Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Skills Development Process

For the past 4 years, I have written articles explaining the four core skills:  reading the questions, not minding incorrect answers, checking the answer and trying again, and comfortable being baffled. These are the core skills that support all of the others and are the key skills for any age group.

One of my readers asked for more information when I remarked in an article that the list of subskills change over time.  The subskills that change are the focus of my current research, because I'm working with the age spectrum from 3 to middle school right now, and range has 3 jumps in skills.

Another reader asked about what to do if you just wake up when your child is in middle school and find out about these for the first time.   There's no magic to these skills.  It's only easier when the child is younger because you forget how hard it was.  Maybe it's easier for a parent to change when the child is younger, maybe not.   I will say that the 4 core skills come directly from the parent's example, attitude, and approach to helping out with the work, which is why I will refer to GAT Parents, but not GAT children, because there's no such thing as GAT children.   You can get the ball rolling at any age.

There are other skills higher up in the pyramid, like dealing with ambiguity, which is specifically tested on the COGAT.  (These are referred to as lower order skills, so I guess the pyramid is upside down.) If your child has the core skills, he will develop the subskills, no matter what they are, the proper way, through his own hard work.  I rarely mention subskills, because if I did, I would have to answer 2,457 questions from parents about their particular situation.  These would all be valid questions, and I would respond the best that I can, but the problem is that most parents are not qualified cognitive skill instructors.  If you focus on the 4 core skills while doing work, you are creating the proper learning environment.  When your child applies a learned skill, it will go quickly, and if the skill isn't learned, the child will struggle as the skill develops.

What concerns parents is either the worry that it won't happen (it always does if you stick with it), or that it might not happen in time for the GAT test (choose your material wisely and prepare for the worst).

I work with engineers, and the problems are pretty much the same.  When it comes to client work, budget is king, and I'm usually explaining problem solving alternatives, but what I would like to do is just leave them alone, because when I do they usually come up with something better than my approach, or at least an improvement.  When I was defining the core skills (no thanks to the abysmal and useless field of cognitive psychology), I would observe the same dynamic at home with my 4 year old as I did at work with top engineers.

Even working memory is a supported by the core skills.   Building working memory is a painful process, especially at later ages.  The four core skills are required to keep parent and child in the game while problem after problem go painfully slowly and mistakes are common.  Working memory slowly builds through exercise.  You might think patience is a core skill, but it appears to me to be a learned behavior dictated by the 4 rules of the game, and not something that just happens.

There are 4 benchmarks for skills, commensurate with the periods in a child's life in which the brain develops in leaps, and the classical education has been aligned for many years with these periods. The person or group who discarded the classical education also discarded this alignment, to the detriment of education.  Certainly improvements were made to education (one way or another), but the transition opened the door to children excelling at school because their parents were busy at home addressing gaps at school.

My current line of research is to observe the subskills in each period, and the go back to the prior period to see what activities, concepts, or challenges you can give the child to set up success with the skills in the next period.   I think school attempts to do that, but in a different way:  school is looking at the curriculum demands in the next period, which is poorly correlated with thinking or success or anything valuable to me, whereas I'm squarely focused on a much higher goal, which is The Field's Medal, at a minimum, for one child and a Pulitzer in play writing for the other, after breezing through graduate school at Stanford in some unrelated field.

Level 0
This level is the age group from 0 to 3.   The core skills are naturally present in both parent and child. Think of this team when the child is learning to take the first step.  The biggest mistake a parent ever makes is changing from a ridiculously high bar and zero expectations, to yelling at their child because they can't recite "3 + 4" fast enough.  When a child is learning how to walk, the task is impossible, and the parent claps and smiles while their child stumbles around like a drunk.  By age 9, the child is doing mindless work at school and everyone is mad that the child isn't trying hard enough because they have to think instead of recite "7" from memory.

Where are you as a parent?  Did you retain the same approach that you did when your child was 18 months old?  Of course not.  All of the misbehavior beat it out of you.  

Yesterday, I asked my 11 year old to give me plausible examples that characterize all relevant variants of the 4 most common function types, including linear, exponential, inverse, polynomial of degree 2, and a mega function that combines all of them.   I offered him the opportunity to write a paper explaining everything important about all function types as an alternative.  His work was horrible.  "y = 5 / x.  y is how much my little brother whines, and x is the hours of sleep he gets each night.  y = - 5 /x .  Y is how much I like my little brother and x is how many hours of sleep he gets each night."  With tears in my eyes, I told him that I was stunned with his achievement and effort and he just earned unlimited computer time for life.   Not only that, I was leaving and he could do whatever he wanted.  An hour later, I returned and revoked all computer privileges for life because he and his little brother were fighting.

The main reason why I did this was because I was reading my only advice and realized how far short I was writing.  Can you imagine an 11 year old characterizing these 4 function types?  He barely knows what they are.   It's like learning to walk, but you only get an hour to do it.  Guess what?  He can walk, albeit with lots of questions.  I kept trying to go downstairs to vacuum but he wouldn't let me go until it was finished..

Level 1
This level includes from about 3.75 to age 5 or 6.  The big event is reading.  The secondary event is Kindergarten math.  As of late, cognitive skills building is thrown in, thanks to GAT tests.

In 1912 (maybe earlier), E.L. Thorndike mentioned that he process of reading and learning to read contains the complete skill set across all ages in form suitable for a beginner.  I'm not sure yet if this is true for any other activity or Level.  As I complete the Gifted and Talented Phonics book (up to Lesson 92 in my final review), I'm seeing these in action.  If done right, the core skills are also there.
At this stage, I'm primarily interested in building vocabulary, and not just knowledge of a list of words, but knowledge of concepts to spur cognitive activity.  The primary subskill for Level 1 is seeing things and this sets the stage for later skills.   For example, two kids walk through our house and into our living room.  One kid, the kid with undeveloped cognitive skills, sees the living room. The other kid, the one with cognitive skills, sees the living room, and is wondering whether he just walked through a vestibule or a foyer with only one route to go on the way in.  Can a vestibule have a door and one additional route?  Is it big enough and have enough art to qualify as a vestibule?  It's definitely not a lobby.

The kid who learns to see things that others don't, and is trying to work out associations and contrasts, is developing a formidable skill set that is explicitly tested on the COGAT.  Gifted and Talented Phonics has "lobby" and instructions for the parent.   As a parent myself, I realize that it's unlikely that the word "lobby" and its synonyms is not going to excite any given child (or parent), probably not most of them, and it is right next to some other "obby" word for phonetic value.   But there are over 2,000 other highly readable words in this book and most lessons include fine print for parents that includes instructions and activities to add more explosives to the impending brain explosion.

The first part of this book is beginning phonics, and by the word "beginning", I mean that the book is going to transition to conceptual vocabulary, math words, and pre-test prep.  The only thing holding me back from publishing is trying to keep my parent instructions to a readable 20 pages while I explain how to pull this off.  While the primary motivation is development of cognitive skills, it's really great when your child can not only read on his own, but read the directions in his math book and do it without crying, not to mention a test prep book.  Why strive for one goal when you can strive for three?

Since Level 1 contains the complete introduction to cognitive subskills, I'm not going to list them.  A beginning reader who reads the word "read" in a sentence can hit many of the subskills at once, including dealing with ambiguity, problem decomposition, and others as well depending on the context.  Words like "grin" are packed with comparison, contrast, and shades of meaning when properly presented.

Addressing an underdeveloped vocabulary is, by the way, much easier at older ages.   A 23 year old is perfectly capable of mastering GRE vocabulary in 6 months at the 99.9% level, and completely catching up on everything else on the way.  This is true at the high school level and the middle school level.  While it's a lot of work for the child, it's a lot less work for the parent.

The goal of this article was to show how skills develop starting at Level 2, and change at Level 3 and Level 4.  I see that I blew it.  Fortunately, I'm not the slightest put off by my own failure and am thrilled to try again, but it will wait for another article.


  1. Do you think your phonics book will replace or supplement vocabulary workshop -- and for what ages?

    1. Phonics books are for older kids. Nothing targets kids at the stage where they can learn to read, and I am of course looking at the big picture in terms of skills, and not just reading. It's like pre test prep. Vocab workshop is a different animal and begins after phonics. I would never replace a book, because if a book gets the job done, then I simply recommend it.