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.


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