Friday, May 12, 2017

How To Teach Cognitive Skills 2 of N

The Stages of Cognitive Skills Development

I've come to the conclusion that cognitive skills are age independent.  

This is good news for any parent who stumbles across my blog when investigating GAT programs for their 3rd grade child and reads my articles about reading at age 3 or 4.  Yes, you may have totally missed the boat on early childhood development, but there is another boat at the dock ready to leave at any time.

I have met two year old who have no problem picking up an adult vocabulary.  These kids don't need a teacher because they have the skill set to teach themselves.

At the other end of the spectrum, I've worked with 10 year old children who are totally helpless with the easiest of problems because in lieu of learning any skills, they spent the last 10 years just learning stuff and how to do stuff. Show them something new and they are totally stuck.

In the middle there are the first graders who have no problem working their way through building thinking skills primary, grade 2&3, and on to grade 4&6.  I think age 6 is the sweet spot for test prep material (aka cognitive skills training material) for this reason.  In cognitive skills literature, "Grade 2" usually means "This is the book for a second grader if you've never seen one before" combined with a level of reading that is expected of an average 2nd grader.  I've been quietly working on a solution to this problem and am nearing completion.

Stage 1 - No Skills
The first stage of cognitive skills development is what to do when a child has none and bursts into tears when given a problem that they don't understand.  This could also be a 4 or 5 year old who reads a question or looks at a figure matrix and I can see they have about 30% of it swimming in their little brain with the other 70% left on the page for want of working memory space.

The goals for this stage are:

  • To get the child to spend as much time as they need studying the problem and potential answers.   This is easier said than done in the US culture of speed, memorization and impatience.
  • To celebrate mistakes.  I generally view answers as irrelevant to the learning process.  When the answer is announced, all learning stops.  When a child produces the incorrect answer, on the other hand, a brilliant neon sign starts flashing "Opportunity to Learn" whereas a correct answer means we just wasted time on something already mastered.
  • To build an environment where confusion and bafflement are part of the normal expectations instead of something that requires tears.  In other words, we're working on something because you don't know it and can't do it.
Almost always during this stage the child needs to build their working memory.  If the child is comfortable reading a 5 word sentence with familiar vocabulary, we need to get the child to a 20 or 30 word sentence with 3 new vocabulary words.  Their working memory should hold all known and unknown concepts until the new words can be resolved, fit back into the hole, and full understanding achieved.  

The same thing applies in math.   If the child can add 3 + 7 = ?, then we need to move on to 3 + 7 - 4 = ? and 3 + 7 - ? = 6, 33 + 71 - ? = 101, and then on to the 2 equation variety.

Confusion + a lot of time reading the question + mistakes go hand in hand with building working memory.

I suppose science, which puts reading and math together, would be a good place to teach cognitive skills, but it's so much easier to do so with reading and math and just let science be a Stage 2 beneficiary.

In order to build Stage 1 skills, the material must require the skills.   I prefer to work with a single problem that requires 15 minutes for a four year old up to 25 or 30 minutes for a 10 year old.  This is the exact opposite of doing a few pages from a workbook with the expectation of learning some domain content.  Spending 25 minutes on a single problem is probably not going to teach 3 new concepts.  I also like 5 or 6 problems because it's easier to handle for children at the starter end of the spectrum, and by the 4th or 5th problem I can see that their brain is exhausted.

As these skills are developed, the same level of problem might only take 15 minutes after 6 weeks, then 10, then less than 5.  I prefer to move to much harder problems to get back to the 25 minute mark, but to do so I make the problems 3 problems in one and add a lot of logic to the question to make it harder, or ambiguity.   So my 1 problem is really 5 or 6.

My favorite way to add logic is simply to rearrange the words and insert things like double negatives.
Those 3 problems in one could be 3 harder problems next time.  Three is a magic number.  After 3, working memory is usually exhausted and a pencil is required.  Also, I've noticed that cognitive skills tests usually require about 2 problems in 1 in all sections, but GAT cutoff is 95% or worse in most school districts so we are back to 3.

Most importantly, I answer questions with questions, leaving the work of thinking as the responsibility of the child, and waiting as long as it takes.  My record in a single sitting with a 10 year old is 3 hours on a single question, and 60 minutes for the 1st question is common.  With younger children I am willing to declare victory after 25 minutes of thinking and picking up some of a question.  There's always tomorrow.   In fact, if it's not Christmas Eve, there is always tomorrow with 100% certainty if that's what it takes.

Stage 2 - The Real Skills
Once the child has adequate working memory and the correct approach to the work (as outlined in Stage 1), the magic happens.  The child begins to devise ways to evaluate, organize and solve brand new problem.  The child sees patterns and relationships, details, and shortcuts.

These skills are the basis of IQ tests.   A cognitive skills tests measures the child's ability to evaluate a new problem and solve it, but an IQ test measures the child's ongoing performance and learned cognitive behavior in solving classes of problems that can only come from practice.  I hope this distinction is clear.  Unless you are desperate for a 99.8% of the COGAT (as are parents of Kindergartners in Chicago) test prep can usually stop after Stage 1.

In my experience, kids who have mastered Stage 1 have no problem teaching themselves the next level of skills.  I enjoy watching them come up with their own skill set.  It seems counterproductive to provide a list of higher order algorithms to solve a specific class of problems.  It's like 'unlearning'. It puts the answer ahead of the process and is detrimental in both the short term and the long term.

Nonetheless, I have encountered children who will never figure out on their own that a square can be transformed and due to symmetries (vertical, horizontal, diagonal, and rotational in increments of 90 degrees) the square will look like nothing happened to it.  This type of knowledge and related strategies are usually part of Stage 1 to make Stage 1 more interesting, and hopefully something else will come along in Stage 2 to be the basis of continued learning.

Stage 3 - Acceleration
Stage 2 skills continue to grow and multiply without limit. 

I generally put advanced, repeatable algorithms in Stage 3 in my professional life, but when working with kids, I'm usually all Stage 1.

The 4 core skills from Stage 1 have never failed.  (Bafflement, a long time spent reading the question, shrugging off mistakes with little regard for the actual answer, and working memory).  This is the path to Stage 2 skills.  

Unfortunately, I see no Stage 1 training in schools in any subject.  It's typically the opposite approach which results in not just a lack of learning skills, but the opposite skills, which I consider unskills or negative skills.  Think of impatience, having every question answered, having things explained, and generally sticking with easy one step problems to practice a concept that was explained at length with 3 examples.

Stage 1 Training is the #1 duty of every parent as far as the education of their child is concerned.  No one else is going to do it.

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