Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Power of Grit Part 2

This is the second part in my special series on Grit.  I had to take a break after the first article to read Angela Duckworth's book Grit The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  While Duckworth didn't invent grit, her work is so innovative that she now owns it.  Her book is going to require a separate article to review.  It contains a summary of her past research and the setting for her yet undone future research.

It's hard to apply passion or perseverance to children under the age of 15.   The subset element of grit that is my concern is a child who concentrates really hard on something challenging and finishes it despite mistakes, on his own, without my help, page after page, chapter after chapter, book after book, regardless of A report cards and C report cards.  My end goal is a child who's ready for a strong high school performance on autopilot.  You can give grit measures to kids and they will be strong predictors of behavior, but I would have a hard time using the term "passion" to describe a 10 year old, boy.  12 year olds are even worse.  Similarly, at this age, "perseverance" means "nagging parent" for activities extending past one year.

The Grit Learning Subset
I'm more interested in the learning goals.  I want the child to succeed with really hard, advanced material on their own some day.  Some day could be high school or next week. Really hard, advanced material is a description of test prep, gifted or accelerated programs, AP courses, a top notch college, and graduate school.  This is the target.

Before age 8, the fundamentals of grit training were there, but I'm not sure I was doing any more than preparing the home culture for what would follow.  The work we did at age 4, for example, is consistent with what we did later, but it's possible all I did was raise the bar on what defines challenge instead of preparing the child to tackle it with grit.

Here are the skills from age 8 to 11 that open the door to learning.
  1. Be comfortable working with complex, unknown material even though you're baffled.
  2. Explore the problem at hand for a long period of time.
  3. Continue in the face of mistakes, setbacks, gaps, and your own obvious incompetence.  Instead of causing frustration, these point the way toward next steps.  Try harder, and repeat.
  4. Build working memory.
These are my same boring learning skills.  I was hoping the Grit Learning Subset was something new and exciting, but the first three skills sum it up nicely.  I need a fancy name for these so I can open up the [Insert Fancy Name Here] Learning Centers and revolutionize education in the information age like Kumon or Suzuki did for learning in the industrial age.

Working memory is absolutely essential.  Without high levels of working memory, all subjects are a frustrating waste of time, even for the coach.  I've worked with children who have no working memory and it usually means building working memory for 1-3 months before we're ready to begin making process.

It seemed pretty obvious that my children were not going to pick up these skills working on a mindless spoon-feeding curriculum of short easy memorization problems, so I created the opposite and Test Prep Math was born.

After about a year of this approach, school work took care of itself, quickly and efficiently.  Then the unexpected happened.  The capacity for learning exploded.  It didn't explode just because 2 years of daily be confused, focus on figuring out what is being asked, try again, and not be bothered by it because it's the new normal.  It's that be confused, focus on figuring out, and make mistakes are the primary tool set for learning.

The coaching skills I outline in each book play a really important role.  These skills can't be the new normal if the parent freaks out when mistakes are made or explains everything to their child because the parent can't stand the frustration on the face of the child.

When we studied for the COGAT and the OLSAT, I set a pace of about 5 or 6 problems a day because over time I could see that more problems resulted in less learning.  One problem is optimal, but we had a deadline.  When we got to TPM, we were down to 1 problem a day plus maybe one or 2 bonus questions, which I think is the best pace for learning.  It's also the best pace for progress on really hard material, and hard material makes for a really hard worker.  When you've got a really hard worker at later ages, that 30 minutes a day could easily be 3 hours a day if needed, or 4, or 5 hours.

I'm going to talk about the #2 Grit Child in the country.  Unfortunately, the #1 Grit Child is the daughter of Russian immigrants.  When #2 was spending 4 hours rewriting his science lab sentence by sentence without complaint, he mentioned that this girl is rumored to spend 15 hours each weekend working on her lab and her labs are 40 pages each.  So we're #2.  Or we're just more efficient.

Anyway, Grit Child #2 finished TPM by about Spring of 4th grade.   I was looking for something in the area of pre-algebra, but it seemed rather easy and too mathy (not in a good way), so I gave him an SAT test prep book and asked him to find any easy problem in the first practice test.  After about an hour or so, he completed 5 and I think all 5 were incorrect.

We continued this on and off, but only on the weekends due to the homework load.  When he was totally stuck, the stuckness pointed to a new concept, so we'd spend some more time on it or I would dig up a math book and assign a chapter.  Based on my own advice, I don't help, but I am part of the discussion.   Otherwise, it was just a continuation of the routine we started with TPM.

After completing all 10 practice tests, then getting about a 3rd the way into the second, harder SAT test prep book, it seemed like we were starting to run out of challenge and the only questions left were advanced algebra and he was developing the unfortunate habit of answering the question correctly without using actual algebra techniques.  Not bad for the child who I picked as least likely to succeed in college math.

So we switched to reading comprehension.   With reading comprehension, the core skills are not enough.  There are quite a few readers somewhere in the middle of Test Prep Math Level 3, and you already see one of the missing components.   Reading a TPM question is similar to an SAT reading comprehension question because the foundation of each TPM question is the logic, impreciseness and intentional wordiness that require the same amount of time and brain power required by the SAT.

The other missing component is that with reading comprehension for a 6th grader who is missing high school level technical reading skills is that the "question" is not just the passage and the questions, but also includes an analysis of wrong answers.  When we figured out what is wrong on an incorrect answer, we usually discover some reading skill.  Most of these are not only under the heading of "a passage that needs to be written to comply with modern clarity standards", but also comprises a growing list of skills that we are learning.  I used to think that it would be far preferable to learning reading skills by taking high school level literature courses, but I've seen a huge leap in writing skills.  I guess a skill is a skill whether you do it the hard way or just cheat.

Here we are in the harder SAT book, and there aren't enough mistakes on reading comprehension questions for a lively post-question discussion.  I'm tempted to switch to 2 questions per session.

I've become accustomed to the TPM graduates in this house solving problems that they have no business solving, but what really freaks me out is when they explain the solution strategy and logic and it takes me a while to understand it and verify that the logic is correct.   These skills started gelling about a year after TPM.  I could see a very tiny bit of development each week as they plodded through confusion, long analysis and mistakes, but it still freaks me out.

Plodding along through confusion, long analysis, and mistakes is a pretty good definition of grit, but not a complete definition.  For now, I'll call it the Grit Learning Subset.

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