Saturday, October 29, 2016

GAT Parenting Skill #10 - Walk or Crawl

A few times recently I've mentioned how parents start out with the complete skill set when their child is 18 months old and learning to walk, the single most challenging task a human will face until they have to come up with an original idea for their graduate level thesis.  It's the combination of low pressure, zero expectations, and a ridiculously impossible task.   This approach is lost in school, where a teacher is faced with conveying math concepts to a class of 30 with different skill level, and with the pressure of high stakes testing (for the teacher, not the students), teaching disintegrates to the lowest common denominator and spoon feeding.

With an extensive graduate level math background that I've used my whole career, and a hobby of reading about different types of maths, I've always been struck with the complicated depth lurking behind simple math concepts.  Did you know that the rules of logic can be applied to number theory, but that it took the top math researchers 80 pages to prove that 1 + 2 = 3?

When I teach math to my own children, I always give them months or years as needed to warm up to a topic.  I call this crawling.  Then, usually before they are ready, I give them the topic in all of its advanced glory, usually way before they are ready, and watch them stumble around.

This is an effective academic coaching skill, but I discovered it by accident when one of my children was age 3.  The other one was age 6, and just started 1st grade with in a room of 28 children that read at the 3rd or 4th grade level, some higher, and a 3rd grade curriculum.  Ooops!  We hadn't really started reading yet.  A little, but not much.

Well, I just found out reading was possible at a much earlier age than I ever imagined, and I stared at the 3 year old while I complicated that mathematical possibility that this little guy could be a reader. Mathematically, it was 27 out of 28, maybe higher.  It was the same probability that I could go from a completely clueless parent to the World's Top Academic coach.

For the next year, I introduced him to the letter sounds, a few a night, and when he had these down, I would occasionally try "CAT" to see if there was any recognition.   This is the crawling stage.  I never actually got "CAT", and finally we just started phonics.   "CAT" as a word, as opposed to three letter sounds said in order came at about lesson 10.  This is the walking stage, and by walking, I mean stumbling around.

Ever since then, my child has been crawling around in advanced topics while I decide that he has crawled long enough and we jump right in.  With test prep, we tried a figure matrix very early.  He couldn't come to terms with fact that the figure on the left, in the top row, changes in some way and becomes the figure on the right.   We never even made it to the bottom row for months.

I've tried advanced novels (he didn't get it), and of course it's never too early to test out abstract thinking in the form of algebra and graphic functions (blank look usually).

The first problem is that you never know when you're child's brain is on the verge of walking on a particular topic, and you don't want them sitting there in a mental baby crib wasting time with things that don't require any mental effort.  The second problem is that they never get to the verge of walking on a topic if they haven't crawled around with it for a while.  Frankly, a parent has no idea how a particular concept or concrete skill is going to be received by the child's brain without some experimentation.

This parenting skill isn't #10 because it's less important than the first nine (some of which I haven't introduced yet), but it's #10 because it's hard to master.  The new bar for math is to have a child complete high school geometry in 8th grade.   These parents are running their children over a cliff in a big herd, which leads me to believe the majority of parents don't understand the Crawl and Walk skill.  Did you know that Harry Potter Book #5 has an average of 3 SAT words per page?  (Except in the fight scene narratives which only have spell words.)  Yet most kids in our program have read the whole series by 2nd grade.  Opportunity lost.  Geometry is like that.   The kids skip right to running, and to compensate for the fact that it's the wrong time, they are doing something else, like skipping over rich vocabulary and memorizing formulas, instead of taking advantage of the topic at hand, which is preparing for the SAT (Harry Potter) and learning advanced problem solving skills (Geometry).

Here are the elements of Walk or Crawl:
1.  Pick a topic commensurate with the development of your child's brain.  It's probably 2 years ahead than grade level, but not every topic 2 years ahead qualifies.
2.  Introduce it.  Buy a book and give them 2 hours to do a single problem.  See how it goes.
3.  Repeat #2 until there's some recognition or you've run out of patience.
4.  Assign the whole book.

With math, we usually linger on #2 for years, and not because my child will take 2 years to struggle with the square root of 4, but because it will take a few years for him to really come to grips with the depth of meaning in this operator, ancillary topics like the irrationality of the square root of 2, the role of root decomposition, and the square root of negative 1.  That's a lot of crawling.   By the time that he's ready to walk, we've typically skipped over the material in it's entirety and are moving on to characterizing polynomial functions.  In some ways, I'm worse than the parents who make their children do geometry in 8th grade.

It's easy for me to prove that a child is not ready for the advanced curriculum that they have almost completed simply by asking questions that characterize a subject when taught at the proper age level.
In reading, it's usually just picking up a book and asking "what does this word mean", or "what is this character thinking" or "how is this book going to end?"  In algebra, it's as simple as "describe the role or impact of this parameter", and in geometry, it is "prove [something really complicated] using no formulas or theorems".   We could work backward through math and the questions would be in the same vein.

I'm not entirely satisfied with this presentation.  I think it will take a few more years to mature like most of my research.

For now, to simplify things, continually gauge your child's readiness for different topics, expose them to ideas and concepts and if they had enough time to mature, jump right in, ready or not.   As a corollary, choose the topic wisely and approach it thoroughly; this will probably take twice as long or longer as it would if they tackled the topic at the normal age.