Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Thinning

I stumbled across this trailer last Saturday.  I was searching for something from MadTV. At first I thought it was a comedy.  After laughing my way half way through, it dawned on me that this was a serious distopian drama about a world with high stakes testing.

There's a scene where a mom is drilling her small child on random facts.   Earlier in the day, my son and I took a walk to get donuts because he finally made some progress on algebraic proofs.  During our walk, I was shouting out things like "Prove the sum of an odd and an even number is odd" and he was articulating the proof in between gasps of air while he tried to keep up with me.  Ever since he expressed an interest in wrestling, the pace of our walks has increased to a moderate jog.

I'm not sure what is scarier, the TV series where children are 'eliminated' if they don't pass an academic test, a country where cognitive skills are tested instead of taught, or a dad jogging with his 8 year old while quizzing the child on algebraic proofs.

It was algebraic proof at older ages where I identified the missing skill.

Some kids look at a complicated math problem and expect to answer it in one shot. That's the absence of the skill.  Skills usually manifest themselves to me in their absence.

Problem decomposition is a series of skills that is used to break a big difficult problem into smaller easier to solve steps.   The core skill is simply to acknowledge that the every problem is made of multiple problems, and that is the missing skill.

I prefer to teach core skills instead of non-core skills.  The non-core skills, including all cognitive skills, math skills, reading skills, and all other kinds of testable skills take too much time to diagnose and teach. By focusing on the core skills, a parent or academic coach can create an environment where the child can teach themselves.  This is preferable, because the term for children who teach themselves is "gifted".

For example, the first 2 core skills are to be comfortable being totally confused by a problem and to be OK getting it wrong multiple times.   In this type of an environment, the child can take on new and challenging learning tasks.  With these skills, the child will acquire a very long list of cognitive skills. In the absence of these two core skills, the child is condemned to being spoon fed grade school level work.

Up to 5th grade, problems that are "confusion worthy" have lots of moving parts and problem decomposition has never been an issue because it falls out naturally while the child rereads the problem (core skill #3).  After 5th grade, multiple steps can hide behind a short problem and I'm observing children looking at the problem expecting to know the answer immediately.

Lately I've been decomposing figure matrices and folding questions.   I've always assumed that problem decomposition was obvious, but as I refine the solution strategy steps and work through previously challenging adult level problems, I'm coming to 2 conclusions.  Problem decomposition is not obvious for these 2 classes of problems and once you see the multiple steps the problems are fairly easy.

I'll keep you posted.

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