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.


  1. I know you would probably think this is a strange question but I still want to ask. My first grader will have COGAT test next fall - October 2017. The problem is that we're planning a trip to overseas to see family and friends for the entire summer right next year. We will be test prepping throughout this school year but I know a couple of months right before the test date is more important??? Once we're back from the trip, we will still have one month to totally focus on COGAT test prep before the actual test date. However, I am a little concerned about the summer when he will play a lot although we can try to do reading and test prep a little bit each day but not intensive by any means. Now I can change my trip date to try to come back earlier from the trip and have to decide now. Any thoughts or wisdom?

    1. This is not the first time I received this question. It's not strange, because it could be anything. My intensive test prep at this stage was about 15 to 30 minutes each day twice a week, and maybe 45 minutes on Saturday. Take your trip, and take a 3 inch stack of workbooks with. Remind yourself that you are in the academic 99th percentile, and that's how we behave, like crazy people. Maybe your routine will be to do this at 10 pm every night before you go to dinner because you are in Madrid, or 8 am every day while you have clotted cream (is it clodded? I don't remember) on your pastry in a cafe in London while you drink your coffee. Or you could take a walk once a day while you read the questions to your child from the book you are holding. Take a large vocabulary list and use the words each day while you visit things. You can do it.