Sunday, July 23, 2017

Motivating Your Pre-GAT Kids

Every child is a GAT child waiting to happen.  The primary challenge is getting there.

Motivation is always the biggest issue at any age.   I've taken on a few challenges lately across the age spectrum. In one case, I'm pondering how to motivate 3rd grade daughters of math teachers.  In another case, it's a 6th grade girl with lots of promise (7th grade in 2 months), who's parents are both adept at advanced math (for a living) but who does not want to do math with her parents.  Then there is the 12 year old resident of Math House who's inching his way toward surly rebellious teenager.

The easiest time to motivate kids is right around age 5.   The reason I say 'the easiest' is that it's nearly impossible, as I will describe below, and the 6 week disaster that parents will go through, normally, is boot camp for parents on what not to do and how to succeed.

The first step in motivation is to diagnose the problem.   Is the parent actually trying to teach math? Stop it.  Math is a useless boring topic.   Parents need to teach their children soft skills, like doing a bit of math work daily, being comfortable begin totally confused, making mistakes, trying again.   The kid can teach herself math.   Does the parent expect the child to get anything correct? Stop it. Expectations of any kind are counterproductive.

The internal state of affairs with the child are more challenging.   Does the child lack working memory at a suitable level?  The working memory I'm shooting for is the 99.7% level.  Is the child frustrated for lack of soft skills?  At age 5, unless you've been reading to your child 1 or 2 hours a night since birth, working memory and soft skills are probably lacking.  How much 'thinking endurance' does the child have during the first practice?  I'll size up a child in the first 10 minutes and quietly assign measures like 50% or less along different dimensions. For 5 year olds, I'm OK with zeros across the board.  It's a starting point and there's plenty of time to catch up.  After 10 minutes, I might have exhausted the child and there's no time to do an actual problem.  But there's always tomorrow.

I can't imagine any child being the slightest bit motivated while lacking basic problem tackling skills, so step one is going to be a somewhat painful process.  It takes about 6 weeks, and during this time it seems like it's all complaining and no learning. Parents of my inaugural Kindergarten Summer Math Camp laugh that it was more about Cheetos and Skittles than math, but their kids did a lot of math on their own that summer.  At home with my own kids it was more painful.

If you start late, it's easier because the child is less likely to cry, but it seems much harder because they are better at articulating 'I hate this.'

I never imagined that a 9 year old girl would not be motivated to do math.   Boys, maybe, but certainly not girls.  This is the age of Test Prep Math, my primary focus after age 5.  Girls love it. The best I can get out of boys is 'these problems aren't lame', but that's good enough for me.  This is intentional - the word problems incorporate the way girls learn, which is an approach needed for boys if they want to work at the highest levels.  Girls will step out of their comfort zones on the quant problems.

The challenge I have with these two 9 year old girls is that I'm too embarrassed to tell their parents about the books.  One teaches college math and the other 5th grade math.  I'm reluctant to mention that I invented a revolutionary program that doesn't really teach math but is nonetheless designed to put the kid in the 99% in both math and reading comp.  Their kids may be in our program, the parents may be super nice, but by virtue of their backgrounds they are my two top rivals.  I made a vague promise that I would meet with them the summer after 4th grade.  I figure I'll need about 2 months to crack them into shape. When I'm finished, my 9 year old is going to have some formidable rivals.  Game on.

When kids are 5, it's usually silliness and goofiness.  I'll make puppets, do math crafts, bring in stuffed animals.   Working with kids is fun, but 2nd grade math is pretty boring, so I generally do this for myself.  Kids at this age learn on their own as they pick up the skill set.  It's an explosion of learning, so all I have to do is find things to keep myself amused during the process.  It's a waiting game.

Between 2nd and 4th grade, it's usually me against them.  I bring insane, convoluted problems some of which don't have an answer (if you've seen Test Prep Math, you've seen problems like this) and watch the children learn to be surprised and to think.  Math can wait.  By 4th grade, there will be no math they can't tackle on their own.  While the rest of the country is learning decimals and long division, my kids are working out the answers to 3 equations in their brains. It's like a GAT transmorphication machine.

7th grade is a different matter.  Somewhere during 6th grade, math becomes math.   It's the same enjoyable experience usually, but we're actually dealing with math.  The end goal is the same set of skills, but it starts with math, ends with math, and there's a lot of math in between.  Even worse, the outcome counts, so it's hard as a parent to have a casual zero expectations attitude toward the process, because parents are thinking 'get ahead in math, do it well on tests, get into a great high school or the right high school curriculum, and then college...'

Yesterday my surly almost-teen-ager announced that he was done with math.   This is the bane of parents who teach math, the curse of the oldest child (or the youngest, or the middle child, but in my case the oldest), and the shortcoming of kids who have already chosen a career that has a path through liberal arts and not STEM.   On the other 1,000 or so occasions that this has happened in the past, we would do math anyway.  But I'm thinking 'How does a parent who doesn't live near the Top Academic Coach in the country get their child to do math?' Time for experiments.

I said nothing, and he started his rebellion by reading non-stop for 3 hours to spite me.  For the last few weeks, he's been doing this intentionally and I pretended not to notice.  I've been quietly building my arsenal of painting supplies for my counter attack.

After his announcement, I announced that my job as a parent is to prepare my child for their chosen career, a job I take very seriously. I will not fail.  Math is not the only way to get there.   (It is, actually.  I was just posturing.) So I'll give him 2 choices.  Either he becomes the top math guy in the country, under our normal rule of 'No Math No Video Games', or we retire all screens until 8th grade and he just does chores instead of math.  After giving him a list of cleaning chores, I told him he would paint the interior of the house, starting with the back. Then there are 30 windows on the outside and the garage, or, as the English like to say, the gairej.

He was not amused. For the next 4 hours we had a chore competition, me vacuuming and him painting, both with smug, false satisfied facades.  He put way too much paint on the brush and then glanced my way to ensure that I saw there were no drops anywhere. The kitchen trim looks great. It's an old building and there is lots of trim.

At the end of the afternoon, he asked me if he could play video games.  'No', I said, 'No math, no video games.  That's the rule in Math House.'  But what about all of this painting? he asked.  'Instead of video games and math, from now on you're doing chores all day.  That's our deal.  I'll give you a few weeks to make your final decision.'

I'm considering what it will be like with a kid who only does chores and no math leading up to the critical year of all A's and 99% on two tests in order to get into high school.   It's unprecedented, but it just might work.  I think he's all ready prepared.  We've been at this non-stop since the summer after 4th grade, which is probably why he needs a break.  It's also why I'm interested in next year's 4th graders and next year's 7th graders.  I think I have room next year to work on the Chicago project and deal with these other people's problems.

My younger brother came to me and asked 'What is my math?'  Your math, I told him, is to get your brother to do his math.

That failed.  We walked to a block party so I could track down some of the parents of other 6 graders so I could see what they are up to.  'Your math', I said, 'is to find out where they are serving beer while I figure out what I'm going to do next'.

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