They assured me that he doesn't go to class regularly, take notes or study.  The first time he would open the book, they said, was the night before the test.

On the night before the test, at 11pm, the three would arrive back at the dorm, two from studying, and the other one from not studying.  This time all three left with books.  The two studiers had lots of notes and bookmarks in their books, and the third would bend the binding for the first time and survey the table of contents.  I remember very clearly him studying the table of contents.  It was very disconcerting to me.  In retrospect I should have switched majors to cognitive psychology immediately.

A week later one of my room mates would inform me glumly that everyone they knew got a B or worse on the test, except the guy who only studied the night before.  He aced the test as usual.

I want my kids to have this skill.

It's still a bit of a mystery to me, but after five years of researching cognitive skills and watching them grow from completely non-existent to way above average in my kids, I am able to put some of the pieces together and trace progress in the activities that I have been reporting on this website.  This Mega Skill is a combination of many other skills which develop over time.

The first subskill is the complete lack of fear in facing new and daunting.   I've decided that this skill is the most important of all and have generally characterized it as Being Comfortable Being Baffled.   A child may think that math is completely useless to their future, but math is a good way to hone this skill, and that skill is vital to their future in any area.

The second skill is a rock solid, photographic memory.   We've developed parts of this with my relentless vocabulary program that started when we were posting sticky notes of words like "clap" to help with phonics, and continued through many levels of Vocabulary workshop and saved us when we were completely unprepared for GAT science and other subjects.  For many years I drug my kids in front of the refrigerator to read each word to see if any qualified to be removed.

There are elements of memory that we haven't encountered yet, like building an organized structure to hold lots of information for something like a middle school science or history test.  I've watched the fifth grade teacher introducing the kids to this in her study guides.

Next is problem solving skills at an advanced level and would include the high school version, which I've dumbed down and used successfully so far for kids between 5 and 11.   The Mega Skill as I introduced it was applied to a technical course, but I'm also wondering how problem solving skills apply to writing.

I wonder if this is enough?  Would a child in an early grade who can patiently figure out a more advanced topic for 3 grades hence qualify for the Mega Skill?  I don't think yet.  I can only say that we've done enough of my insane cognitive skills experiments to say that we have a shot at the Mega Skill later on.

I don't think there's a magic age where kids have to learn these skills.  In other words, I don't think a kid who has them at age 4 has a permanent advantage or a kid who starts working on them at age 10. Nor is it any easier at earlier ages; it just seems easier because people block out those types of memories.

So here's my academic parenting plan:
1.  Cognitive skills, as soon as possible.  Check.
2.  Strong continuous reading.   This was a struggle for a few years, but Check.
3.  Interest and a strong will to get the work done.  Or grit.  This is still a work in progress.
4.  The mega skill.  Haven't started yet.
5.  Ability for kid to make good decisions, including picking a vocation.
6.  Strong values.
7.  Happiness.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Making of a GAT Parent

In the last 6 weeks, I've heard from an unsual number of parents who are late to test prep.   You will find a home in this blog, which was motivated by my first experience with GAT test preparation under the heading "too little too late".  5 years and lots of determination later, I feel more confident.

Down the street from us lives a family called the Readers, consisting of over educated parents with exteremly bright children.   There is no way we could match their efforts.  I lack the personality.  Nor are we a match for the Nemeses, one parent teaches AP math and the other has turned their house into a library.

The Readers have a 2 year old daughter with 2 older brothers.   When I see her, she hands me a stack of books and simply says "Read them to me."  It's hard to resist.  She's too powerful for me.  Lately, I've comed armed with math to stump her, and within minutes she comprehended the concepts and was ready for Kindergarden math.  Curse you, overly educated parents with an irresistable daughter!

While I can't match my nemeses, I can compensate for what I lack.  My kids will learn advanced vocabulary one way or another, but they will learn it, even if I'm more of a thinker than a talker.

My rule is that I need a year to take a kid from behind to 99%, and then may be a year or 2 after that to reinforce the skills.   The first 6 weeks is just to learn to sit still and concentrate.   The next 12 weeks is to remember the question that we are working on.  The First Year is special, not just because it's the most work, dedication, and one-on-one time, but also because neither child nor parent could keep up this pace for more than a year outside of home schooling.  If the test goes well, you won't have to, and if the test doesn't go well, you'll find that the child can work independently at this point, and the parent can just manage the wall chart and the word boards.

You could condense the whole program into a six week nightmare, but you have to act like a GAT parent from day 1, with unlimited patience and a love of the process of learning and an expecation of 100% incorrect answers and mistakes.   It took me much longer to get there.

Here is my program, independent of age (somewhat).

#1.   Reading Is King
The child will pick up 100% of the skills needed to pass any test and do well in all subjects (including math) simply by reading a lot.  The problem with this approach is that it takes too long, and school districts put a time limit on your efforts, mainly the dates of the tests.

For 3 year olds, this is 100% read-to and by 5th grade is typically 0% read-to.

There's no way a kid will sit through a test prep workbook if he doesn't learn to sit by being read to.  Older children may vary.

#2.  Vocabulary Is King
75% of the test is founded on vocabulary.  You would be surprised to find the link between figure matrices and vocabulary, but it is there.  The vocabulary process also builds memory, and memory is a very powerful weapon to bring to the test and to any academic setting.  At all times unitil about 4th grade, we have a word board with sticky notes on it (usually the refridgerator as a convenience to me) and I drag the kids in front of it, 3 times a week, to see if they can eliminate a word.   When they are reading, the words come from Vocabulary Workshop or math books, and before that the words come from phonics or read-to material.   I'm currently working on publishing the phonics program I used, which is a combination of phonics, vocabulary, and test prep.  In short, ever word they come across, like "talk", represents dozens of other words (speak, silent, yell, etc) and we got sidetracked by the other words.

#3  We work ahead 2 years in math.
You will be surprised to learn why I do this.  The reason is that I want them to spend a long, long time on a problem, and spend lots of time filling in gaps in order to solve the problem.  Once speed and memory play a role in math, learning dies.  I prefer 10 to 45 minutes per problem.  At this pace, I am confident mistakes are being made, memory is being used, and learning is happening.  When I watch a child do school math, I see that they know what they are doing, and I witness almost no learning at all.  I never drill math facts anymore.  It's the opposite of learning.   Without math facts, kids will make more mistakes, and this - believe it or not - is good for learning.

#4  We work at least 2 years ahead on Test Prep
...for exactly the same reasons.   Speed is the enemy.  The concept of correct or incorrect only hurts.  If the answer isn't wrong, I am assigning the wrong material. Unfortunately, if half the answers aren't right, this can be too frustrating for my child, so there is a balance.  Sometimes I just switch to an easy workbook for half the problems and then switch back to the harder one.

#5.  I use a wall chart.
The wall chart helped me organize the schedule, the goals, and the material.  At first, it just reminded me to set aside some time each day and helped me remember where we were in which of the 5 books and which pages we skipped for later because they were too hard.  Later, it kept me from worrying about our pace, which started with "we'll never get through this in time" and coninued to "I'm running out of material because we're going too fast".

#6.  Distractions are important.
Any time you have an opportunity for a tanget, take it.   If you come across the word "ice", freeze a glass of water, thaw it, freeze it again, and repeat as many times as our six year old wants.  When you come across the earth's core, see if you can find the places where the earth's core breaks the surface.  If you come across the word hold, explore grasp, clutch, and tote.  Any of these activities or discussions can ruin a test prep session that consists of getting through a page in a workbook.  To compensate, it will pay back many times in learning and higher order cognitive skills like thinking deeply about a topic.

With any family new to test prep and setting out to catch up, I will make 2 predictions.  First, the child will pick up important cognitive and academic skills that are not taught in school.  Secondly, the parent's attitude toward learning will change dramatically, from an impatient preference for correct answers as the outcome, to an appreciation for the messy, winding path of deep exploration.   As the child becomes a GAT student, the parent will learn to become a GAT academic coach, and then you have a shot at bigger things.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Crush The COGAT Part 2

I've been getting a lot of feedback from parents waking up to the demands of the GAT tests.   I'm especially interested with parents who are just finding out what this is all about and parents of older children who might be taking this test again.  But before I get to the older children, let me ramble on as usual off topic about little kids and phonics.

Lately I've been hard at work on my latest super secret project involving phonics.   The only reason why I ever did phonics in the first place was because I was shocked to find that kids in GAT programs read 3 or 4 years ahead and I was sending to this classroom - think a den of lions - a child who was just beginning to read.   I knew that the test doesn't involve reading, but I also knew that a big vocabulary is key to the test, and reading helps.  I was complaining to a friend at work who introduced me to the GAT concept, and she responded by giving me a very old hooked on phonics set.  I think she paid $250.

We didn't use most of the material that justified the $250 cost because I also was bringing home 20 to 30 books a week from the library, sorting and cataloging them, and using whichever ones best met the need for that week.   The phonics set wasn't my child's introduction to the wonder of reading, it was the introduction to the sounds on the word lists.  I started to expand it and created my own approach specifically designed to get the child ready to begin test prep.  The fact that he emerged a strong reader was a big bonus, and in the end, his reading skills continue to accelerate.

To determine whether there is an approach to phonics similar to mine, I've been buying phonics books.  It appears that phonics books target the 50 percentile and lower.   One book in particular stands out.  It is "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons" by Siegfried Englemann.  This book is specifically designed for kids who are behind, and in my opinion, parents who are behind as well.  I really like the approach, because it's similar to the approach I put in my math books, which is to coach the parents.  Unfortunately, we're on different ends of the academic spectrum, and his market is much bigger than mine.

In addition to phonics, we tackled figure matrices with a vengeance.    I never met one I considered hard enough, and if we had to sit there for 45 minutes doing a single problem, getting it wrong 15 times, it didn't put me off in the slightest.  As we plodded through Building Thinking skills volume 1 through 3, we would get to the verbal sections - actual words and sentences - and we would stop because I determined it was too hard and not worth it.   Our target test, after all, was nonverbal.  But we plodded along with enough of it, apparently.

This brings me to older kids.  I've talked about an approach that is heavy on the quantitate section to gain a competitive advantage.  In retrospect, you can't go light on any parts of the test and get above 95%.  You can really gain a big competitive advantage on the verbal section.  I'm not sure how to phrase this without being overly technical, but I'm speculating that a competitive advantage on the verbal section might outweigh a competitive advantage on the quantitate section.

The test is a year away.   This is the time for Building Thinking Skills - with an emphasis on the verbal section.  Maybe you still have these lying around and you skipped most of it like I did.   I'm shocked to find readers who haven't heard of Vocabulary Workshop - my secret weapon which I've written on extensively and shouldn't be a secret anymore.   We only did 2 pages of Vocabulary Workshop each Saturday, and posted tricky words to the refrigerator.  

The next thing you need is a strong reading list and a daily minimum of 30 minutes of reading. Until the child reads for 30 minutes (and possible a page of Building Thinking Skills), no TV, computers, fun, desert or anything else. The right reading list will make this minimum irrelevant to your child. I'm more than happy to recommend a list of books depending on reading level, but two identical children will have completely different preferences for reading material.   We can all agree that boys should all read the youth series-es by James Patterson.  This will be critical for material non-readers and reading junk food for advanced readers.  This should be followed by everything from Roald Dahl and Kate Dicamillo for both boys and girls.  Everything else is a matter of taste.

To summarize, you need four things:
#1  Building Thinking Skills
#2  Vocabulary Workshop
#3  A reading list
#4  A determined parent with the right approach

The fourth thing is the most critical, and this is a parent willing to turn her house into a GAT house, with lots of books and conversation, but no TV, computers, phones, or video games.  The kids aren't buried in a workbook or book all day, but when they're not studying, the kids are doing something that is not passive.   The pace of work also changes, from lots of easy problems and disappointment with wrong answers, to more complicated work that takes longer to do a single problem, where wrong answers happen more often than correct answers and the parent really doesn't care.  I'm doing well at the "doesn't care" part, which doesn't come naturally to me, but not so good on the "no video games" part because the kids' work is phenomenal if it is a prerequisite of video game time.

I am frequently asked to prescribe the right workbook, and given enough information, I am more than happy to do so.  I'm like a librarian and I often go to my bookshelf and page through books to verify my initial reaction.   But I often worry that a workbook in the hands of an impatient parent with expectations for accuracy is going to be a disaster.   While your children are working on becoming GAT kids, you can work on becoming a GAT parent.