Wednesday, October 19, 2016

GAT Parenting Skill #0 - Zero Expectations

This skill overlaps the other skills, and is foundational.   It is the most important skill for the parent of any child, up to about age 4 1/2, and then becomes critical for any advanced work after age 8.  At ages in between, this skill has to complete with a set of normal parenting skills, full of expectations about behavior, attention, and diligence.

When your child sits down to do an academic activity, whether reading, math, critical thinking, writing or whatever, the child is going to draw on perhaps dozens of learned skills all working together as the problem warrants.  The core skills listed in my articles are mandatory for a successful outcome, and these are correlated with the core Parenting Skills #1 through #3.  (I reserve the right to add #4 and maybe #5 in future articles).

When I sit down with a child, even my own children, but especially the children of others, I have no idea the exact measurement of each skill required to complete the work at hand.   In worst case scenarios, most skills are missing and the child is way behind.   Some days the child has the skills but doesn't think to use them.  Some times the child solves the problems using a completely different set of skills, usually the hard way, and undermines the learning session.  Some children will see the answer immediately, and I don't get to see a the skills in action and am left wondering whether or not the child just guessed.

The Zero Expectations skill is defined by acknowledging that you, as a parent, don't really know which cognitive subskills your child will need or display on a given day.   If you're lucky, you might know them when you see them.  Good teachers with years of experience probably know.  Even then, if 6 key skills are working together, it's really hard to work out which ones are strong and which are weak.

If you sit down with your child for an academic activity, acknowledge that you have zero expectations to match your knowledge of your child's cognitive skills, and be prepared to let these skills develop on their own.  The Zero Expectation skill will be supported by the 3 other GAT Parenting skills, and the Zero Expectation skill will support these other three skills.

Suppose for example that your child is learning how to add.   As a GAT parent, you are not going to force your child to memorize these math facts, but instead just present your child with a few problems each night to give them an opportunity to learn, or even better to give your child a more complicated problem that involves addition.  The child is faced with "4 + 5".  Here is a list of approaches in the order I would expect the average child to develop them:

  1. If "4 + 5" is buried in a longer and more complicated question, the child spends plenty of time rereading the question until it's obvious that he has to add 4 + 5 to answer the question.
  2. The child remembers that"4 + 5" needs to be solved and begins working on it.
  3. The child continues working on the problem without getting distracted.
  4. The child just starts guessing.
  5. The child can present 4 fingers on one hand and 5 on the other, and count them to 9.
  6. The child can envision 4 tick marks and 5 tick marks in their brain, and count them.
  7. The child is sick of counting, so starts with 5 and counts 4 more.
  8. The child recognizes that 5 is one more than 4, 8 is the double of 4, and adds 1 to 8.
  9. The child invents their own method to solve this problem.
  10. The last problem was 4 + 4 = 8, and 5 is one more than 4, so the answer is 8 + 1.
  11. If the child used methods 4 through 10, the child checks again to be sure that the answer is correct.
  12. If the child derived "10", found out she was wrong, she tries again without being frustrated.
  13. The child remembers that "4 + 5" was 9 the last time she recently was asked, so it's 9.
  14. The child has been asked enough and knows it's 9.

There are only 4 cognitive skills on this list.  Do you know what these are?  It's the same list that we could apply to almost everything, including reading.

#1 is a skill.  I consider this one of the most important skills for everything.

#2 is a combination working memory and executive functioning skills.  Both of these develop as the child ages, reads, and does academic work.  Executive functioning skills can be supplemented by training.  I consider Working Memory a brain part and not a skill.  An accomplished violin player usually has a big right arm, and no one considers a big right arm to be a skill.

#3 is relates to Executive functioning skills.

#4 is not a skill.  It's just something my kids do to annoy me.  I try not to show my annoyance because when the child is in middle school, this becomes a key problem solving technique, provided that the child verifies on their own that they are right.  This is why I always respond to a guess with the demand "Prove it."

#5 through #10 is a big bucket of cognitive skills that I've written on sporadically.  I call these problem solving skills, but they are underscored by poorly researched cognitive skills.   George Poyla has a famous book exploring these skills, which is summarized here, but his work seems a lot like my treatment of "4 + 5", although he does at least name some additional skills, like problem decomposition and visualizing the problem (aka drawing pictures).  IQ tests explicitly test for skills #5 through #10 in different settings, like word scrambles and logic problems.   Cognitive skills tests measure the capability that a child would have to devise these skills by presenting the child with novel problems at a difficulty level way beyond anything the child would see in test prep.

#11 is an important skill that needs to be relearned every year.  As soon as children become adept at something, they stop checking their work.

#12 contains two core cognitive skills, trying again and not being frustrated.

#11 and 13 are working memory in action, as a precursor to a photographic memory.  (#11 is also a problem solving skill.)

#14 is all memory.

The approach that I began with many years ago, and consistently developed, is to provide an environment where the child can develop the core cognitive skills of reading the problem carefully (I'll write on the sub-skills behind this one in another article), checking the work, getting it wrong without frustration, and trying again.   Of course, the child can't develop these skills without a steady diet of work that requires the skill set.  I wrote the Test Prep math series for grades 2 to 4 because nothing exists during this critical period of the child's development.  If the child develops the core skills, sometimes with constant nagging by the parent, the problem solving skills will develop on their own.

Kumon has a unique approach to teaching the problem solving skills, as well as the core skills.  Give the child a large number of ridiculously easy problems to do every day, slowly increasing the problem level as the child's knowledge of the subject matter increase, until the child has learned all of the skills listed above.  While this actually works in practice, I hate Kumon because you can accomplish the same objectives by subjecting the child to ridiculously hard work that takes 45 minutes just to get through one problem, which might not even have a solution by the way, and teach the Mother of all Skills.  I don't think I've explicitly defined the Mother of All Skills in any article, but a child can't get through Test Prep math without learning it.  I think I'll write an article about it soon.

I hate Kumon Pre-Algebra books even more because they just present all of the algorithms needed to solve the problems at the beginning of the book.   Nonetheless, for 5th grade and beyond, their books are super hard, and I recommend them if you rip out the section on algorithms and only let your child see it if he has gotten the wrong answer at least twice.

In summary, there are two reasons why I recommend that a parent focus on the core skills.  First, any child with any workbook on any subject on any day is a complete mystery, even my own kids.  I have no idea where they are in terms of problem solving skills, or how to develop the next one under the circumstances.  Even if there was adequate research in this area, I would need to write a 9,000 page book to give it adequate treatment of each sub-skill for all parents.   Secondly, with the proper emphasis on the core cognitive skills, supported by the proper GAT Parenting skills, these problem solving skills develop magically on their own, almost always way beyond my expectations, although in some cases I've had to sit their with a child hours every day for months until their behavior or working memory skills catch up.

The Zero Expectations Skill captures this approach.


  1. Hi Norwood,

    First of all big thanks for your time and dedication for this blog! It helps tremendously. We are in Schaumburg, SD 54. Well, my 3rd grader is eligible to take cognitive online test as well as psychologist cognitive test in January. The school district does not tell us exactly what test they'll administer. So I have been reading your blog and little overwhelmed. However, I came up with a list of books that I need to get: 1. Building Thinking skills Level 3 (3-4); 2.Test Prep Math Level 3; 3. Smart Cookie NNAT 2 for grades 3-4. Could you please recommend any other materials and strategies I need to prepare. He is very strong in reading and comprehension. Looking forward to your reply. Thank you so so much!!!

    1. If he's 99% strong in comprehension, then you don't have to get Level D by continental press. You didn't mention a sample test for the COGAT, which is required. I would recommend a practice test. I wonder if the phycho cog test is Weschler. That practice test is very expensive (Mercer) but there is a big practice effect so you can buy a better score, which is why they won't tell anyone. I'm just speculating.

      It sounds like you already have an hour or 2 a day of work, but if you are insane and wanted to focus on the figure matrices section of the test, get the Building Thinking Skills Figural book level 3 for grades 7 to 12. That's what I would do, because, I am insane.

  2. Would you recommend the Kumon books after we've burned through our stash for the year, or is better to just work ahead? Thanks

    1. I would plod on with math until 2 years ahead, then you can take a break. Don't worry at all about mastering any of the math material, like being an expert at arithmetic. Stay focused on mastering the other skills involved.