Thursday, September 22, 2016

Working Memory and Memorization In Action

Working Memory and the ability to Memorize on the spot are my two favorite skills.  I don't think these are typically classified as cognitive skills.  Cognitive skills more related to problem solving. Working Memory and Memorization are superpowers which help kids when they are using their cognitive skills.

A few weeks ago, my child was explaining what he was learning in math at school.  In this case, it was number sets (Natural, Rational, Irrational, Complex).  Since these topics are so interesting to me, I walked him through Transcendental numbers, how Transcendental numbers dominate the Real number line, and why Complex numbers have completed the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra by filling in its gaps, not to mention much of the rest of math.  I'm not an expert here, but I had a good book that I was reading from, and it's pretty cool.

This particular child is 50% Intentionally gifted and 50% Accidentally gifted.  (See the last article).

While I was walking him through these concepts, he was totally baffled, as you probably were when you read the painful paragraph above.  Unlike you, he was memorizing concepts as I defined them (using his Memorization superpower) and keeping them in his brain while he worked them (using his Working Memory superpower).   Can you repeat what I said above about number sets?  I couldn't. He did.

The result was that he could slowly work through these concepts and he slowly made sense of them. Without his two superpowers, this would have taken a very long time, would have been very painful, would have involved tears, and most likely would have been a waste of time.

For the last few years I have been recommending Vocabulary Workshop.   All of the word memorization has paid off, but not just with a big vocabulary.   It has paid off with the ability to memorize.

I have recommended reading, Reading Comprehension workbooks, and certain books for 2 to 4 year olds called Test Prep math that build working memory.   If your child is Fundamentally gifted, maybe she doesn't need this skill.  For the rest of us, the working memory problems in the Test Prep math series are at double what cognitive skills tests use.  Either your child has a sharp enough intellect to understand the different types of infinity right off the bat, or this child needs a strong working memory to hold these new concepts while he thinks through them.

During the course of test prep for a 4 year old child, you will see these two super powers in action, and you will probably encounter your child's limits.  Over the next 4 years, developing these super powers should be a high priority.  There is a big payoff down the road.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Three Types of Gifted

There are 3 types of gifted children.  Which type will your child be?  Let's find out.

The first type of gifted child is accidental.  This child finds herself with no friends one summer and is bored with TV, so she just draws a lot.  Unbeknownst to parent and child, continual drawing produces a host of skills that are relevant to challenging intellectual pursuits.  

There are many reasons to end up in accidental gifted training and many types of interests that can spur an increase in cognitive skills.  The activities generally include extended amounts of concentration, repetition, and an increase in detail or complexity as domain skills are acquired through practice.  Other activities that come to mind are acting, imaginative role playing, music, and reading.

The primary marker of the Accidental Gifted child is that he stands on the sidelines during recess and talks to the teacher.

Intentional giftedness is derived by the child being force fed some activity like reading, math, or music by the parent.   The most obvious activity for the intentional gifted child is 12 months of test prep.  

In this case, the giftedness of the child is mandatory, and the primary marker is a parent researching how to get into a GAT program on the internet.

The final type of giftedness is called fundamental.   The child engages in any cognitive skills building activity because either the child is really weird, the parents are, or both.   By "weird", I mean the traditional sense where the person does not follow social norms like watching TV and playing video games, lacks social skills, or is experiencing a period of abnormal brain activity.

If both parent and child are normal, this type of giftedness can arise if the family lives on a ranch in Montana, 10 miles from a town of 200 people, and doesn't have an internet connection.

For children who do not live on a ranch in Montana, fundamental giftedness is evidenced by a fascination with something like Star Wars, vacuum cleaners, anything science related, typically just one thing at a time.  This fascination is consuming, day after day, unceasingly, until the child outgrows it and finds a more mature topic to replace it.

Commonalities and Differences Between Types of Giftedness
Regardless of the motivator or the type of giftedness, the results will be an increase in cognitive skills and thus giftedness.  A GAT test will not distinguish the type of giftedness.  There are a variety of factors that come into play, but in each case the biggest factor will be the support of the parents, the proximity of the nearest library, and the number of trips to the library each week (in the case of reading, for example.)  Reading on its own causes giftedness, and reading can be a symptom of any type of giftedness.  The difference is degree and primary motivation.

A child may read because they are at a school 5 miles from their house and have no friends to play with after school (accidental).   A child may read because they haven't learned social skills yet and have no friends period (fundamental).  Or a child may read because 1 hour of daily reading has been mandated by the parents before they can play (intentional).  Based on the child and the situation, the primary motivator will impact the child to a degree, and this degree may be 1 hour of reading a day for a year (until they change schools or their parents forget to nag) to 5 hours of reading per day (because their best friends are books.)

This activity could be art or music or robots.   This activity won't be sports, because sports don't cause cognitive skills.

The Long Term Concern
The biggest difference between each type of giftedness is the long term impact.   Intentional giftedness wears off the fastest if not replaced with another type within a few years.   Accidental giftedness may or may not lead to another bout of interest in academic activities.   Fundamental giftedness is typically permanent, except in cases where the child either outgrows their interest in vacuum cleaners or learns social skills.

With fundamental giftedness, the parent might have to encourage a child to find other interests, like people.  With accidental giftedness, the parent might encourage the child to keep at it (reading, music, whatever) during dry spells.  With intentional giftedness, the parent needs to stop nagging and help the child find internal motivators or a burn out is on the way.

Roughly half of my readers have or will have intentionally gifted children, and the other half have accidentally gifted children.  I've never heard from a reader with a fundamentally gifted child; I assume this is because they don't need to read a blog on how to cheat your way into a GAT program or they are too shy to send me an email.

Any parent of an Accidental or Intentional gifted child who gets into a GAT program needs to start worrying about the next phase in their child's academic life.  Parents of Accidental gifted children need to look for other interests, and steer their children towards band, theater, Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts and away from well rounded children who like sports and video games.   Parents of Intentional gifted children need to stay awake at night worrying that their children are only briefly gifted children because of all the parental pressure and will some day rebel against all things academic.

In some cases, the presence in a GAT program steers a child in the right direction via expectations, curriculum, and classmates.   On the other hand, I've heard horror stories about gifted programs where most of the kids end up slightly above average and slightly disinterested in their studies.  I've also heard horror stories about parents who have to hire tudors to help their children do their homework year after year.

In my opinion, getting a gifted child to a gifted adult is going to require a lot of skills that most parents have to learn.  At this point, this is opinion and not part of my research.  This should be a major emphasis of educational research, but it is barely investigated in the literature.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Secret Formula for GAT

When this blog began, I had 2 normal kids.   At this point, they generally qualify for the term "Gifted" under standard measure, depending on the season and how they are feeling.

The younger child is slightly more "gifted" because he's benefited from much better training thanks to lessons learned.   I wouldn't consider either child actually "gifted".   This term is reserved for children whose parents applied training from a very early age (such as age zero) and didn't realize that they were doing anything special, and the parent thinks that super high test scores and advanced reading just magically happened.

My father-in-law was a high school English teacher his whole career, with some college teaching thrown in.  My wife comes from a slightly gifted background, and considers our children's ability level to result from her just doing what is normal, which is reading all of the time.  She might have a point, but having a child who can teach himself math that he won't see for 4 more years in school probably doesn't magically happen from reading.   Reading all of the time won't guarantee admission into a GAT program by 1st grade except under unusual circumstances.

At this point, I have a great recipe for GAT.  I didn't follow it perfectly the first 2 times because I was learning and made a lot of mistakes, but here's a brief version of the secret formula:

  1. Pretend like you're a gifted parent that is going to raise gifted children.  Ask yourself what daily life is in these households and behave accordingly.
  2. Since you're probably not a gifted parent, you have a bit more work todo to fake it.   What I did was make curriculum lists, progress charts, and a vocab Word Board.  I hid the curriculum list and progress charts behind a door so as not to freak out the rest of the family, but the refrigerator became the Word Board.
  3. I postponed all sports until the 4th grade.  I've noticed that there is no relationship between giftedness and sports, but for me, I needed the time to do the first 2 items on this list so we cut sports.
  4. Next, I built a daily routine, especially on Saturdays, to accommodate a little At Home Schooling on a daily basis.
  5. Finally, and this is the real secret, I removed all sense of time pressure, caring about correct answers, caring about incorrect answers, caring about our abysmal pace, or caring about anything as we went about our At Home Schooling routine.  The kids created their own pressure because they wanted to finish their work accurately and properly so they could get through the review discussion and move on to whatever it is that they wanted to do which I wouldn't let them do until their finished their workbook work.  The pace took care of itself magically, because, not magically, whatever you work on a little a day you get better at.
The ultimate goal is a child capable of doing great things, like solving the many, many challenging problems that the prior 2 generations have caused or neglected to solve.  At a young age, GAT test prep is perfectly compatible with this goal.  On a continual basis, however, test scores become the enemy of learning.  Perfect grades don't solve problems.   I've got some thinking to do.

When my child asks why I'm taking away the iPad after only 15 minutes of evolving cows or battling some Vainglory team, my response is that, as a parent, I have officially been charged with producing a child who can solve ridiculously hard problems to help the world, and Vainglory is not going to get the job done.

That's the ultimate parent problem.   

In the mean time, haven't I been doing test prep vicariously for 5 years.  Why don't I solve some problem, you ask.  Thanks for asking.  Here's what I have in mind.

As you know, Chicago is full of gang violence, and it is primarily (like 90%) in the African American community.  This community is also characterized by a statistical lack of reading (among other problems like a break down in the family structure, drugs, etc.)  Of course, not the whole African American community in Chicago, just a whopping section on the South Side, and a little pocket about a mile north of me.   My thinking is, what if a few African American mothers, say of 3 year olds, are told about the Secret Formula and sign up for it?  It's got to be highly preferable to business as usual, which for some, is desperation.

Here's the plan:
Step 1:  I set up a crowd funding request for the books I need for 6 kids.   As you know, books are expensive.  I would have paid for this myself 10 years ago, but now college tuition is looming.
Step 2:  I stand on a particular street corner north of me for about 4 hours and sign up 6 parents.  I've researched the selection process a lot, and have come to the conclusion that this is the best way.  I'll explain why later.  In the mean time, you can amuse yourself by picturing me doing this.
Step 3:  I get these kids into a GAT program, primarily by getting the parents to do the work and stay focused.  This is the key to the whole thing.  I don't see any studies that focus on the parents.  Education research in this country stinks in general, but this is the biggest gap.
Step 4:  I figure out how to do this properly and apply for a $100 million MacAthur foundation grant. By "this", I mean getting the parents to sign up and see it through.   Turning children into GAT children is a foregone conclusion.
Step 5:  I get one of our local legislators to pass an ordinance in Chicago that all African American children have to learn to read by 4th grade.  This local legislator lives about 10 houses down from me and doesn't know he's sponsoring a highly controversial ordinance and will be accused of being a racist, but little easy solutions are not going to fix a big messy problem.

After that, I'll rewrite high school math curriculum because Trigonometry and Calculus have been the least relevant math subjects since about 1972.   Of course, this has nothing to do with the other problem, but this will be the last thing I do before I retire my blog.  

Monday, September 12, 2016

How Much Time Does This Take?

I recently revised my list of GAT test prep curriculum.  It looks like a course for 4 year olds.  The version for 9 year olds is very similar, but the material differs slightly.  In this article, I'm going to discuss how much time is reasonable for your child to spend on this work.  Some day, hopefully soon, I'll detail the changes in curriculum as the child gets older.  It's much easier just to do than to sit down and organize the list for publication.

But first, I'm going to describe a discussion I had yesterday with a teacher from a great high school in a suburb north of Chicago just to scare everyone and let you know what we are up against.  She teaches honors pre-calculus, BC Calculus, and other math courses.  In this school, there are 12 AB Calculus courses and 4 BC Calculus courses.   After completing AB Calculus, a child can test out of 1 semester of college calculus, and after the BC course, she can test out of a year of college calculus.

Most of the kids in my friend's BC Calculus course are juniors, but a third of the class is made up of freshman and sophomores.   This is much different than it was, back when I took BC Calculus, in 1912.  Back then, calculus was relevant because we were in the midst of the industrial revolution, but everyone in the class was a senior.   We were across the street from a major university, and most kids had parents where were professors.

I asked about these freshman.  Apparently, they love the course.  They do their BC Calculus homework first because for them, it's not work at all.  It's fun.  I forgot to ask what they are going to take their Sophomore year.   Maybe they'll just take graduate school classes at Northwestern University, which is down the street.

The path to being a junior in BC Calculus begins with high school geometry in the 8th grade at a minimum.  Taking 8th grade geometry has been shown in properly executed studies to result in a child who hates math and drops it at the first available opportunity, usually after BC Calculus.  How do we reconcile this with a class full of kids who love their math course at this high school?

This is what you need to know as a parent.  When 4,000 to 5,000 kids get together in a northern suburb in Chicago, and at least 3 high schools do this, you are going to find at least a 100 kids whose parents have phDs in some obscure technical subject, maybe multiple phDs, and there will be kids who really love math because they have weird personalities and other quirks, like the need to mow the lawn many times a week.

I am sitting on my porch as I read this, admiring the bees darting in and out of the foot high weeds on my "lawn".  My lawn sits amidst a whole block of perfectly manicured lawns full of chemicals.  It is extremely unlikely that one son will ever love math, even though his test scores are high.  We just don't mow enough.  I chide him that he is destined to have friends that are geeks no matter what he does.  His brother might enjoy math, but maybe not.  To push these 2 into advanced math because other children (or their parents) are doing it doesn't make sense.

My teaching buddy pointed out that a lot of kids take AB Calculus after honors trig because they have other interests, like Drama, that are going to require a lot of time.   For them, BC Calculus can wait until they are seniors, or, depending on their personal objectives, never.

Today I announced it was time for daily math, and my children instead asked for a writing challenge, so I asked them to build a story from this sentence:  "The gum ball machine fell to the ground and broke".  Their work was really impressive.  Personally, I think writing is much more important than math, especially in the information age, but I can say this now because we have spent the last 6 years on problem solving and technical work, so we can afford to take a break.  Maybe we'll do writing for 6 months a year, and math the other six months, or just alternate.  I'm on to something big here. Something highly competitive.  I might award myself another "Compettie" if this goes well. (Compettie is the nickname for Competitive Parenting Magazines Competitive Parent of the Year Award which I invented, since there really is no Competitive Parenting Magazine, which I also invented.  Every year, I encounter readers who are way ahead of me in achievement, but the voting is rigged because this is Chicago and we excel at corruption.)

Going back to the 4 year old, where this all began.  I'm going to recommend a pace of about 15 minutes a day of test prep, four times a week, with 30 or more minutes on Saturday morning.  The reason for this pace is that I've noticed that a child of this age has about 15 minutes of really top notch thinking available to the day, and after that, it's just a waste of time and learning bad habits.

On a good day, this 15 minutes might take 30 actual minutes, what with time wasting and complaining.  On a bad day, this could take 45 minutes, or you could switch to Plan B, which is the easy work book.  At this age, I started Sylvans Kindergarten math course (why rush things), but they couldn't do it until they finished their 15 minutes of hard core critical concentration.

For a 5 year old, we do 15 minutes a day, but twice, with 2 different subjects.   Again, the 30 minutes might take more, and usually does.   15 minutes of critical thinking work, and 15 minutes of math, usually from Every Day Math (or the alternate workbook on bad days).  On the weekend, in addition to 15 minutes of each, maybe longer, because it's the weekend, I add Vocabulary Workshop.  They can do Vocab Workshop for as long as they want, but they can't do more than a single lesson in a 2 week period.   That might mean each week they read the passage and do half of the exercises.

What do you do in this 15 minutes?  Whatever the child is capable of, at their own pace, which might be a single problem.  Don't worry about the pace.  The pace will take care of itself later if you just let the child learn.

As soon as your child learns to read, and gets past the 6 weeks of crying and whining, he might actually sit their doing the workbook himself.  Otherwise, every minute he spends with a workbook is a minute you or your spouse have to sit their with him.  It's the price of being a parent, and it never fully goes away.  When we started the 8th grade math course, I was back at the table for the whole time until he get the hang of it after a few months.  (Let's see, if we do the 8th grade math starting in 5th grade, we'll be at BC Calculus by 8th grade.  Take that, north suburban high school!  Except that he wants to write, which is ruining my plans.  Curse you, north suburban high school.)

By age six, you can really ratchet up the time, but I found that if we did more than 4 days a week, the thinking and concentration was not at the level I wanted.  Also, if you do thinking type work or advanced math at a 4 day a week pace for more than 6 months a year, you'll probably not get good results, unless you're a post-doc-lawn-mower type.   So I settled on math half the year, thinking half the year, vocabulary and reading year round, and this worked pretty well.  I call this Test Prep Season and The Off Season.  We only had an actual test to sit for 3 of these years, but I followed this routine anyway because as far as thinking goes, I'm thinking beyond the test.

Going into the last 6 weeks before the test, all rules were tossed aside, and some days we spent 90 to 120 minutes at the table doing work.  We once spent 90 minutes doing a practice test when my son had a fever and was crying because he banged his head into the wall.  I don't recommend this, but you might have heard that some kids have "bad days" on the test day.   We ruled out the possibility that a bad day would have an impact.

So how did we achieve success on the COGAT with only 90 minutes of prep each week?  This was a good week, and there was much less on a bad week.  We had a pace of about 40% bad days, and some bad weeks, so our average pace of work was about 40 minutes a week.

The answer is reading.  There was always at least an hour of read-to a day, which became 30 minutes of read-to and 30 minutes of reading together, and then 30 minutes of read to and 30 minutes of read-alone each day, 2 years later.  Some parents do much, much more than this.   That's the secret. Reading on it's own can build all of the thinking skills your child will ever need, even in math, except the thinking skills needed to pass the test 8 weeks from now, which is why you need test prep.   The parents who followed the 100% reading approach developed much brighter children in the long run, but needed more attempts to get past the test.   After the test, reading can dominate the schedule, and you're back to 90 minutes of other work each week.  If your child is engaged in some ambitious reading exercise, don't interrupt him.  Other work can wait for another day.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Word Board of Awesomeness

I'm almost finished with a phonics book with a very narrow target market.   You'd think that putting a bunch of words on each page that rhyme would go quickly, but this has taken longer than either of the math books.  I had to go through all permutations of 5 letters that can make words.  I'll explain why I did this later. I'm recreating the phonics course that I invented (no asterisks or quotes) and used successfully. Unfortunately, almost any combination of letters is some arcane word used in the game of Scrabble, and I had to weed out all of these, because they hold no intellectual value for a 5 year old.  Curse you Scrabble players!

Part of the introduction of this book is going to include instructions on how to use the Word Board. Looking back over the last few years, I think the Word Board is one of the top 3 things I "invented"**.  The quotes and asterisks represent the fact that I didn't actually invent it, but I "invented"** it.

I put up the Word Board during phonics because after covering the word "the", which is pretty easy, since you just look at it and say "the", my son spent the next 3 months trying to sound it out.  I would say "the", he would repeat it, and then on the next page of whatever book we were reading, up to 3 or 4 times in a row, he would see "the" and get stuck again.

The rule was that once or twice a week or more, I would invite him to stand in front of the
Word Board and read any word that he could read.   If a word became easy, and he was able to read it over consecutive standing sessions, I would remove it.  During phonics or reading, if he was stuck on a word, or we found it to be interesting, the new word would go up on the board.  When we first saw silent E, for example, the Word Board filled with words that have an "e" at the end.

The word "the" stayed on the Word Board for at least 6 months.  At one point, the Word Board ran out of room because it accumulated so many words.  It seems that words would go up and not come down.

The First Asterisk
The first thing that the Word Board did for me - not my son - is take the pressure off of me.  As soon as a word went on the Word Board, I didn't have to be all stressed out and impatient with my son about his inability to learn how to pronounce the word because it was there on the Word Board and wasn't going to move until he got it.  Because of the Word Board, I became less of a mean demanding parent, and more of an academic coach.  From this point on, there were no tears in phonics, and much more laughing.

The Second Asterisk
The second thing that the Word Board did for me - not my son - was show me the most important thing that an Academic Coach needs to experience (note that the capital letters just appeared). Somewhere around the 4th to 6th months, words started coming down, and they came down quickly. In this no pressure environment, he just magically learned how to read, if by magic you mean we did phonics twice a week and read 3 or 4 beginning readers every day.  After about 6 to 8 months, words didn't stay up there very long, and many words never made it because he didn't get stuck on them in the first place during phonics.

After learning this lesson during phonics, I expected the same affect in everything we did academically, and it was exactly what we experienced.  Complete bafflement, 100% wrong, and then for no apparent reason with its own independent timing, he would learn whatever we were doing. Our experience was that with the first page in whatever we were working on, he might take TWO WEEKS to finish the page, and then at some point, a long time later, we were zipping along at 2 or 3 pages a day.  This characterized math and test prep.

In school, he had Wordly Wise and a long list of spelling words followed by a quiz each week.   I think the Wordly Wise words were always spelling words.  My wife was in charge of spelling, and instead of the Word Board, she made both kids write the words every day when she read them.  Any spelling misses had to be written 5 times.  Spelling is so much easier after an investment in phonics, as is early writing.

When phonics became easy, we moved to Vocabulary Workshop, which I also "invented"**, and the Word Board filled with words from these books.  I think the folks at Sadlier publishing might dispute the fact that I invented use of their workbooks.  I'm convinced that they don't realize how much more fun and engaging their books are compared to the competition, especially Wordly Wise drudgery. The Word Board also took on  science words, especially rocks, and briefly held math words.

The Word Board played a vital role with the older child's education, since he skipped phonics.  This oversight was a big mistake on my part, but kids are robust and can catch up and overcome deficiencies or late starts.

The Third Asterisk
Eventually, the Word Board was retired.    A long time ago, I wrote a few articles on The Well Trained Mind by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise.   One thing that impressed me at the time was their description of the classic education stage one - children up to 4th grade - characterized by cramming their brains with lots of facts and having them memorize just about everything.

During this period in a child's life, I think the brain is developing the ability to understand and memorize things.  The Word Board hones this skill.  In our case, it honed the skill so much the kids eventually began to memorize things on sight and the Word Board became empty and remained so until I just removed it from our refrigerator.  The Word Board was a constant for 4 straight years, and I'll miss it.

The Forth Asterisk
Somewhere in the explanation of the second asterisk, there is a powerful and counter cultural approach to education, but it's going to take the next article to explain.