Monday, June 20, 2016

How to Teach GRIT - Ages 5 and 7, and Ages 8 to 10

In 2007, Angela Duckworth came up with the concept of GRIT.   Here is one of her papers.  This concept is so mind blowing that it's a turning point both in cognitive development and education.  It's much bigger than the concept of intelligence; I feel that it undoes a lot of the damage that 100 years of misguided intelligence research and literature caused the American education system.  The education system is slowly working these concepts into the curriculum.  Common Core is somewhat consistent with GRIT if done correctly.

Every parent should come to terms with the concept of GRIT and put it first in their child's education.  It's not an acronym, but it's so important that I'm going to capitalize it.  I should probably follow it up with 3 exclamation points.

In short, here it is:   Children (and adults, by the way), who work hard, don't give up, and see things through are more likely to succeed regardless of how they stack up on tests of any type.

Think about that.  If your child has GRIT, you can stop worrying about everything else.  If your child falls short on the GRIT skills, then your #1 priority is to fix it.

GRIT is related to cognitive skills in two important ways.  First, the foundational cognitive skills are very similar - reading a question thoroughly, multiple times, even though the child is completely baffled, trying to figure out the solution, getting it wrong, and trying again.   Secondly, without these foundational skills, the child is never going to pick up and refine their cognitive skills set, because they stop at some point before they think everything through and solve the problem, thus learning or practicing the cognitive skills needed.

Five years ago, I read The Homework Trap and admired the unusual approach that the author recommended.  Now I simply recommend a direct approach - teach GRIT, teach cognitive skills, and set your child up to succeed.

Ages 0 to 2
It appears that a child is born with GRIT and learns a lot of tough things right away that they are completely unprepared for, like talking and walking.   Parents naturally have an instinct to support GRIT with patience, encouragement, and low expectations.

Age 3
The parent starts to worry about education and the GAT tests that are coming up in a year or two and crushes GRIT out of their child.  5% of parents don't crush GRIT out of their child, and these are the 5% of kids who score in the top 5% of cognitive skills tests and end up in Kindergarten GAT programs.  When authors state that "Tests are the enemy of learning" or "speed is the enemy of learning", this is what they mean.

Ages 5 to 6
Re-teaching GRIT to little kids is pretty easy.  Give your child some advanced academic work to do, let them take as long as they want to figure it out, and don't fret incorrect answers, no matter how many times they get it wrong.   Any impatience or expectations on the part of the parent will teach the opposite of GRIT and undermine the rest of the child's education.

Reading builds GRIT in numerous ways and is easy and fun.

Ages 8 to 10
It becomes harder to teach GRIT to this age group, because the parent is competing with school.  School teaches the opposite of GRIT, 8 hours a day, over 200 days a year.  School teaches that a child is expected to know something easy, know it quickly, get it right the first time on homework or a test, and teaches 1000's of really easy things that must be memorized.  

The first time I parented through this age category, I didn't realize how much damage school could cause, and my child and I proceeded through school type material at a fast pace, going a few years out.  By 4th grade, we hit the Classic 4th Grade Train Wreck, which manifests itself as a big fat C in math, not just from sloppiness, but from a lack of skills.   How can schools present a child with 5th grade math that includes thinking and abstract concepts, after 4 years of not thinking at all?

How can a child zip through 3 years of school getting all A's, and then end up unable to do marginally challenging work in 4th or 5th grade?  It's because GRIT and the related cognitive skills are not taught.  In fact, they are unlearned in school.

The Antidote
Since there is nothing on the market for GRIT, and very little for the related cognitive skills, I developed Test Prep Math Level 2 and Test Prep Math Level 3.   There is not Level 1, because Level 1 would be ages 5 and 6 and as you can see from the section above, I don't think special material is necessary.  Also, there is a treasure trove of test prep material for this age group that teaches cognitive skills, but after 1st grade, there is almost nothing.  Two exceptions are the verbal section in Building Thinking Skills for later grades, and Vocabulary Workshop.

The Test Prep Math books have goals for the parent and goals for the child.   For the child, I want the basic elements of GRIT in each question.  The math isn't really that hard.  I stick with basic arithmetic, usually just addition and subtraction.   I also avoid brain teasers.  I think brain teasers are great learning tools, but a brain teaser usually has a solution that can't be derived from the content of the question so it doesn't help with more advanced cognitive skills related to inference and logic.   Each question in Test Prep math is somewhat convoluted.  If my test group got a question right on the first try, I reformulated it so that the answer wasn't so easy.

For the parent, my goal is to train them to be a good academic coach.  To enforce GRIT, the parent should be comfortable with watching their child read a question once and not know what it just asked, and also comfortable with repeated attempts to get the right answer.   The ideal pace to teach GRIT, and cognitive skills as well, is about 1 question a day.   Most kids work their way up to a few or even 5 questions a day as they pick up skills.   The very first edition of the first Test Prep book (it was level 3) had numerous errors in the solution set.   The reason for this was that we ended up arguing the solution or didn't even bother with it.  As a top academic coach, the actual answer has 0 importance in many cases.  I've since fixed the solutions, as far as I know.  Actually, the answer plays a critical role.  It's the excuse the parent needs to ask their child to solve the problem again.

The easy math in the Test Prep series has an important role.   7 + 4 is easy.  15 - 8 is easy.   But the problems are asking what is the difference between the results of these two problems, and with that, the questions cross from teaching arithmetic to teaching cognitive skills.  I want the child to be able to do the arithmetic in their brain (even though this results in more mistakes) while they struggle with the relationships.  Look at a cognitive skills practice test.   Every single question in there on the non-verbal and quantitative sections has this form: a) something happened here, and b) no apply this something to another case.  In my experience, children practicing the a) + b) format in GAT practice tests isn't going to push the child ahead from the 50th percentile to the 95th percentile, but the a) + b) + c) format in the presence of a convoluted question that is designed for an incorrect answer the first time will push them into the 99th percentile.  By the way, 99.9% of school problems have the form of a), with no b) and no c).

The purpose of a cognitive skills test is to present the child with a novel problem - one they've never seen before - and measure their abilities based on how they to solve it (or get it wrong).  While the cognitive skills test is officially measuring the skills that they need to succeed in school, the test might as well be measuring GRIT, because the two skill sets are closely related.

Working memory is essential to a complicated problem on a cognitive skills test, in math, or in most subjects.   Test Prep math hammers away at working memory not only on every word problem, but also in the purely quantitate section that follows the word problems.  Like a strong vocabulary and the ability to memorize definitions on site (see all of my articles on Vocabulary Workshop), working memory is a very powerful tool.

My last goal for the Test Prep series is to set the child up to succeed in their subjects, especially math, since it has "Math" in the title.   We spent 18 months with these books, not to teach math, but to get my children to the point where I could hand them some math work or concepts and let them figure it out for themselves.  For my 7 year old, this currently means that he is investigating arithmetic operations (+, -, /, x) with fractions.  For his older brother, this means generalized algebraic equations.  Teaching GRIT and cognitive skills is so much more rewarding than teaching math.  With a stronger skill set, the child can teach themselves, now, and in the years to come, whether they are facing a test question or conquering an advanced subject.

Monday, June 13, 2016

My Best Advice Ever - Math Facts

Last weekend, my son and I went to a cub scouts campout.   We accidentally showed up a day early, because I don't check my calendar.  It was 95 degrees, and thanks to a week of rain, it was also a mosquito and tick convention.  I've talked about GRIT before as the single biggest determiner of success in all things academic and otherwise, and will talk more about it soon because since 2011, about the time I started exploring cognitive skills, two thinks happened - private schools started teaching GRIT even though no one actually knows how to do this, and cognitive researchers started publishing papers about how to increase cognitive skills.   Based on recent events, I predict that my 7 year old will have to take time off from his Math Chair at Stanford to be the President of the United States, while he gets a law degree at night so he can run BP.  His blog will probably win at least one Pulitzer Prize.  These articles will have to wait.

Today, I'm going to help a mom with a math facts problem.  Her daughter is going to knock off 1st grade math in preparation for first grade, but she hit a wall on subtracting numbers up to 20.

Let's take 19 - 7.   Your child can't get it?  OK, here's what you do.

There are really 3 problems here, and not one.   The first problem is 19 - 7.   This problem is way too hard, and math geniuses don't bother to solve this, because they know that math is all about cheating and shortcuts and being lazy.  That's what makes them math geniuses.   The second problem is to figure out an easier way to do this.   That's the real problem.   One answer is 10 + 9 - 7.   Some kids will come up with a different problem each time, like 10 + 5 + 4 - 4 - 3, or 10 + 4  - 4 + 4  - 3 or whatever.

The third problem is to solve the easier problem, which is easy because it's an easier problem.   9  - 7 = 2, and add 10 back and you've got 12.

Of course, this brings up 2 new problems, one for the parent and one for the child. 

The parent's problem is that 19 - 7 is totally doable, and you know it is, and you know kids who can do this.  You just don't know how to get there and your daughter is now crying because she can see that you expect her to get this problem, as does the book, and it's totally frustrating.   When she was one year old, she would happily stumble around like a drunk trying to walk, and she was smiling and the parents were all excited and laughing and totally excited because she stood on one leg for .3 of a second.   Then math books come along and we totally crush this natural love of learning out of the child.

I think the biggest problem all along is the parent problem.  Don't ask for 9 + 7 = ? or 19 - 7 = ?, just ask for a better, easier, cheaty problem.   You'll get something from your child, usually not what you expect, and that's OK, because the kid owns the problem is about to fall over again, which is also totally OK.   Then when they announce 10 + 8 - 7, which is totally wrong, and get 3, which is also totally wrong, you're going to be 100% excited and announce GOOD JOB, but the kid just got it wrong and will have to do it again.

If I can get all parents to spend 10 minutes with their children on every simple math problem and be excited about wrong answers, math scores in this country would double.  I say 10 minutes because we're no longer trying to memorize or count, we're trying to think, and this makes every problem really hard and take a long time.   So instead of plowing through 30 math facts and learning nothing, your child might only do 4 or 5 math facts - or even worse - only 1 - and end up with a great tool set.

But back to the last problem which is the child's problem.  Getting from 19 - 7 to 10 + 9 - 7 = 2 is a skill that requires some practice, so you'll have to back track to "the second half" numbers, which are 6 to 9 and start over will 6 + 5 = 5 + 5 + 1, and 7 + 7 = 5 + 2 + 5 + 2 (until your child memorizes doubles on their own).  If you do problems this way, you not only teach your child math facts, because kids can't help but learn them, but you teach higher order math analysis which is needed beyond 1st grade.

If you can do math facts properly like I describe above, then your child is prepared for what comes next, because all math after that involves breaking down and analyzing.  

When I wrote Test Prep Math Level 2 and Test Prep Math Level 3, this is what I was thinking.  (These books are way to hard for 1st grade, by the way.)  My target is 2nd through 4th grade kids who will be facing the 4th Grade Train Wreck.  The forth grade train wreck is what happens when the child spends 3 years doing math facts and ends up unable to think.  Sometimes it hits in 5th grade and sometimes 7th..  The focus of these books is problem analysis, going slow, only doing a few problems at a time, and doing them over.  I added other key skills for both parent and child, including spending a long time trying to figure out what my goofy convoluted questions are asking, solving multiple problems at once in one problem, learning abstract thinking, having to check the answer and redo a problem, and trying to solve a clock problem when one of the main characters has a time machine (Level 3).  

My son was doing a clock problem out of his 3rd grade school math book.   "If Suzie finished her homework at 4:15, and it took her 45 minutes.  When did she start?"  He brought me his book and showed me this problem and we both burst out laughing.  

Here's a question from Level 3 that is entirely doable, but might need a few tries and take a long time.

In the center of Metroville, there is a super villain named Destructovil breaking into the Metroville bank.   Rubberband girl got a distress call on her cell phone, but she is on the south end of the city in a train station.  There is a train leaving at 3:00 pm that will take her to the Metroville bank.  The train takes 12 minutes to go from the train station to the bank.  She has to wait 4 minutes for the train.  Speedy Man is in the next town over, but he can get to the bank in 8 minutes because he is Speedy Man.  First, he needs to finish his cup of lemonade because he's too thirsty to be speedy.  That will take 7 minutes.  It is a very large cup of lemonade.  Destructovil's getaway car is coming to pick him up at exactly 3:14 pm.  Who will save the bank?
Bonus Question:  Who is Rubberband girl?

I should advertise these books more.  They completely reorient kids and parents back to real math from the garbage that is in math text books.  There is another section that has problems that look like this: 
35 + 26 = 8 F + 5
        3 F – 16 = 33 - ?
Then they get really hard after that, especially when I introduce a third equation involving G and "not F".    

I through this last section in, 120 problems in all, for the following reasons:  COGAT Test Prep books cost about $30 and are usually too easy.   Many kids have to take the COGAT between 2nd and 3rd grade and there is very little material on the market.   Plus, as a micro publisher, my publishing costs are higher than I would like.   So I put in the equivalent of a test prep book, just for the quantitative section of the test, with all questions 4 TIMES as hard as what I expect to be on the test.

My poor 7 year old had to be the editor because my 10 year old was in charge of question themes and character development.  He ended up on that roll after pointing out that some of my questions were lame.  After getting every problem wrong multiple times, the little guy ended up way beyond the 99th percentile and lately we've been covering arithmetic operations on fractions because I've run out on ideas.  The older kid ended up at the 95% level, which is great because he hates math.  It was a huge and welcome leap to 95%, but we have some work to do.  By the way, he hates math because we practiced math facts, and when we began working ahead in math, I expected him to get the answers correct.

I'm not sure how a parent is going to fair with an 8 year old on that question with "F" in it.   It took my child (the test prep poster child) about 2 weeks before he could do these, and then only after making a lot of progress on the first section to pick up the skills needed.   My 4th grader couldn't get algebra type questions at all out of his SAT test prep book (there are articles in here some where on why I was experimenting with this) and this question type totally solved the problem.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Summer Shopping List

I'm getting inundated with emails from people who are just finding out where the bar is and beginning for advice.   It's all in here somewhere starting about 5 years ago, but it's going to take about a year to catch up.  So I'll just tell you.  It's easier than how I found out, which is to drop my little marine off on a beach full of cannons.   I'll also answer related questions I got this week at the bottom.  If I missed any questions, please comment.  I'm being nagged right now (aka revenge) so I may have to finish tonight.

Thanks to the reader who asked about a 2 1/2 year old little brother.  I think this is my area of expertise and the reason I started this blog in the first place.

Almost everyone outside of Chicago and New York have to sit for both the ITBS or something similar and the COGAT.  In Chicago and NY, it's just the COGAT, because the majority of kids are way behind academically so we need to find out who has potential to succeed, not who is succeeding.

I think Building Thinking Skills is generally regarded as the starting point for the COGAT and other cognitive tests like NNAT, Raven, etc, because it's thick, and half of it has little to do with school.  I like Can You Find Me, sometimes Mind Benders.  I bought everything else, and it's mostly a waste of money.

Since you have standardized tests in the mix, I also recommend going up a year in math, on your own, in the summer.  You can go ahead 2 years if you want.  It just goes slower.  I like Every Day Math grade 2 (but not 1), Spectrum or Sylvan for 1st, Sylvan definitely for K, and then for 3 and 4
Go Math, and then CMP Math after that.

That leaves reading comprehension, which was the last article, and test prep, which can wait for later.  So, in short:
1.  Critical Thinking books, which personally I would concentrate on
2.  A math and a reading comp book and Vocabulary Workshop (grade level)
3.  A poster to keep track of progress (for the parent)
4.  Sticky notes for all of the vocab words

We spent way too much time on math, but caught up on reading later.  I'm not sure anyone has this luxury any more.

More Q & A
1.  What about English Language skills?
I've met lots of 1st graders who have parents who can barely speak English and have thick accents. Their children are in the 2,304 percentile of English on all tests and might as well run for President at age 6.  I always ask the parent "what the heck"?  The parent simply tells me that the child taught themselves to read (liars) and that they read all the time (totally true).  Only English is spoken at home, and the child has to go to school on the weekend to learn their parents' language.

2.  What about things on the verbal portion of the ITBS besides Reading Comprehension?
There are 2 things we forbid in this house: Memorizing math facts and studying grammar, spelling, sentence structure, or anything else like that outside of school.  Since writing is not going to work until grade 5 or so, we just ignore these things.  But we're also 2 years ahead.  I don't think you'll have enough room in the schedule, and these things tend to follow reading.  I'm going to say read an hour a day (30 minutes read to alternating each page and 30 minutes kid on their own reading any garbage they want).

3.  My child requires me to sit down with him the whole time he does anything.
Actually both of them do.  At one point, the younger one developed the habit of doing Building Thinking skills on his own, and the older one will do math on his own, but not properly unless we do it together.  Plus, the older one wouldn't do any studying on his own until 5th grade.  I recommend you get a book or something and "do it together" meaning "I'll sit here with you but I'm really ignoring you" if you can get away with it.  I've never met any kid who didn't need about 12 weeks of constant attention, and some kids are really social and won't do anything on their own.  My wife came up with "do the homework in the kitchen while I look like I'm paying attention but I'm really cooking".  You'll never get away with looking at a screen while your child slaves away at a workbook.

4.  Can I use websites for math?
No.  My kids loved the online version of Vocab Workbook that supplements the material, but we rarely did online math.  For a reason.  Math is about problem solving and thinking, and not about practice.  End of story.  Of course, with a really good problem, like those awesome books by you-know-who, you get lots of practice anyway.

5.  Can I reuse books?
With the thinking books, I forbid writing because they are so expensive.  Sometimes, with a practice test, I let my child fill in the bubble, but then I filled in all the bubbles and asked the next one to erase the correct answer, or filled in all the bubbles and erased all of them to make it impossible to cheat, or I just sat there asking for pointing.  All of my books ended up in the hands of various neighbors at one point or another.

6.  Piano Adventures?
Start with primary before the 1st grade.

7. Any tips on encouraging children to want to do their best rather than pressing them to learn etc?
Yes, this is the key to the whole endeavor.  Your child's success in life depends on you not blowing this.  Please see lots of my articles on this topic.  In short, spend a lot of time on the question, and don't worry about the answer.  Grade it secretly.

8.  Do I have a reading list?
I am not happy with any reading list ever, nor do I like any book ever recommend or lent to us by a friend.  It never works.  It's like breathing someone else's air.  On the other hand, I go down to the library, pick up a random stack of books, and every one is great.