Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Teacher Recommendations

I just received this question, and it's article worthy.

Off topic but what do you do when your teacher doesn't seem qualified to teach second grade. This year is very important because we take COGAT in a couple of months and the GT committee considers not only test scores but more importantly second grade teacher's recommendation to pick who gets in and who doesn't and the voice of the second grade teacher weights most. Our teacher this year is her first year of teaching EVER, she has been a teacher's aid for a couple of years prior but this is her first year she has her own class. The worst part of it is that she just moved to our state from somewhere else and I bet she doesn't even know how the GT process works and what she is supposed to do on the test day (e.g. give instructions) or prep kids for the test (other classes do some kind of practice tests before the real COGAT test day). I am worried that my kid won't learn much for the whole year, but also about the GT application. All I can do is to make sure the test score is great and see what happens. Having a meltdown already in the first week of school. Should I start communication with the teacher early on that we want to definitely make it to GT? How do you even do that without looking like "one of those parents?" What do I do to make sure that my child doesn't fall behind so that she doesn't have so much to catch up next year? 

This question is totally awesome because my scheduled article picking apart figure matrices is really dry and needs a video to go with it, which I won't get to until Saturday.

As a courtesy to the questioner, I will ramble on for 4 or 5 paragraphs about how great teachers are, including this one, until I've lost 90 of 100 readers.  GAT slots are limited after all, and when you ask someone who studied both strategy and game theory at top 10 graduate schools, who's bitter about his wife not allowing him to work 18 hours a day and move every 3 years as he claws his way to the corporate ladder, but is stuck writing his blog counting the days until his kids earn full academic scholarships to Stanford so he can quit his job and teach, you're going to get rambling.

I've talked to teachers about teacher parent interactions and teacher parent conferences.   The best way to do this is to open a tab.  The teacher's perspective is shocking and eye opening.   First, the parents expect the teacher to ignore the other 29 kids and cater to their child's special abilities and needs.  Second, the parent, who hasn't taught for X years, reviewed curriculum, gotten an education degree, or anything else that remotely qualifies them to open their mouth during a parent teacher conference nonetheless explains to the teacher where she is lacking as a teacher.

What bothers a teacher the most are the parents who do zero at home and are upset that the teacher is not doing more.  This is the group usually at the 50% and below.  What bothers me the most are the parents who expect a teacher to change a grade from a B to an A.  If my kid got a B, I wouldn't necessarily express my disgust at his total ineptitude wasting all of that math genius on a B, because he doesn't do anything half way so it would be a D to spite me.  I would take it as an opportunity to build grit.  Walking into a teacher's office to speak on behalf of your child guarantees that he is going to grow up to be an unethical loser.  

Every teacher is somewhere in her career.  I haven't met a bad teacher yet, but somewhere in the career can spell disaster.   First year is usually the worse.   The last year is the worse for us with a couple of boys who did this year's math last year and would rather talk than pay attention.  I didn't invent 'Write Off' for 4th grade, I think the retiring teacher did.  I had to do a lot of teaching at home that year, including reading.

The first year teacher has to spend most of her waking hours building a curriculum.  If you've ever seen a curriculum for a 20 year veteran, first year teachers face a nightmare.   The first year teacher is going to be faced with dropping test scores, usually around 10 or 15 points, and parents demanding her ouster (at least for the high strung parents in my older son's classroom).

This teacher is going to pick a few kids for strong recommendations, and a few kids for 'maybe, let's wait and see' recommendations.   These kids will be totally into their academic work, and most likely have parents who are supportive of the teacher.  

We've been in this spot 6 times.  Two of these times were just difficult situations, 2 times with experienced teachers who were new to the program, once with a retiring teacher (worst year ever), and once with a teacher who left after one month and was replaced by a substitute for the entire year.  

So here's our scenario.  My 2nd grade child lost his teacher at the end of September.  The GAT program started in 1st grade, and we didn't know that the rest of the class could already read at the 3rd grade level going into the program. Oops!  Sometimes cheating your way into a GAT program can backfire.  I invented Pre-K Phonics so the next child would sit in class wondering why everyone else is so far behind.

So I laid it on the line.  'Look dude, this teacher has a ton of problems.  She needs help. You're going to help.  You're going to walk in their every day and say high and be cheery and polite, and if other kids step out of line, you wack them down like you're the Mafia's 8 year old hit man in training.'

That didn't work, so I let the kid know how much I looked up to and respected this teacher. She was my hero.  I still feel this way.  She's the best thing that ever happened to 2nd grade.  She was like Admiral Halsey walking into the Guadalcanal situation.  Only he had it easy compared to her challenge.  Next time we fight a war, I'm going to put together a special unit of GAT parents to consult the enemy on what a bad job they are doing until the enemy just quits out of demoralization.  (I plagiarized this from one of Dave Barry's books. Thanks Dave.)

I went in to parent teacher conferences with this attitude.  I thought about handing the teacher a bouquet of roses and singing how great she was, but instead I just kept my mouth shut and did whatever she recommended.

I kept this up during the legendarily difficult 3rd grade teacher who turned out to be my absolute favorite, and for 2 years, I didn't have to worry about a B, lack of preferential treatment, student council or anything else because my kid, who adopted a positive attitude toward the teacher, was the go-to guy in class because he actually got stuff done and was super helpful.  This of course created the perfect storm for 4th grade, but we fixed that the next year.  (Dude, I think it's time you have to start doing work.  This teacher actually grades homework and you haven't finished more than 20% of any assignment ever.)

I work with kids of all shapes and sizes (cognitively speaking) and it's exhausting for an hour with one kid.  I can't imagine what 30 kids every day would be like.  I think it would kill me by noon on the first day.  So, in the end, I was right all along.  Even the 4th grade teacher was enormously talented and wise, maybe the most talented and wise of the bunch.

Now that I lost the other 90 readers, you 10 listen closely.  Your job as a parent is that your are 100% in charge of the child's education.  Don't try to pass the buck.  The years when you have a really great teacher, you might be able to outsource 80 or 90% of your child's education to the school, maybe more.  In the mean time, you've got to assess your goals (99% across the board for life) with the teacher's goals (get 30 kids up to maybe 75% or more and keep them there) and fill in the gaps.

Turn the tables on your melt down kid.  In my case, I had to yank my kid out of a wonderful small neighborhood school at age 6, where we knew all of the parents and teachers and I taught many of his peers in my house and send him 4 miles away.  2 weeks after school started.  With no warning.  Here's me on Friday "I know you love your school, as do I, but I just got this test score so I'm sending you to a school 4 miles away on a bus that you'll have to get up at 6:00 am to catch and you're going to be shunned by your friends and never get invited to a birthday party again.  Starting Monday."   Which is exactly what happened.  So a week later, after laying awake all night feeling like the worst parent in the world, I said, 'I see that there are a bunch of kids in your same boat, and they are all feeling bad about this (was this true?) so you need to march in there every day and say 'Hi' to every single one of them so that no matter how bad things are, at least there's a friendly face acknowledging them. '  It took some daily nagging for a few months, worked really well.  No matter what your goal, it takes 6 weeks for a little kid to get with the program.

I've never actually approached a teacher to discuss the situation with my child until very recently, conspiring with the Physics teacher for lower initial grades because they were so motivating, and sending the math teacher a 4 page email detailing our progress on high school math through calculus and asking him to raise the bar on geometry because this is our weakest area.  I haven't gotten a response yet from the math teacher.  I think he's waiting for my application to the Insane Parent's Hall of Fame before responding.  But before 4th grade, I asked teacher's how it's going with their situation and offered to help in any way I could.  You could set up a casual meeting on this topic.  Even if the teacher totally sees through your strategy she'll appreciate it.

Next, you're going to prepare for the COGAT, which I'm assuming you're ready for because you are here on my blog.

Finally, you're going to start working on a child who is way ahead by 3rd grade.  That way if you're child is not totally prepared for the test or for 2nd grade (some of the brightest kids I know take a frustratingly long time to get to there), then you're crushing it by 3rd grade and your school is going to have to make some accommodations.  This is exactly why I created Test Prep Math.  You need to devise a read to /reading program and make this the most important 30 minutes of the evening, but there's so much great literature for 1st and 2nd grade (the 1st grade books you google are some of the best read to for older kids).  Test Prep Math is all core skills.  After 5th grade, you can't get to 99% without actually dealing with academic material, but before then, it works magic.  Also, the non-verbal section added to the 3rd Edition is better than the rest of the test prep material by a factor of 5, but make sure you have a practice test to bring the child back to something easier.

Situations like this are a great opportunity for a parent who's on the ball.  It's a competitive advantage for one year.   All the other parents are sitting around complaining, and you are going to quietly raise academic performance and test scores.  Time to shine and stand out.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Little Quantitative Skills

Many parents contacted me last year about this time.  'Oh no, the test is in 2 days an no one warned me.'  This is probably the most effective weapon school districts have deployed so far in the war against test prep.  What's the big deal?  Well, from the perspective of a GAT administrator, a kid may 'learn' the test, get a seat in a GAT program, and not want to be their because the family doesn't really have a strong preference for academic work to begin with.  Then the child gets crushed and pulls down the rest of the class.  For the last 2 years, school districts have been surprising unprepared parents and cheating the child out of the opportunity to do test prep.

On the other hand, what if this child was taught the skills that the test is looking for, blows away the test, and enters the GAT program ready to crush it?  What if test prep really means picking up a range of powerful cognitive skills that drive academic performance?  That's what this blog has always been about, and when I use the term 'cheating', this is what I really mean.

I feel like my 2nd biggest achievement is accidentally discovering a cheaty way to teach quantitative skills in a short period of time.   This is where I've discovered an indirect correlation between working memory and cognitive skills.

I'll start with age 4, but I think the magic really happens with kids in the 8-10 year range and then 12-15.  These seem like the best time to super charge the brain.  If you do any outside work with a 4 or 5 year old, scores of 95% or higher come easier because there is so little competition.  Taking a C student and going on to high levels of math competition is much more gratifying when the other kids catch up.

For a 4 year old, Shape Size Color Count methodologically steps through all permutations of shape, size, color and count in both an analogy setting and a quantitative setting until the child sees the aspects of a shape (lines, points, dimensions, color) and sees 3 or 4 shapes as a whole with a mental snapshot.  Older children will never pick up this ability in the same way.

100 of these questions gradually become more complicated while they introduce conceptual vocabulary, and by age 5, this child will be ready to sit down with 2nd grade math and do the whole thing with little help.  That is exactly what happened.

The Big Skills were inspired by the COGAT.  The Big Skills are the ones you really care about, the ones that you need to worry about if you've only got a week to do test prep.  In short, here's a picture that you've never seen before that you have to look at for a while to make sense of.  To answer the question, you've got to figure out the 2 or 3 questions leading up to it and perform 3 or 4 or more mental operations.  That's were working + memory = working memory comes into play.

Why ask your child one question when you can ask 3?  Whether it's math, the OLSAT or the COGAT, the starting point (after getting past being OK with total confusion) is thoroughly analyzing the diagram and eeking out everything that can be eeked out.  I call this section 'whole language math' because I want enough word logic to address the verbal section of the test even though the focus is on the other two thirds.  Vocabulary is king, after all.

Keep in mind that vocabulary is the driver of the test.  Notice in this diagram that there is a right triangle and an equilateral triangle.  One rectangle is oriented vertically and one is oriented horizontally.  Kids pick up words that come up in everyday usage, so use them.   Once a child has a word that can be paired with a shape, their brain has a new tool for evaluating the world.   You can't use '90 degrees' when describing a right triangle.  In fact, a 'square triangle that has one part like a square' is a better term.  When a child sees something that other kids don't because this child has a name for it already, then you are one step closer to a 99% on the GAT.

After this section, which I call the verbal section, the quantitative section looks like this.  This is at about the 1/3 mark of this section, 2 diagrams per lesson.

At the time, I was just thinking that I could give my child an advantage on the test if he already went through every scenario that could possibly be on the test and a boat load of scenarios that wouldn't be on the test because they were much more advanced.  This approach works with 4 year olds but not 7 year olds.  In deference to the test, which explicitly provides 'novel and challenging problems that require thinking', I slowly raise the bar on each question so that nothing is ever routine, as if saying 'minus 9 isn't in the answer set' could be routine for a 4 year old.   Then the magic started happening.

At first, I saw counting.  After a while it was a mental picture of four, and then counting to verify.  I like this phase the best because it's called 'Checking the Answer' and it's worth 15 points on any test. Checking the answer is a Big Skill. This exercise evolved into seeing 4 in one shot with confidence, and then on to a mental picture of 3 is the difference between a picture of 5 and a picture of 3.  This is the little skill.   By 2nd grade, the Test Prep Kid was still translating arithmetic problems into pictures on his brain board, doing the operation visually, and translating this back to a number.

I was a bit reluctant to use 'negative two' in a work book for a 4 year old.   When the child says 'minus two' it's just a phrase that means 2 less, and the warm up problems in lesson 101 take it slowly. Just some new language.  A few years later, the child will come across ' 3 minus 5 ' and I have to sit there silently while the little eyes widen and the brain puts it together.

When I see Shape Size Color Count on Amazon, I always check the review and laugh at it.  I can only guess that I was slammed by a competitor, but I can't imagine what book on the market is competing in this space.  Shape Size Color Count covers conceptual vocabulary through 2nd grade math, and it does it pretty well.

At the other end of this age range with 10 year olds, a completely different set of subskills emerges with test prep.  At this age, all of the questions are at a minimum 2 step and most 3 step.  With 4 and 5 year olds, the multi-step problems have to be oriented linearly.  This is the first solid subskill that emerges.  Advanced math is always multi-step, and its a shame math until middle school is all baby step.  I'm working on a video to explain how this works, but my video making skills stink.

I'll come back to ages 5-6 in a minute.

Here is an example of a quantitative problem we work with for test prep.  This is right about in the middle of the quantitative section of Test Prep Level 3 after a thorough section of word problems that slowly build the skills needed to address this problem:

F is an operator and a number, like "+ 10" or "x 3".  The bold F is "not F", as in "-10" or "divided by 3" respectively.   It takes about a day or more for the child to come to terms with F in the first few problems, and the first problem takes about 20 minutes just with F while working memory grows and mistakes shrink.  When "not F" is introduced, that adds 10 minutes to the work.  And later F is paired with G, finally we've got F, "not F", G and it's opposite, with the occasional FFF thrown in just for confusion.

My original goal was simply to blow away the quantitative section on any test.  I know what these tests are like and I wanted to be 4,923% sure that we would never miss a quantitative question.  I didn't expect my kids to be able to attack problems like '23(x - 15) = 8x - (5 + 2x) without having to use either a calculator or algebraic transformations.  But that is what happened.  They just look at it for a while and then announce the answer. It make teaching algebra a pain in the neck, but that's what I got.  "Why bother transforming the equation when I can just see the answer?" they complain.  Years from now, in middle school, these kids are going to be a problem for a teacher than wants students to write down their work.  

There are about 9 separate subskills involved in solving an algebraic problem mentally, but two key subskills that play the lead role are:

  • Try a small number.  Try a big number.  Try something in the middle.
  • Gauge whether the solution is getting closer or farther away, and adjust accordingly.
I can't explain how they do that second part.  It's almost magic and comes with practice.  My job as an academic coach is to focus on the Big Skills, which consists of attempting to do this problem without crying, checking the answer, and getting it wrong without getting upset.  The little skills just show up through no fault of my own.

When kids become adept at this type of solution strategy, and learn to do simple arithmetic like the Kumon approach, they look like little math geniuses.  Cognitive researchers (who have never seen an actual child) are amazed and attribute this skill to IQ.   IQ is a myth.  It's a learned Little Skill and it's really powerful.

Back to 5 and 6 year olds.  For this group, I think the best strategy is just Kindergarten Math (best math before algebra) followed by Every Day Math Grade 2.  At this age, EDM Grade 2 requires the Big Skills.  It goes slow and is one new concept after another.  After this, school math is fairly routine, even if a 6 year old is doing 3rd grade math, and I don't think it teaches cognitive skills.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Little Skills Part 2

In the last article, I presented this diagram of 2 squares and asked for a description of what is happening.  (It's supposed to be a square but the diagram is poorly drawn.)  Here is the diagram again:

Here are the possible transformations:  The square can turn in 1/4 increments, flip horizontally, vertically, or diagonally up or diagonally down.  If a shape before and after looks identical, then the possible transformations define the symmetry of the shape.  The square can turn the opposite color, or it can become white regardless of whether it is white or dark to begin with.

The shape presented to be transformed into the answer can take on any of these transformations.  If the question says which one is not possible, then a 1/8 turn is not possible, and changing from dark to dark is not possible.  Obviously dimension changes are not possible because this is supposed to be a square*.

I've never met a child or parent who saw this for the first time on a practice test and had the slightest clue what is going on.  This is a good problem to kick off test prep to alert your child that the days of getting things correct on the first try are over.

The solution to this problem and others relies on the big skills, otherwise know as core skills or higher order skills.  This problem is not possible unless the child prepared to spend plenty of time investigating the question and answer set, make multiple attempts in the face of wrong answers, check the answer on their own before asking.  In addition to all of this, there's a lot going on, and that 'a lot' needs to be kept in the brain in some organized fashion while the problem is being solved.  Working memory is active the whole time.  If your child gets frustrated or upset because they are baffled and don't immediately know the answer, none of this is going to happen.  If your child is crushed by wrong answers, there will be no progress.  These are the Big Five of skills.

Nothing on this list is magic, except working memory which takes 6 to 12 weeks to build.  School teaches the exact opposite of these skills in early grades, emphasizing being told things up front, memorization, routine practice, speed and accuracy on 1 step problems.  These are the Big Five Anti-Skills.  If you don't undo this damage as a parent, no one will.  (Technically there are 6 of these, but routine practice is an Anti-Little Skill that I have to explain later.)

As work progresses on the right material, little skills emerge that make actual progress possible.  It's one thing to analyze a problem.  It's another thing to solve it.  And when it's solved immediately on sight, you can say things like "My child is such a genius.  I hope he can lead a normal life."  But even more importantly, the little skills allow the little genius to crush advanced academic work.  Oh yes, somethings going to get crushed, but it's not going to be my academic powerhouse.  I've always said that COGAT or NNAT test prep, when done properly, is nothing more than building academic skills.

Solving things on sight is just working really quickly from practice.   There's nothing magic, and when researchers give fancy names to cognitive skills like 'visual acuity', it's because they don't work with actual children enough to identify what is taking place when a child solves a problem.

Here's a demonstration of the single most important test taking, school crushing, advanced math course decimating Little Skill.  It's called the 2 Step Skill.

Turn this shape 1/4 turn counter clockwise.
This hexagon has become my favorite shape of the 160 I chose for their properties because it exemplifies the Two Step skill.  If you are a child who is not adept in visual acuity, this is a hard problem.  By the way, the solution set also includes a horizontal flip, a vertical flip, and a measurement of whether the child is going to read all of the answers before starting their work by choosing an almost good answer in C followed by the correct answer in D.  B is a clockwise turn, testing 'check the answer' for a kid who just saw 2 clockwise questions and is going too fast.

The solution strategy is to break down this shape into a rotating problem that is much more doable. Step 1 - find a shape that is easier to turn counter clockwise, maybe like a clock hand or something else, and turn it.  Step 2 - reconstitute the original shape from the part.  Here are some possible shapes that you could turn instead:

Turning just a line is obvious and works well because it can be compared to a clock.  The second version works better with regular polygons that have an odd number of lines (like pentagons or heptagons).  The 3rd version is not intuitive, but it turns out that a square is easy to rotate and the hexagon can just follow.

There are similar two step processes for judging changing of dimensions of the shape and dealing with the vertical and horizontal flips.

By the time we're talking about competitive math, algebra or the SAT, the Two Step skill will be split into problem decomposition, translating the problem into an easier one to solve, or solving the whole just by solving a part.  I don't bother explaining this during coaching because everyone gets Two Step.

All questions on all cognitive tests are at least two step, but at younger ages there are questions that play the role of introducing the next question and other skill measuring techniques involving the answer set like the one presented at the top of this article.

There is a prerequisite little skill that is much more powerful.  It's called 'Seeing'. To break down this problem into steps, you have to be able to see this shape differently, to see it's details.  It would be nice to see that there is a symmetry in this shape, but that's not germane to the problem.  Seeing that there is a piece that is easier to turn is the key.  I call this more powerful, because if you're only armed with Seeing, half the battle is won.

The Two Step skill and the Seeing skill emerge from application of the Big Five Skills.  Watching this happen is the most satisfying experience for an academic coach.  I try as hard as I can to avoid teaching little skills. With younger children, we have to review clocks and work our way up to this.  Somewhere between ages 6 and 8, I usually have to help and suggest or demonstrate.  But after age 8 I'm more than happy to wait for 25 minutes on a single problem for the child to devise and choose their own method and then explain it to me.  That's why there are 3 examples above.  I don't care which route they choose, I'll be rewarded that they took ownership of the whole process, and ownership is a Mega Skill somewhere in the Grit realm.

Rotation plays a minor role in cognitive skills tests before age 5 or 6 because girls lag boys significantly and the tests strive to be gender neutral.  Lately girls have gained this skill and the tests haven't responded yet.  Be forewarned that the tests are going to have to change to keep up with scores.  More on this later.

You're probably thinking that Legos play a big role because Lego builders spend a lot of time rotating diagrams in their brain.  I thought that Lego's play a role because Lego builders spend a lot of time figuring out what the steps are to get to their goal.   Maybe the edge goes to boys because they are developing 'Seeing' and are used to looking at shapes by their component parts and dimensions.

But in fact I have a lot more problems with boys on the Two Step skill.  Girls spend much more time thinking 'I don't know how to do this, but my academic coach keeps saying find the steps so I'll try that', whereas many boys are thinking 'screw you academic coach, I'm going to solve this just by looking at it and knowing the answer', which they don't.

The way I generally teach this skill is to never give a one step problem.   Shape Size Color Count for 4 year olds is mostly about the skill of seeing and visual number sense, but all of the problems have at least 2 parts, albeit doable parts. The questions emphasize vocabulary, because the easiest way to see something is to name it.  One step problems don't teach the Big Five skills. The difference at this age is that the steps can't really be linked yet.

Between 5 and 6, there's so much material on the market that I've never bothered to compile a thorough, methodological course.  I just rip the pages out and reorder them or use Building Thinking Skills Grade 2 and 3 (the non-verbal half, not the more advanced verbal half).  Shape Size Color Count put us about half way through the non-verbal part of BTS Grade 2 and 3 by age 5, because when you teach skills at an early age, they gain their own power.

Test Prep Math formalizes the Two Step skill in a multi-step format that covers the Big Five thoroughly but hammers away specifically at Two Step and closes any gaps in Seeing.  By 5th grade math is all multi-step, then multi-multi step, so there is a lot at stake.  That's the problem with 5th grade. There's a big leap in academic skills and no training, whereas with a little training, a 5th grader could be blowing through 7th and 8th grade work, which is what kids are facing in many gifted and talented program.

*The asterisk near the top of this article is a hint that my poorly drawn diagram required some organization first, although just a little.  You had to translate my rectangle to a square before proceeding.  Sometimes this little skill stands on it's own, sometimes its a prerequisite for finding the two steps.  It's a skill for older kids.  I'll cover it later.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Little Skills in Test Prep

I've always approached Test Prep as teaching the skills that the test is measuring.  I see no difference between test prep for a cognitive skills test like the COGAT and growth in learning abilities.  Test prep when done right is basically growing the brain.

For lack of time, my first shot at test prep was to focus on the big skills.  I determined correctly that the little skills would take care of themselves.   The big skills will have a big impact on school and annual standardized tests, whereas a few of the little skills may not be relevant outside of the domain of a GAT test. Some are, some aren't.

For the last year or so, I've been knee deep in the little sills, and they are really cool.  I didn't think they were important at age 5.  By age 8 or 9 I see these start to come into play on tests, certainly in school, and definitely in a GAT program. Standardized tests like the ITBS use these little skills a little, the MAP test uses them a lot, and the little skills are the primary challenge on the SAT and GRE. State designed tests like Texas STAAR and the old ISAT appeared to avoid any skills.  While I was dissecting the SAT I generated a long list of these skills, and when I went backward through age 5, I could see these everywhere.

I'm kicking off this series with a summary of the big skills.  These take a few months to develop, but much less time than the little skills.  If you get the big skills right, you don't have to worry about the little skills, unless you live in Chicago and need a 99.8% which is what we are facing next year.  If your kid is in 5th grade or higher, there is almost no traditional test prep material available, so you have to find something that will challenge the skill set.  If your child is in K or 1st grade, there's a ton of material available.

Big Skill #1:  Be baffled.  If your child panics, quits, cries, or asks for help because they are looking at something new and different that they have to spend more than 10 seconds trying to understand, then your child does not yet have this skill.   The definition of a problem on a cognitive skills tests is 'new and different' so this is the big one.  Further progress depends on this skill.  You can google my blog and 'baffled' to see more guidance.   The material you use should be baffling and take 10 minutes per question or more to figure out or your child will gain the opposite of this skill.

Let me repeat this.  If your child regularly works on simple operations, lots of problems (20 or 30) that are routine and can be done from memory with little thinking, then the child is learning the opposite of this skill and may fall apart when faced with a challenging problem.

There are a lot of little skills behind this skill.  'Hey, I'm totally baffled but it doesn't bother me' is a good start, but you have to dig in a little.  It's in the digging in and doing one problem after another where the child starts to get past baffled.

Big Skill #2:  Read the question.  I've never had a student who reads the question adequately.  Never. There's a 100% probability that your child doesn't even come close to reading the question unless you survived Test Prep math that has questions that don't make a lot of sense on purpose.  The question on cognitive skills test includes the answer set, but most students are already in solving mode by the time they get to the answers.  Does the question have any words or shapes or correlations that have 2 meanings or 2 possibilities?  Are there any little details worth noting?  Distractions?  New things? I'm already hinting at the little skills behind this big skill which you'll never see zooming through 10 problems in one sitting.

Big Skill #3:  Make mistakes.  I first learned about the importance of mistakes on cognitive skills exams by not reading the question carefully and finding out that the answer I was looking for wasn't in the answer set.  I thought that mistakes were built into the exam to differentiate kids who were OK with mistakes, and thus prepared to take on accelerated work in a GAT program from those who are unwilling to try again, so they guess and move on.  Then I researched mistakes more and found out that this is where learning happens.  Then I decided that a GAT child is required to have the patience and resilience to try again, over and over again if necessary.  Then I discovered the Grit literature. Whatever.  Mistakes are incredibly important, and this makes most test prep workbooks counterproductive because they are too easy.  Mistakes are really the clue that there is a little skill on the horizon.

Big Skill #4:  Working Memory.  This skill is fundamental to test performance.  (Strong readers appear to have it naturally, although it took them 1,000's of hours of reading to get it.)  School work on the other hand is one-step, one-shot.  Cognitive skills tests are usually 2 steps, minimum. Sometimes 4 or 5, but at least 2 steps or 2 concepts at once.  If your child does a practice problem and has no problem holding it in memory while working it out, the material is too easy and you are not making progress (you being you and your child).  There are no little skills behind working memory, but I've found problems that tax working memory to be the source of most little skills.   I think this is worth repeating.   Most little skills on my list emerged while working on problems that tax working memory.    Cognitive skills test measure working memory implicitly.

Over the years, I've written articles on why I don't like Kumon and most math curriculum.  The short answer is that none of these skills can be found in their material.  So I invented Anti-Kumon which is behind all of my books.  I've also recommended starting a 5 year old on 2nd Grade Every Day Math because the whole experience will be a tour d'force of the big skills.

Here is your first little skill.  I'm going to explain it in context and elaborate how it works.  You may think you know the answer, but there are at least 3 future articles behind this diagram and I'll state what you are thinking is the answer in the first paragraph of the next article on my way to a much longer explaination.  This is a transformation of a square (which I drew free hand and it's more of a rectangle but pretend it's a square).  What is the transformation?


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Third Type of Learning

Learning in the classroom is generally split into 2 broad categories:  Active Learning and Passive Learning.

Passive Learning is being told something, shown examples, and being expected to regurgitate the new facts or concepts or methods on a worksheet, quickly, accurately, and repeatedly.  This is the driver of Teach to the Test.  Passive learning ensures that a teacher maximizes test scores on standardized test and that the children learn how not to think.  Passive Learning isn't learning at all.  It has no elements of learning.  I call it 'Telling'.

Many parents look at test scores and grades, or consider knowledge and facility with known methods (think addition and subtraction) as the primary goal.   The result of this approach is a child who has A's, good standardized test scores, and does poorly on GAT tests.   The longer term result of this approach is test scores declining year over year, as well as the 4th Grade Train Wreck.  The 4th Grade Train Wreck usually hits in middle school, where a child who used to get A's is now totally lost and struggling with a D in math.  In our case, it hit in 4th grade, thus the name.

With a few exceptions, getting your child a tutor to clear up the confusion is Passive Learning.   My generalizations are always corrected by readers, but I can't imagine a high school tutor who emerged from the US education system doing anything but what they learned, and what they learn in the US is facts and concepts at the expense of learning.

Active Learning is a step in the right direction.  Examples include children who build rockets in physics class to learn force and trajectory equations, or children who measure cans and bowl circumferences with string before their teacher announces that they are studying Pi.  Active Learning involves lots of questions and a meandering direction based on the student's activities.

I generally consider reading to be Passive Learning before about 6th grade without the right books. Somewhere around 4th grade (with 6th grade novels), reading steps beyond Passive and becomes aggressively Active Learning.  But that's a long way to wait for a decent COGAT score.

In math, Kumon and Eureka are passive.  Jump math is designed to take the thinking out of math and improve test scores, which it does if you want your child to fail in 2 years for lack of thinking.   CMP math is an exception, but it's great at building learning skills but doesn't deliver something more advanced to use them.  I suppose if I had a room full of average 3rd grade children I would pick and choose from these, but I don't.  I have a house full of above average children and impending college bills to reduce through scholarships.

It was my investigation activities on the COGAT 6 years ago that enlightened me to the third way. Like many of my readers, one day I picked up a COGAT practice test and wondered what is going on. There's something age independent with the skills behind a COGAT test.  You can have them at age 5 or age 15, or not have them at age 5 or 15, but once you get these skills the problems are the same for older kids, just more time consuming and tedious but not any harder.

The third way needs a good name.  Maybe I'll call it COGAT Learning.

The goal of cognitive skills tests are to identify strong learners, those who can learn on their own, who can handle accelerated material, and who have the tools and skills to tackle big confusing problems.  GAT programs are designed for these kids.

A teacher in the classroom has to impart facts, concepts, methods, and ideally actual learning to 30 students in a clear and efficient manner.  Scaffolding is an important concept, like the ladder of learning, where the children take one baby step at a time working their way up.  A cognitive skills test gives the child 9 big leaps (for the 9 section COGAT), sowing ambiguity and confusion and letting the child sort it out.  For those questions that differentiate the 90th, 95th, and 99th percentile, the questions are even worse.  The cutoff score in Chicago is between 99% and 99.8% for the schools we are looking at next year, so I'm really interested in questions at the high end of the range.

In a classroom, the student can ask questions and receive answers.  Work is expected to be completed quickly.  On cognitive skills tests, IQ assessments, and the MAP test, there is no official time limit, and the proctor does not answer questions.

5 years ago, my first characterization of this process was 'Drop child in the wilderness with a compass and a banana, 20 miles from the nearest town, and let them find their own way out.  In the dark.'

Right now my 2 editors and I are working on a new project.  When I created Test Prep Math, I created a program for 2nd to 4th grade that applies an extreme version of COGAT Learning Method on steroids.   The results were way better than I imagined.  I was shooting for 99% and overshot.  I had no intention of targeting reading comprehension scores but after dissecting the SAT verbal section, I realize that I scored here as well.  Test Prep Math does not contain hard material, it's just so different from Active or Passive Learning that it's culture shock.  In the beginning, it seems impossible, but after the child begins to pick up the core skills, it gets really easy, like I imagine a genius in math thinks that Trigonometry is easy.  Getting to this point is the whole point of the books.

For the last 12 months we've been working on a project that delves into the visual-spatial space because I met a few kids who couldn't flip or turn a shape to save their life.  How can you not flip or turn a shape?  The first thing I learned about cognitive skills tests is that it's not about shapes at all. It's about thinking. But there is a challenge with kids who are 10 points shy for lack of basic visual dexterity, and I can't pass up a challenge.

We're nearing completion.  One of my editors is 12 years old and complains about every 5th problem. It's very interesting to me that visual-spacial material has about the same impact on a 9 year old as an adult.   The only difference between ages is the amount of detail that can be put into a diagram.  I'm not exactly a fan of 'Teach To The Test', but we are comparing paradigms in the answer set and problem layout of a visual-spatial problem to the SAT.  At a high level, these are very similar.  They just look different.  As I build these paradigms into the material, I'm basically teaching to the test, provided that the test is a totally confusing complicated mess that the child has to learn a lot of skills to complete.  I'm also doing baby steps.  I have one baby step for totally, one for confusing, one for complicated, and one for mess.  I'm not speaking figuratively; each element is represented including mess.

I think I'm going to call this 3rd type of learning 'Extreme Learning', as in pick up a lot of learning skills in a short period of time.

Between now and about September 18, parents are going to be surprised to find their child sitting for a cognitive skills test.  Schools moved these to September to undermine skills preparation.  In my next article, I'll explain the different levels of Extreme Learning and what a parent could hope to achieve in a small amount of time.  Obviously, you're not going to pick up 6 months of cognitive skills growth in 2 weeks.  But it's possible to get the first half of that in a few weeks, and for some kids, that might be the piece they need.