Wednesday, June 28, 2017

8 Weeks from Dummy To Gifted

The very first thing I ever did as an academic coach was to teach incomprehensible material.

It was 8 weeks before our gifted and talented test.  The school district did not reveal the name of the test.   I assumed that googling "how to prepare for mystery test" would be a waste of time, so I made up my own material.

What is the best way to prepare a 5 year old for a test that doesn't require any learned knowledge, a test that will be used to identify top academic performers? Common sense told me a bunch of ridiculously confusing problems on material he's never seen before.

There is a much longer list of  sub skills that will help a child get a passing score, but looking at ridiculously confusing problems and trying to figure them out is good for about 90%.  I've recently written an article on mistakes, an important topic for ongoing academic work at high levels (aka higher levels that your child's current level).  Dealing with mistakes has an official role on the test, but the whole purpose of the test is new and hard problems to see if your kid blinks. A blinking child isn't going to get far enough in the problem to worry about mistakes.

There are other sub skills on the test to see if your child is exposed to rich language or does some math at home, but the test is heavily weighted toward kids who are just going to take their time and figure out a problem.  No one is going to take the time to figure out a problem if they are put off by problems that take time to figure out.  Kids who have done nothing at all, can't read, no math, no test prep, get into GAT programs because they are OK with hard problems.

Last night I sat down with my kid to cover the 12 math problems I left on the breakfast table before heading off to work.   He made a good effort, but he only completed 3 problems, and got them all horribly wrong.   We spent about 30 minutes redoing them.  Here's how it went:

Me:  You're supposed to do the problem this way.
Son:  No, YOU'RE supposed to do the problem THIS way.
Me:  Stressing random words doesn't make you right.

In these 3 problems were a variety of math topics he hasn't mastered yet.  These topics are introduced in 3rd grade, taught in 4th grade, and drilled extensively in 5th grade.   For example, fractions.  Fractions are presented in school math in this way:  3 1/2 - 1 2/5 = ?  This is completely useless, and any child with a shred of intelligence learns that fractions are a waste of time.  Even the word problems are completely irrelevant.   But by Algebra 1, you see 3 1/2 - (1 2/5)x = -4, and suddenly all of Pre Algebra is needed in order to solve x, including fractions, order of operations, negative numbers, and equation transformations.

Will my child master Algebra at a young age?  No.  He will become adept at Pre Algebra, and when he see's Algebra for the first time in school it will be really easy because it's all sitting in buckets in his brain waiting for light bulbs to go off.  But mainly, he'll be used to taking a long time to figure out really hard material with a lot of moving parts.  For little kids, I call this skill "Being Baffled", and it's the biggest skill of all.   For older kids, it consists of being patient with a lot of new syntax like dx/dy, limit of f(x) over d as d approaches 0, the word tangent, as he comes to terms with calculus.  Someday in college, when all of the kids are baffled in Organic Chemistry or Chemical Engineering, one baffled kid is going to just keep chugging along.

I've been at this for 7 years so far with my kids and a few other kids that I've worked closely with over a long period of time.  I'm going to present my refined curriculum in the next article.  I never expected that I'd be teaching calculus to a 12 year old who hates math, but that's where it leads.  In the link on the upper right Chapter 4 - How To Create A Gifted Mathematician I presented exactly what I did as I did it, updating this page every 18 months or so, and now I can confidently state that it works way beyond expectations.

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