Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Darker Side of GAT

Last week, parents in our class met to discuss how the year is going academically.   This is a very talented and high stress group of parents. If you put all of them together into one person, you would have an advanced species.

At this meeting, I felt like I did when I accompanied my son on the first day of first grade, knowing absolutely nothing.  That day, 5 years ago, a little girl approached me with a knit hat and started to tell me about the history of the hat. She talked like a sixth grader.  A boy came up and we got into a discussion about the 5 states of nature.  There was ice on the ground, I commented about it, and he proceeded to yell at me because I didn't know the names of the 2 of the states.  I surmised correctly that both of these children were going to be classmates.  What had I done?  What I had done was figure out how to cheat my child into a GAT program, and now we were going to pay the price.  I felt like a primitive, backward Visigoth must have felt visiting Rome for the first time, in roughly 403 or 404 AD.

When I researched the statistical improbability of my achievement, I also discovered the even more improbably likelihood of getting a second child into the same program.   That's when I started this blog and my research into cognitive skills.  At one class outing, a parent complained about the fact that her children are spread across the north side of Chicago in various gifted and talented programs. This parent is now the dean of Arts and Letters at a university in the Southwest.   We also lost the little girl with the hat when her family moved to a suburb.  Before moving to Chicago, this little girl's mom taught Medieval French Literature.  In France no less.  To French students.  Some of these first grade kids could talk in depth about the Harry Potter series.  Some could talk at length about Lord of the Rings. I didn't read Lord of the Rings until high school.

The problem we discussed at the meeting last week related to the curriculum and teacher turnover. Our kids lost 3 teachers in the last 6 years, and 2 retired at the end of the year.  These events are disruptive to grades and test scores. Our 6th grade teacher is new to the program.  Here we go again. In the middle school, she's the math teacher.   The other two are in charge of science and language.   We now have 3 teachers each with at least 20 years in GAT programs.  The new one comes from a program south of the city.  I've been following the repeated curriculum changes in the last 3 months, and I think she's probably the best math teacher in the country.  Nonetheless, there were complaints.  I will summarize:

  • Directions and assignments are not straightforward.  My child has to think.  This is an outrage.
  • My child has to organize their schedule and keep track of due dates.  This is an outrage.
  • I do my homework for my child, and the material is beyond my abilities.  This is an outrage.
My rival in this group is a parent who has multiple graduate degrees in Chemistry.  My son informed me that he teaches Chemistry in high school, that he invented things, and that he leads a research lab. I don't know which of these are true, because I'm just being teased by my son. At  each parent meeting, this parent provides an assessment of the math homework, which he does with his daughter each night, and ends his comments with a disclaimer that even though the curriculum doesn't meet his standards, his daughter has always gotten and continues to get straight A's.   

Big deal.  Anyone can have a daughter with straight A's.  They do what you ask them to do, quietly, and write neatly with big swirly loops in purple or green pen.  You should try fighting back from a C in math with a boy who really doesn't give a blank about school enough to bother to turn in assignments, which is probably a good thing, because he also doesn't care enough to make the assignment readable.

At the same type of meeting last year, I made the mistake of talking and ended up in a fairly emotional tirade.   We were right in the middle with C's in math and those bullet points above, with the exception of the third one, characterized my feelings.  At last week's meeting, I kept my mouth shut.  It's 409 AD. Next year is the big year in Chicago, the year that grades and test scores determine whether you get into a great high school, and Rome is about to be sacked by the Visigoths.   What your back, Chemistry dad. Next year, the science teacher likes to kick things off with a test in which all the students receive a D. Ever see the Star Trek (2009) where the future captain is the first person to pass the Kobayashi Maru exam? That's what I'm talking about.

I woke this morning to a question from my favorite reader Anonymous.  Anonymous asks great questions.  You mention that parents should be prepared for the child to be completely stumped and get 50% less or worse on practice tests. How do you 'teach' the child to think if they don't understand how to attack the problem, without basically telling them what to do? Also, if they get it wrong, how should parents guide the child to figure it out?

The answer to this question is the key to everything.  It's the key to getting into a GAT program, becoming a GAT parent (meaning a parent who is doing everything right to raise a GAT student), doing well in the program, having a strong year when it counts, and based on what I've seen so far, I predict doing great in high school, college, and graduate school.  It's the key from going from a C in easy math to an A in really hard math, and bring test scores back from above average to barbarian horde of one.

It's also the key behind the two Test Prep Math books for 2-4 grade and really high test scores.  It plays the opposite role in the Phonics Book, but will play the normal role in the book I'm going to release in about a month.   This new book, paired with the Phonics book, is designed for 99.9% on the "easy" way.  Almost all parents don't know the easy way exists until they've been through it once with their first child, so it's more of a 2nd child thing.  By the way, the 99.9% child is now taping his Christmas wish list to Santa on our front door.  He's in 3rd grade already.   Apparently, big thinking skills are no match for a big imagination, even when we spent 2 weeks calculating how much Santa's sleigh must way, how big it is (Rhode Island), and how many Apollo rockets it needs just to take off once, and how many homes it would destroy in the process.

I've done the exercise I'm going to describe below repeatedly with a variety of children.  Here's how it works with matrix problems.  A matrix problem has 3 parts, including the top row, the row with a missing element, and the answer choices.  At some point, maybe a few months, the child can work these 3 in their brain simultaneously.  They have to build their working memory first.  Working memory has one bucket to start, but as you engage in 3 part problems, the child builds three brain buckets.  Almost all of the problems in Test Prep Math are 3 part problems, and now you know why.   The quantitative section of the COGAT is not all 3 part problems, but what the heck, if you can do 3 part problems 2 part problems are much easier.  I don't explicitly guarantee that if a 2nd or 3rd grader gets through 75% of each Test Prep math book they'll be at 99% on tests, but I would be shocked if it didn't happen.

Anyway, back to a 4 or 5 year old. Assuming your child needs to learn how to solve problems, how to think on their own, and has to build working memory at the same time, this is how it's going to go. Invite your child to do a problem, in this case, a matrix practice problem.   They will either say "I don't know how to do it", as in "explain it to me", or they'll just get it wrong, or guess.  Read the article on tutors from a few days ago to know what I think about helping.

With word problems, you have to ask your child to read it again, and again, and again one word at a time explaining as they go.   With matrix problems, your first step is to have the child describe in detail exactly what they see and how the shape or shapes is changing from one box to the next.  Then the child needs to look at each answer choice, and describe what would change in the second row if that answer was put in the empty box.   

The first question could take 45 minutes.   If it takes 45 minutes, lots of learning is going on, and on top of that, your child is learning that a single problem requires a lot of patient thinking and analysis. This is one of the soft skills needed for the test.  Your child could still get the question wrong, because there are hard skills needed, but the soft skills are much, much more important so you focus on these first.

If the child should happen to get an answer correct, guessing or not guessing, make them go through the same process above to prove their answer to you.

My all time record with a child was 3 hours on a single math question.  This was our first question.   He was in 4th grade.  After 6 months, I stopped working with him and his mother never talked to me again, but he went from 2 years behind to a strong student in 6 months, and he learned English at the same time.  None of his teachers knew that he didn't speak a single word of English 6 months ago, not even "hamburger" or "OK".  With other kids, it's usually 45 minutes.  I must be getting soft.

If the child is explaining the top row of a matrix problem, or the answer set, or the relationship, they will probably miss things.  I like to do the Blind Academic Coach exercise.  I take out a piece of paper and a pencil, and ask the child to tell me what to draw so I can reproduce the diagram with my eyes closed.  Of course, they try to describe a shape and I write exactly what they say, and it ends up being dramatically different then the one they are looking at.  If they say "there are two squares", I'll draw one big, one small, toughing diagonally, and it looks nothing like the picture.  So I discard the drawing after we have a good laugh, and I'm blind again with no knowledge of what I'm supposed to draw.

If this sounds like the Karate Kid approach to test prep, as in "Wax On, Wax Off", it is.  That's why I'm the Yoda of Academic Coaches.  Watch the movie for your homework, or the scene on youtube, because this is going to be exactly your approach to coaching.

You have to do at least 10 problems like this, maybe a whole practice test, just to get the soft skills down.  You'll look at the problem, and the square in the top row flipped, but there is no way your child is ever going to figure this out because a flipping square doesn't look like it did anything.  These are hard skills, but you can't get to these until you get the soft skills down.

For older children, I call this "Read The Question", as in spend 15 minutes reading the question and 1 minute getting it right, instead of 1 minute reading the question and 15 minutes getting it wrong.  I have an academic coaching session later this morning with 2 middle school kids, and every problem they are going to get today will involve some trick in the question that needs to be identified in order to get the correct answer.   

The problem with learning the hard skills is that you think you're going to beat the COGAT, but the COGAT is about thinking, not shape manipulation skills.  If your child gets all of the questions right on a practice test, you should worry that they just know shape manipulation and are going to be crushed by the trickery on the actual test.  Therefore, teach the hard skills with the soft skills in mind, you will.  And use the force.

What could happen with that shape as it moves from left to right?   Well, it could change count in some way, the count of anything in the diagram.  Anything you could assign a number to.  It could change shape, size along vertical or horizontal dimensions, color, pattern, it could flip vertically or horizontally, or it could rotate 90 degrees in either direction.   Make a list, get some shapes, and have your child demonstrate or draw each transformation.   This should be eye opening.

Rotation doesn't play a role in tests at the 4-5 year old level.  If it did, the GAT programs would be filled with boys who have big Lego collections, instead of girls who write their letters with swirly loops.

Now go back to the practice test with your list, and spend some time with the top row and the answer choices and have your child describe the elements of the question against the list.  I'm warning you a second time, the list isn't going to help your child on the actual test enough to get past 90%, but going through a question methodically using the list will help them get there.  Methodical is a soft skill, and also a key skill for IQ type tests like the WISC.   The practice tests on the market have some of the basic weirdness that will show up on the cognitive skill tests, but not all of it, and you will encounter corner conditions or other surprises.  At one point, I created about 1,000 questions and I didn't cover all of the complexity and permutations that could be present on a test.  This didn't help.  In the process, however, I became skilled at making a question that guarantees a wrong answer.   I found that going through 100's of possible questions didn't result in any progress, but spending 15 minutes getting a single question wrong resulted in a measurable increase in the circumference of my child's skull. Because of this, in this house, we refer to my youngest son as Modoc.

Those parents who make it this far in my articles without giving up are going to spend time on test prep with a really great strategy.  I always provide the really useful advice at the end to weed out impatient parents.  Impatient parents are going to pass their impatience on to their children, who will then fail no matter what I say.  That way I can keep my record of effectiveness and be able to say with a straight face that if you do what I suggest, success will follow.  Plus, I can't have 6th grade parents reading this far because the competition is so fierce next year.  The bar on cognitive skills and academic skills goes up in 4th grade and goes up in middle school, but the approach is exactly the same.  That's why a test like the COGAT is so good at predicting those who will succeed academically.

That first child, the child who is currently forming a barbarian horde of one, got into the program because I didn't know test prep exists.  I just sat down 2 months before the exam, when I found out that such a thing as GAT programs existed, pretty late in the game, and created my own practice tests questions.  They looked nothing like any test I know of, since in fairness to me, I didn't know of any tests.  Many questions were nonsensical.  Many didn't have an answer.  We still laugh about the diagram of 5 detailed clown heads, some rotated, in which my child was supposed to pick the one that was different.  I forgot to change one, so the answer was that none of them were different.  I had lots of questions that he had to correct me on.  That's why he's in the program.

When I applied my graduate math and 25 years of engineering and training engineers to test prep, I found out the hard way that I was right all along.   It's not the detailed knowledge of shape manipulation that did it, it was getting a lot of questions wrong that in some cases are actually wrong to begin with.  It's about patience, and analysis, and thinking, and going from "I can't do this" to not giving up.  This is what a parent has to teach.  When my kids were testing Test Prep Math, the best questions were the ones that I screwed up.  It took me an additional 6 months to work this aspect into problems without making it look like the book had actual errors, which it still did in it's first printing. I'm forever in the debt of a reader from Pennsylvania who pointed out that question 2 or 3 was wrong. If I ever write Test Prep Math Level 1, the names of the main characters will come from her family.  I am totally against lame, boring math questions, so the questions actually make somewhat of a story involving the made up exploits of my children's classmates.  The only mistake I made was choosing Mallory for the main nemesis in Test Prep Math level 3, because she sat on the student council with my son and seemed to have all of the marking of an A student.  In retrospect, I needed a little girl playing the role of an evil Chemist.

I'll have a bit more to say about these hard skills for 3 and 4 year olds in a month.  It's more of pre-prep test prep, or pre-test-prep, and is part of the 99.9% the easy way program.   I can't write off impatient parents entirely, because at one point I was the most impatient parent of all.  For these, they can just take the short cut via, although because of the cost of publishing in color, it will be about $35.   

I don't market my books at all.  I think I'll start doing this after my 3rd grader (aka Modoc) gets beyond the level where a child who does Test Prep Math would provide competition.   We've been practicing competitive math at the 5th grade level, and it's going well.   I think he could become the Michael Phelps of math competition.

In the meantime, I see that 4 people have already purchased the Phonics book.  Good, since I need the $3 in profit to offset the thousands of hours I've devoted to these books.  They really have no idea what they're in for.  The approach that I outlined above works for the verbal section pretty well, but it is so much easier to take the test and not get anything wrong because the questions are two years below the capabilities of the child.

Any test prep needs reading as a companion, and during reading time you can just talk as much as you want, ask and answer questions, explore words, and try to pack your child's brain with as much information as possible.   Use long, multi-clausal sentences with big words.  This is a legitimate way to learn and builds working memory.  It doesn't teach how to be stumped though, but comes close.

The exercise with the matrix problems also works great with reading comprehension books, those so advanced that you have to actually do the reading to your child while he points to the correct or incorrect answer.  The reason I like reading comprehension questions is that a) it includes all of the cognitive skills present on a test, even though it's just reading and b) it's not the format of the test so it exposes your child to an additional level of surprise, confusion, and thinking.   I don't think I'll ever put together a book that mirrors what I did in 2 months with my oldest child (horde of one), but reading comprehension exercises come pretty close.  The problem with practice tests is that they can't measure the actual cognitive load of a test, but reading comprehension comes pretty close.


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