Saturday, May 19, 2018

100% GAT Guaranteed

There is a 100% guaranteed chance that your child will meet their GAT goals if you just follow the secret formula.

Last week, I surveyed the last few years of education and cognitive psych research.  Most of this is funded by the NIH and NSF and a few new government acronyms.  I did not find a single paper with a research topic that is pertinent to learning, early education, or what it takes to succeed academically.  There were a few papers about how to learn cognitive skills by researchers who obviously have never met a child before.  An actual parent learns more in 10 minutes of trying to teach their child how to read CAT than any 3 papers on learning.

So when I say there's 100% chance your child can become GAT, it's simply due to the depressing situation that the United States is against teaching pre-school kids any useful skills.

If you take any paper title, and add 'because we don't teach our 4 year old's to read' you will have an accurate picture of education in the United States.  I downloaded the papers from and found things like 'Comparing a practice based curriculum to an experiential curriculum ... because we don't teach our children to read', or 'Evaluating training methods for teachers...because we don't teach our children how to read.'  There quite a few reform minded engineering education papers that should end with  '...because we spend too much time spoon feeding math instead of teaching problem solving skills'.

When is the United States going to wake up and realize that spending $300 million each year trying to figure out how teachers can make up for lack of reading at home is a waste of money?

Jim Trelease, the author of The Read Aloud Handbook and hero to many GAT parents, bemoaned the fact that he went to Washington and was drummed out of town for being an advocate of reading in school.

You know that the secret formula for GAT is simply to start acting like a GAT family, make your child read, learning problem solving skills, do some advanced math on a routine basis, and have completely different attitude about the whole endeavor which you can find in my articles.  Many parents blow it by confusing lots of work with making progress, when in fact the more classes you go to and the more workbooks you do, the less skills your child will end up with.  The irony.

I should probably mention this distinction instead of assume it.  Non-GAT children score really high on tests and get A's in school because they have memorized and practiced their way to a high level of academic achievement.  GAT children score really high on tests and get A's in school because they've learned the skills to figure out things on the spot with no prior work.  Think of GAT children as lazy underperformers who know how to cheat without help.  I don't know any kids in a GAT program who are simply hard workers, but I know a lot of kids trying to get into GAT programs who spend a lot of time sitting in classes and doing worksheets.

This is an important distinction because GAT children, who will invent things and solve unsolved problems need to know where all of the Non-GAT children are so they can hire them to actually do the work.

Speaking of GAT, yesterday I found out that my 7th grader is more prepared for college than 63% of high school juniors and seniors in the US.  If you've been following my articles recently, you know why I know this and also why I'm reluctant to discuss it.   My second thought was 'I need to publish what we did because it was really cool' and my third thought was 'but I can't right now because the little brother wants to go to Stanford'.

My first thought was - Oh my gosh, his reading score is higher than his math score.  That on it's own is the single biggest determiner of success.  I'm really proud.  I think I had tears in my eyes.  We spent a lot of time working on that over the last 2 years and it's really hard.  I wasn't even going to try, but I keep getting emails from someone who is doing EDM Grade 2 with her little one, and it's a constant reminder of why, how, and yeah you can do it.  It always pays off.  Next year we're going to spend 100% of our time on writing - no math at all.

This weekend, we have to fill in some gaps in math, but getting a high score in math is not hard.  We have a permanent advantage here, practically cheating.  Thanks to Test Prep Math in 2nd, 3rd, and a bit of fourth grade, we spent all of our time at this age on thinking skills and zero time on decimals and long division.  There's no question this is behind the reading score as well.  This means that I've got a child with the skills to learn 3 or 4 new maths in about 5 days.  I know we covered this stuff before, but we don't really practice it.  It's more just fun looking at and figuring out confusing things, which is what GAT is all about.

We went through each missed question, and here's how the conversation went:

What is the answer to this question you missed.

It's B.

Why did you mark A?

Because my brain was fried by the half way point.

Ok, that's fair.  Why did you miss this one?

Because I don't know what f(0, 3) means.

I don't either.  (If any readers know what this is, please leave a comment.  I have no idea.  Is it supposed to be a multivariate question?  How is a 7th grader taking the SAT supposed to know that?)

What about this question?

How am I supposed to do that?

We've got 5 days to figure it out.

Most of the questions on the math section we're very tricky in a strictly verbal way, as in spending a lot of time reading the question, even for me, and keeping 3 distinct concepts in working memory and coordinated.  There was very little in the way of advanced math.

Let's back up a little and you can see why I'm not really all that worried about the math section:

  1. Son some how gets into GAT program even though his score is 10 points behind cutoff.  I'm not kidding.  The school was desperate to fill the seat a month after school started.  We were dumb enough to accept.
  2. Parent decides it would be nice if other child could go there to cut down on driving each day.  Plus parent frantic about other son surviving his program which turned out to be accelerated by 2 years.  What a cataclysmic disaster that could have been.
  3. Parent reads papers from author of COGAT, notes that working memory and reading are really important.
  4. Parent reads 5,000 pages of other research on problem solving and determines that heavy doses of confusion also play a role, not to mention core problem solving skills.
  5. Parent notes that all math books are spoon-feeding and devoid of problem solving skills and working memory.
  6. Parent writes 4 math books that are all confusion and problem solving.  More verbal than math.  4th math book is a phonics book.  Now you know.
  7. Parent's totally unprepared 7th grader does well on college entrance exam, well enough to go to college, just not Harvard.
  8. Parent looks at test and answers (they do that nowadays) and finds a 100% correlation between early training and current test.  I've explained in past articles why this is the case - advanced math is not a good predictor of college success, overcoming trickery is.
  9. Parent hides good advice on bottom of blog articles and does no marketing at all on books.
  10. Younger brother who gets all of the benefits of older brother's experiments is going to send his 7th grade test scores to Stanford.
Then I'll go public.

The 7th grader last night asked if he could take AP calculus in high school.  

He meant freshman year.

It broke my heart to tell him 'No, probably not until sophomore or junior year without summer school, but when you take it I don't expect it to be hard.'  He's just too darn slow at math to skip high school trig.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Competitive Parent Magazine Issue #1

Competitive Parent Magazine
Sunday, May 6 2018
Issue #1

So little time, so many topics. I've referenced Competitive Parent Magazine in the past because it has an annual award called The Pettie that I usually win after careful consideration by the panel of judge, who is me. This year is probably going to be different, because there are parents out there fighting battles that leave me in awe. But we just sat for the SAT.   For fun.  Anyway, I've taken this week's articles and added them all to the inaugural issue of Competitive Parent Magazine.

In this issue
  • Teaching Half Matrices to 4 Year Olds
  • Start Your Rigorous Summer GAT Program Now
  • Putting the Skittles and the PS4 In The Closet
  • Northwestern & Duke Summer Programs
  • Trig at Age 9 - A Bookend
  • Developing a Writer
Teaching Half Matrices to 4 Year Olds
A Power Mom asked me this question:  Are 4 year olds expected to 'get it' with the halving and doubling in Shape Size Color Count?  My 4 year old isn't getting it.

I've been delaying answering in the hopes that he gets it.  I've worked with this boy before and he's extremely bright.  The answer is of course no and yes, and it is a very good example of what it takes to develop cognitive skills at any age. 

For starters, let's jump ahead in Shape Size Color Count to lesson 85.  The premise behind half matrices is simple:

  • They're on the COGAT.  We needed a score of 99.8 to get into a GAT program.
  • My 3.92 year old didn't get it the whole multi-step matrice problem, not even the counting.
  • The COGAT loves ambiguity, and a numeric transformation of 2 could in fact be a numeric transformation of double, but you won't know until you check the answer set.
  • Doubling is good for 90%.  A higher score needs to delve into tripling and quadrupling.  Not that quadrupling is on the COGAT, but that level of thinking is.
Here's what I'm talking about.   I had double up on the quant questions because the color printing costs are so high, and it's worth it.

By this time, the child knows what -2 and thirds mean, as well as what a blob fish is. The problem is getting there. Here are some ground rules:
  • A single problem like this for a 4 year old might be a 20 minute affair, but could also take multiple days.
  • We practiced halving and doubling in our spare time with pennies, fingers, stuffed animals.
  • As soon as a 4 year old really gets it, he will crush you tomorrow by totally forgetting it.
  • Something is going on in that brain and none of us know what.
  • I've never worked with a child who struggled as much as my child did, but if you want to see the outcome, read the article about Trig below.
Cognitive skills don't increase unless the work taxes the skills. Work that taxes cognitive skills results in floundering, forgetting, wrong answers, and multiple attempts.

This is hard on most parents. It's much more gratifying to watch your child blow through 20 easy Kumon problems. Most parents won't get their kids past the 98% cuttoff to get into a GAT program because they take the easy route.  I think this book took us 2 passes and will take at least 3 months.  Maybe 6.  It depends on how early you start and how far along your child is counting on her fingers.

Like all material, eventually the child gets there, and when he gets there, he has a formidable skill set. In this case, we ended up with a Visual Number sense, which I didn't even know was possible. Ideally, SSCC graduates will do arithmetic on sight. This will create a foundation more more advanced skills that is super powerful.

For the first half of the book, we really struggled. After that, we really struggled to get through a single question in 15 minutes. There was lots of discussion and taking breaks to review halving and doubling. If you are looking for an easy repetitive book that magically puts your child above 97% on the COGAT, keep looking. Until then, if your child is in the early months of age 4, this is it:

Start Your Rigorous Summer GAT Program Now
Summer is a good time to start your GAT training program.

Get a stack of material, including:

  • Rigorous, challenging cognitive skills building thinking material
  • Some age-inappropriate math to struggle through, like something your child will see in school in a few years
  • Some easier workbooks for backtracking, a bad day, or for doing alone because you're busy.
Create some ground rules and goals.  In this house, the ground rules are 'No math, no computer', where math can be anything.  I've added chores to the daily regimen because kids who do chores have a better attitude toward academic work.  (Someone explain to me the relationship between vacuuming and problem solving.)  My goals are simply 15 to 25 minutes of hard core thinking each day on something.

Once you've got that together, you're ready for the next step.  Summer is a good time to start your program, but immediately is even better.  I'd like to do a study on GAT outcomes for children of parents who start immediately, as in open the box from Amazon assign the first page. The control groups would be parents who start the 1st day of summer school.  I already know what the conclusion of this study will look like. 

Putting the Skittles and the PS4 In The Closet
The approach to academic work varies between age 4 and graduate school only in the amount of quality concentration and thinking that the child is capable of.  A 4 year old is good for 15 minutes a day, maybe 3 or 4 days a week.  A 4 year old has a lot of bad days where thinking is thwarted by hunger, sickness, exhaustion, and the parent accidentally yelling at the child for curling up in a ball under the table.  A 3rd grade child is good for daily work, maybe 20 or 25 minutes a day.

The approach and methodology for problem solving does not change between age 4 and graduate school.  I announced this definitively a few years ago based on working with a 4 year old and a 7 year old.  It was a bold assertion.

Here is the logic underneath my assertion.  My cognitive skills research started with problem solving with IT engineers, graduate school work, and worked backward through high school geometry proofs (thanks Poyla) and down to age 3.9.   It was all the same:  be baffled, make mistakes, ignore the solutions (it's about thinking, not finding out the answer), trying again.

Here I am thousands of hours and hundreds of kids later, with kids covering the age range, and two of my own that are 5 years older, and I can announce with much more confidence that in fact there is no difference at all.   Older children are only good for 25 minutes of really hard core top notch thinking.  But the material needs 90 minutes of start up time and more routine work.  They only appear to work for 2 solid hours, but when they've gotten through the 25 minutes of really challenging problem solving, they are worthlesss.

This week, the PS4 went into the closet.  I discovered that I have a 13 year old who follows me around - brace yourself for this - talking to me.

Northwestern and Duke Summer Programs
I wish I had a picture of the 14 grade school kids who took the SAT last week, but security escorted me out of the building.  I think 13 of these were there to qualify for the programs at Duke and Northwestern.

Duke has an online program now.   If you ask me if you should enroll your child in this program (assuming you pass the rigorous qualification) my answer is definitively yes.

The reason we're not personally interested in these programs is because our GAT program is rigorous enough.  I think it's the top program in the country.  I personally know many graduates who are breezing through one of the top 10 high school programs in the country without really trying.  The other reason is that my kids would rather shoot arrows at camp during the summer and I'm more interested in a path to graduate school than advanced chemistry at Northwestern, which we're doing on the side anyway as needed.

If you ask me how you get your child past the entrance criteria and into the program, you're asking how do you hone your child's cognitive skills to a very high level.

Trig at Age 9 - A Bookend
Let's revisit the very first graduate of Shape Size Color Count and both Test Prep Math Level 2 and Test Prep Math Level 3 because he's bothering me while I'm trying to type.  I hate having to go to amazon to get these links because of that 1 star rating from a plumber (I'm not kidding) on TPM who said that the solutions were wrong.  You're not going to get to 99% on the MAP test for the rest of your life with solutions that are obvious in a book that spends 6 pages explaining why each problem is designed for mistakes and repeated attempts.  Either he needs to do the problem again or the author does.  That's the nature of cognitive skills building

In order to keep my 9 year old out of my hair, I drew a few triangles, introduced him (once again) to the sine/cosine unit circle do-it-yourself-with the Pythagorean theorem-calculator, and asked him to tell me everything that is missing.  When I say 'calculator' I mean 'without a calculator'.

You'd think he'd remember this from 6 weeks ago when we did the exact same thing.  It's like age 4 all over again.

I like trig.  You can teach it in a single 1 hour session.

Draw a unit circle on graph paper and draw a line anywhere you want.   sin(a) is the y and cos(a) is the x.  You can use A2 + B2  = C2 to calculate common values, like 30o, 45o, 60o, 135o etc.  It helps at this age to always use capitals for line lengths and always use lowercase for angles.  A is opposite a, B is opposite B.  A calculator could help with 25o, but we don't use calculators and just guess on SAT type questions where they deviate from common angle values.

Then I ask for the Law of Sines and the Law of Cosines.  If you forgot, here they are respectively:

  • A/sin(a) = B/sin(b) = C/sin(c)
  • A2 + B2 - 2ABcos(c) = C2
For kids in middle school or near middle school, you can find triangle stacks on the web to practice these equations.  For age 9, we discuss cos(90) = 0, and stick with the Pythagorean version of the Law of Cosines.

Here's the unit circle on the left, and the problem on the right in case you want to try it

Here's the view of the daily math that bought me 60 minutes of free time, minus the 25 minutes I had to backtrack and re-explain the unit circle and help with mistakes (help as in 'Wrong.  Do it again')

You'll note the Dorito bag.  At age 4, this was a bag of skittles.   I found that snacks are a useful inducement for ridiculously hard age-inappropriate work, especially if your child is crying because you are a mean parent by making them do all of the work.  It is important to remember that 20 skittles are no more motivating than 5 skittles, and you can stop giving snacks at any time.  Or you can walk 3 miles a day with your child on what I like to call 'Math Talk Walks', but privately I think of these as 'Don't End Up Being A Chubby Videogamer Walks'.

We do a trig problem about every 6 weeks. This gives my children 5 weeks to forget what they learned so that trig becomes an exercise in thinking and not an exercise in applying memorized formulas without thinking. That is why I refer to my approach as Anit-Kumon.  I don't want a child who get's a 1600 on the SAT because they've trained to get a 1600 on the SAT and then doesn't get into Stanford.  Stanford has a method to weed out these kids that I haven't reverse engineered (yet).  Instead, I want a child who get's 1600 on the SAT because they can figure out trig on the spot - because they've learned the cognitive tools to do so.  Presumably they'll use this toolset for something else during high school and Stanford will notice.

Developing a Writer
I've been asked often how to develop a writer.  I've got a child who will be some kind of a writer, possible a director or advertising media creator who spends his time researching astrophysics websites looking for the galaxy shaped like Yoda.  The other one, who we refer to in this house as The Math Guy, also writes a lot, as in songs, books, and posters to sell stuff.

The starting point for writing is art, crafts, and projects.  The number one skill writers have is that they dream up something that has multiple pieces and which takes a long time to finish.  Art is important because it has setbacks.  You have to do it a few time to get it right, whatever it is.  You want a writer?  Sign her up for an art class.  Chores are important because they are boring and repetitive.  Chores make writing seem like fun.

This stage of writing continues from age 7 to 12 while they develop grammar, vocabulary, and articulation skills.

At some point around age 11 and 12, you can start (slowly) two activities: The first activity is daily writing, like a journal, and the second activity, at least at the GAT level, is a 4 hour marathon of pain that I like to call 'Crafting Sentences'.   We sit down with some school work and take each sentence at a time and fix it.  What are you trying to say here?  Is 'fix it' good enough, or do you mean 'recraft the dependent clause', 'elaborate on a undescriptive pronoun', 'match the syntax of the sentence to the logic we are trying to convey', or what?  During this process, the child says what they are trying to say, and I explain why I'm not clear what they are trying to say and that inadequate sentence that they only spent 2 minutes on sure as heck isn't saying it anyway.

I refer back to Test Prep Math, which was as much convoluted logic and vague words as math, and the main reason they do well on the reading comprehension section of the MAP, and think of each sentence as a math problem on its own, as in a 10 to 20 minute exercise of work, mistakes, and trying again.

So here we are back to foundational cognitive skills.  The little writer slowly realizes that it wasn't about math at all back then.  It was about being confused, making mistakes, and trying again.  I have mentioned this to both my kids numerous times.  Someday they'll leave math in the past; it might be after winning a Fields medal or a millennium prize form the Clay Institute, but some day they'll have to write.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Little Test

Today was a practice test. 

Practice tests are an important part of a test prep regimen.  In the past, we've sat for GAT practice tests, staged GAT practice tests (when none were available), staged standardized tests. 

Normally, our prep pace is just a few ridiculously hard questions a day.  This maximizes learning.  But a real test has lots of questions that are easy and a few that are hard (the ones that count if you're trying to meet a cutoff score are the hard ones).  A real test is a different dynamic, and one more thing to practice.

My favorite practice test was a 2nd grade ITBS where I read the questions and the answer choices to my 4 year old and he pointed.

In most cases, the practice test is the real thing, like it was today, with a score that doesn't count.

Like always, I grilled my son on the test.  What was it like?  Who was there?  What was on the test?  Did the calculator I gave you that only does arithmetic prevent you from getting a trig question correct?  How many people were there?  This is what I learned:

  • I don't remember anything from the test.  I only remember one question from my K GAT test.  Which rhymes with boon?  Moon, spoon, monkey, something else.
  • All the 7th and 8th graders had to sit in a room together.  There were only 14 kids in this room and they were all nerds.
  • There were 4 sections, no essay (for kids not in high school) and a mystery section.
  • We had 3 breaks.
He then went on to explain the breaks in detail.  I asked what was on the mystery section:
  • It was like a GAT entrance exam, sort of.  I don't remember any of the questions.
Now you know everything I know about the taking the SAT in 7th grade.  I'm interested in this mystery section.  Is it because the SAT is used to qualify kids for the Northwestern and Duke summer programs?  I wonder if we'll see our scores on that section.

I asked one last question.  How did you do?
  • I ran out of steam on the last section and didn't finish it, but on the rest I think I did OK.
  • I felt like I was prepared, like I have been preparing for 3 years.
Which he has.  Of course, we prepare in a completely different fashion than everyone else, and I expect results from our innovative and rigorous approach.

The big test, the one that counts, is in a few weeks.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Calm Before the Storm

Next Saturday is our big day.  The rest of Chicago has been getting scores in the mail with test results for K to 4 entry, and it totally stresses me out.  Next week I will be a wreck as usual.  It's hard enough when one of the kids or parents I coach takes the test.  Vicarious test taking is just as challenging to prepare for as actual test taking.

A while back, a Power Mom asked for a retrospective  what I did wrong.  I'm elevating this PM to PMYL, which stands for Power Mom Yoda Level.  He questions was some sort of Plato or eastern mind trick to make me reflect.  My articles are long enough when I barely have 20 minutes before work to type frantically and check for typos.  Brace yourself.

The approach I took didn't result in any mistakes of lasting impact.  Some of was intentional and most of it was not.   The approach can be split into a few categories.
  • I read the papers and presentations of cognitive skills experts and test authors and did exactly what they recommended.
  • I read the articles of intelligence researchers, education researchers, and psychologists and did exactly the opposite of what they recommended.  From this effort, I can explain exactly what's wrong with education in the US, but I didn't gain any actionable strategies for my own children.
  • I bought all books in print and tried them out.  Only a handful were useful as busy work.
  • I wrote my own test questions, attempting every permutation possible in a desperate attempt to pass the test by brute force.   Somewhere at about the 60% mark, the light bulb went off and I realized it wasn't about shapes.  It was about thinking.
Except vocabulary.  Vocabulary is about vocabulary.  My favorite researcher of all time pointed out that when a child is learning to read, all cognitive skills - math, whatever, all of them - are actively deployed by the child's brain.  He also stated that each vocabulary word doesn't just increase a child's knowledge by a single word, it spurs cognitive growth.  Red is not just the name of a color, it is a member of various classifications, has a hue and brightness and other qualities, is used to represent concepts like stop and danger, works in some situations and not in others, looks good on some people but not others and comes out of your finger when you cut yourself.  The magic happens with the cognition left over after the word red is worked, cognition that is then applied to other things, like math.

So I discarded phonics books from the last decade that look more marketing and fun than learning and thinking, and listed out every word 5 letters or less that would appear in a scrabble championship.  After a few years, the result was a Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Vocabulary and Thinking which I sometimes right as Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Thinking because that's how most people google it.
  • What's inside

    • Phonics through 2nd grade
    • Instructions for a solid reading program at the 99% level
    • Math vocabulary through 2nd grade, just in case
    • The reason my 13 year old is sitting for the SAT on Saturday
    • The reason why I use terms like incredulous, inculcate, and fallacious with my kids and they don't roll their eyes
Click here for fabulous phonics

While Math House is called Math House because I have many wasted years studying graduate math and trying to solve the Riemann hypothesis, the phonics book is the gem of the collection.  Guaranteed high math scores on advanced material is not enough to crush the reading section.  I think my kids spend 2 or 3 hours a day reading - on a good day, and we don't have nearly enough good days.  Last week was mainly band concerts, baseball games, the school play, and me working way too much.

Speaking of last week, here is a question from the SAT from last week's article.

The author uses an extended quote in lines 61-69 as part of a larger attempt to
a) convey the impact of an unexpected discovery
b) illustrate the suddenness of a decision
c) simulate a child's misconceptions
d) criticize the artificiality of the "young adult" classification
e) describe a young reader's sense of history

As I mentioned in the prior article, after a few years of research, we reduced all reading comp exercises to a simple mathematical proof.   It's almost long division now.  But there is a prerequisite that I didn't mention.  These questions are packed with vocabulary.  I should have chosen one of the harder questions but even in the question above you can see convey, misconception, artificial, sense, and not the 2nd grade definition of sense.

Somewhere in the Pre-K Phonics introduction, I might mention that opposites are not very useful, but synonyms are extremely valuable for the COGAT.  This applies to the SAT as well.

One Power Mom did Pre-K Phonics with her 4 year old and asked me do you really expect kids to know 'due' and 'dew'?  Ha. No I don't.  I expect them to figure out that there are things like dew and due lurking out their, which is a cognitive gold mind, but mainly I expect parents to read these two words in a phonics book, freak out, and raise the bar in their house.  Some words strike the imagination of one child, some strike the imagination of the other child.  You never know.  Some times we would just burst out laughing and move on.  Sometimes the word went on the Word Board for the 112 days it took to get it because I thought it was important for the COGAT.

From then on, it was 3 years of the Word Board and vocab workshop.  By 2nd grade, words just became the fabric of Math House.

By the way, I owe this Power Mom an article on how to get a four year old to internalize halving and doubling, tripling and cutting into thirds and make it part of their visual-spatial cognition.  Maybe next week.

In the mean time, for the last week, we've done zero to prepare for the SAT on May 5.  I first came up with this idea 8 years ago, when a Mentor Mom told me that her 7th grade daughter got a 700 on the SAT and Stanford sent her a letter asking her to apply in 4 years.  Since then, I've been asking the question, what if we could crush the verbal section?  Our incremental preparation could fill about 30 pages if I included all of the setbacks, 3 pages with just recounting the how to.

Well, we probably can't crush the SAT because we go so very slow on our work, both math and verbal. It's tempting to change gears and shoot for speed, but the MAP test is in June and we need 99% to get into high school.  The MAP and the SAT are not the same thing, and I don't want to negatively impact the MAP.  So the SAT has been relegated to MAP practice.  Still, it's the SAT.

Last night I was out with Power Dads on a biking brewery research tour and we were discussing how preparation is going for the MAP.  All of their kids are genuinely smarter than my kids. Officially, it was just a biking brewery tour, but I don't drink much, I ask a lot of questions, and dads talk a lot when they drink. So putting that altogether it was prime research.  One dad said his daughter was in a prep course and she recently had a grueling 4 hour MAP test prep session.   The SAT is our prep, but it's only 3 1/2 hours so I kept my mouth shut.  We might have the edge, however, in the grueling department.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Tiger Mom Revisited

Some of my readers complained that when they google Test Prep Math they get GMAT results.  This is totally offensive to me.  If a result came up with the GRE math, chemistry or physics subject, that would be OK.  After all, 99% on the MAP tests year after year in grade school is going to be a waste of time if Stanford turns down my children's graduate applications.  At the risk of looking like every other test prep website:

On To Tiger Mom
In the famous seen in her book, Amy Chua recounts a 4 hour ordeal of screaming and crying while she forces her daughter to rehearse an impossible piece for an upcoming piano recital.   Chua is presented as an overbearing evil mom with unrealistic expectations for her child and no concern for her child's long term mental health.

This scene replays itself over and over in Math House, usually on simmer instead of full boil.   There are two important difference between the Evil Overlord of Math House and Tiger Mom.  These differences are why I am not a Tiger Dad, and beyond criticism, and Chua took a lot of flack for her book, even though Chua and I think and act in nearly same way.

The first difference is that I have assumptions, not expectations.  My expectations for my kids are abysmally low.  I strive for zero expectations.  I expect that a 7 or 8 year old would rather play video games and watch TV instead of worry about his future.  I expect that a young child will cry when presented with a problem that exercises grit and cognitive skills.  Maybe he'll just complain at first, but as soon as it's clear I'm not doing his work for him (because then he won't get the benefits), he might try crying.  I expect him to not know what he's doing, to make lots of mistakes, to do far less than I've assigned, and to end up with wrong answers.  That's where the skill set is born, and that's why he's doing this work.  If I gave him something he could do, like 30 easy math fact problems, he'd look good but fall far short of the goals I have for him.

On the other hand, I have assumptions.  I assume my kids will get the work done one way or another because I'm withholding all fun activities until it is done.  I assume that I can't withhold food because his performance will suffer (tried that, it doesn't work).  I assume that he'll learn key skills that other kids don't learn and that a year from now, he'll be scoring in the top 1% on everything for the rest of his life and be 6 years ahead of other kids in key subjects, even subjects we don't do at home, all because I stayed focused on grit and cognitive skills during 2nd and 3rd grade.

I like to say 'Of course you don't want to do this.  You're 8 years old.  I'm an expert at being an 8 year old.  I was an 8 year old for an entire year'.  Seems like a good thing for a dad to say.

I expect the first 6 weeks are going to be really tough because school just spoon feeds easy work and the parent is used to helping and answering questions when the child falls short.  Scaffolding is great when you want your child to memorize and master a bunch of new concepts in a short period of time, but the child never learns the thinking and learning skills tackle learn pre-algebra on his own.

4th grade was a blur of algebra.  You can't do algebra without pre-algebra, and that means you either have to learn it on the spot or get assigned backtracking material by The Overlord before you can move on.  I threw in some functions,  a little geometry (prove everything starting with a line is an angle of 180 degrees), a little trig (everything you need to know in 30 minutes or less), and it's on to SAT test prep books.

Test Prep Math Level 4
SAT test prep is surprisingly easy compared to the real thing.  I generally assign 5 problems at a time, from the math section, with no time limit.  A few years later, we've not only completed all the math problems but learned high school math on the way, with the exception of advanced trig topics and calculus.  Again, my expectations are really low for this exercise.  I expect almost nothing.  I assume we'll get through it and come out on top.

In a few weeks, my 7th grader is sitting for the real deal, all 3 1/2 hours of it.  I gave him a few timed versions of certain sections, but our real goal is the 6 hour MAP test ( 3 hours of math on one day, and 3 hours of reading comp on another day).  I figure 3 1/2 hours of SAT brutality should be good practice for the 7th grade MAP.

After we licked math, we had a book full of reading comp questions.  The reading comp was really hard.  It didn't go well.

I traveled to the planet Dagoba to be trained by the Jedi Master Yoda of reading comp.  A high school English teacher, he coaches SAT on the side.  He told me things like "When the question asks 'which answer reflects the tone of the passage', count words in the passage, you will".  He also told us to 'figure out an answer wrong, why you got'.   His advice got us past Baffled; it gave us things to do instead of crying and yelling at each other, but ultimately it's not for 99% and its not for an 11 year old.

Once again, I'm stuck with an area of cognitive research that is unexplored and undocumented, so as the Foremost Expert in the Field of Real Cognitive Skills, The Kind That Actual Children Have, Not The Useless Made Up Crap That Fill Education Journals, I took on the challenge.

So I applied the learning framework outlined in Test Prep Math.  After all, the math word problems in TPM target reading comp.  This isn't obvious how a math problem prepares a child for reading comp until you see the SAT.   Here's why reading comp = math and math = reading comp.

The author uses an extended quote in lines 61-69 as part of a larger attempt to
a) convey the impact of an unexpected discovery
b) illustrate the suddenness of a decision
c) simulate a child's misconceptions
d) criticize the artificiality of the "young adult" classification
e) describe a young reader's sense of history

Step 1 - look at lines 55-60 and 70-75 for the answer.   This is more of a geometry thing that I'll cover later.

Step 2 - Notice each answer has 3 concepts.   You simply take each concept (like convey), and if the author complains, states, recounts, but does not convey, cross out the answer.  Test Prep Math hammers away at the 3 bucket limit of working memory, and here it is in action on every single question in the SAT reading section.  The iterative permutations of solving these questions are identical to Section 3 of TPM, which is why figure matrices are such good predictors of academic success.

That's it.  There are no other question types.  It is really helpful if the child can tell you about the author and the type of passage (propaganda, argument, description, memoir, what ever) because the first 2 questions are going to require this knowledge.  But all questions require the same mathematical approach.  If a question looks like its a different type, it's just disguise.

Once we got this, I went from assuming that reading comp questions are impossible to assuming that I'm going to be disappointed if my kids miss any.  'Convey' went on the Word Board.

I think somewhere in the intro to Test Prep Math I might fess up to targeting reading comp.  I should have said targeting 99% on reading comp.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Now Is The Time

Over the next few months I'm going to be unleashing some really powerful test crushing material that I've been working on diligently for the past few years.   All of this fits under the head of 'well, we did that stuff, let's see if it will work elsewhere'.  It does work elsewhere.

I've noticed that interest in GAT material drops off after the test scores are released in the spring.  I suppose this is normal.  Normal as in not the top 1%.  When I was in eighth grade, I read the biography of the world's greatest athlete.  He used to have really intense workouts after the year-end tournament was over.  Like right after.  That night.

Giftedness is going to be born in the next few months.

Have you ever heard the expression 'Fake it until you make it'?  There is a great Ted Talk on this subject from Amy Cuddy.  My idea of giftedness is similar.  My idea of giftedness is to take the skills of the gifted and use them.  It's not profoundly gifted, but with a little practice and change it's enough to get into a gifted program. 

An odd thing happened on the way to giftedness.

The difference between a gifted child and a profoundly gifted child is that the profoundly gifted child has so much practice exercising gifted skills that she does it quickly, so quickly, in fact, that neither she nor her parents can explain how she actually does it.  It's like magic.

It's not magic if you look closely.

Last week I doled out more SAT test prep to my 9 year old.  I've been working a lot and it's good for a few minutes without distraction.  Here's one of the questions I gave him.  Take a minute to solve it.

He asked me what the area of a circle was.  I thought kids learned that by this age, but whatever.  Before I could leave the room, in the space of about 15 seconds, he solved it.  That was freaky.  I asked him how he solved it, and he showed how he subtracted one half circle from the other, etc., and nailed it.

We spent 18 months learning the skills from the ground up with Test Prep Math.  There were 2 types of questions.  The first type required a long discussion and argument.  The second type required 4 or 5 attempts.  A year of weekly math later and the discussions have dissipated.

I maintain a slow pace of a few problems here and there.  I've been worrying a lot about how our slow pace in Math House is going to thwart the SAT.  The MAP test requires a slow pace, and we need a perfect score this year, so I don't want to add risk by practicing timed tests.  Last week, I wondered if we should just switch to Kumon and drill boring useless math facts.  I know that slow, careful, and lots of mistakes produces award winning mathematicians so I'm going to stick with principles.  But I gave a 55 minute practice test to older brother and he only finished 30 questions out of 38.  In 70 minutes.  He'll be lucky to break 1200.  I'm beginning to feel the same way I felt watching them being led away to the COGAT at ages 4 and 5.  It was excruciating.  How am I going to survive 3 1/2 hours of waiting while my baby takes a college entrance exam?  Older brother is only 13 and is the subject in one of my diabolical experiments yet again.

The younger feakazoid learned his visual spatial skills from Shape Size Color Count.  He does an adequate showing on reading comp within the official time limit as well.  That skill set started with Pre K Phonics and Conceptual Vocabulary & Thinking and was fully developed by the Test Prep Math Series.  Those 4 books (there are 2 Test Prep Math books) stand out for two reasons.  There is a 2 foot high stack of test prep material for K and 1st grade.  I have a four foot stack, but only recommend about 2 feet of it.  There is almost nothing for children who aren't in K or 1st grade.  Secondly, these 4 books are the only books on the market that present material at the 99%, at least by the end of the books. What is the secret to doing work at the 99% if you're not actually there yet?  It's slightly different than fake it until you make it, but in the same spirit.  Go slow, do less, and make more mistakes.  Until you make it.

If you want a permanent showing at 99%, step out of the crowd.  Work diligently when the rest are taking a break.  Work differently (think Anti-Kumon instead of Kumon).   K and 1st are extremely competitive years but scores drop off after that because the interest drops off.   If your child hasn't reached the magic age of 4 yet, think about SSCC and phonics.  If K and 1st grade were a struggle, double the effort in 2nd and 3rd grade.  It's worth it in the long run.

In my next article, I'm going to describe how Math House crushes reading comp questions.   It's going to be a let down for my readers.  Math House built math from the ground up with foundational skills and ignoring routine practice and memoriation.  We didn't get around to worrying about reading comp until all the math parts of the practice tests in the SAT book were finished and we were looking for the next challenge.  By this point, foundational skills were used and not discussed.  We ended up with a simple reading comp formula that works.  No wisdom, cleverness, counter cultural pedagogy wars.  Just a simple formula.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

My Latest Insane Plan

Before I announce my new plan, and freak everyone out, I'm going to issue disclaimers.

Math House is very low pressure.  Our bar is pretty low.   I think a day is successful that has no video games. I have zero expectations.  I never know if the next paper I grade will be all wrong or all lucky.

Let's go through plans of the past and how they generally turned out.

  • I spent 2 years carefully crafting a phonics book that includes phonics through 2nd grade.  Every word that could possibly be relevant to a cognitive skills test and can be sounded out.  The last shred of expectation were crushed out when it took 3 weeks to get past CAT.
  • We jumped into 2nd grade math midway through K.  3 weeks again to get through the first page.
  • I've got 6 or 7 other plans that I presented on this website in the last 7 years.
Of course, a little here and a little there paid off.  Within 4 or 5 months, the little ones were zooming along adequately.   The bar raised itself.

The new plan is to take the SAT in 7th grade.  This is where you feel bad as a parent and panic because things are so competitive and you're falling behind.  

We'll, it's not about the SAT.  I read an article this week that explains why 1600 on the SAT won't help you get into Stanford.  Stanford only accepts 4% of applicants.  I couldn't help but think a) 1600 on the SAT won't help and b) 4% is a easier to achieve than the 2/10th % that we faced for 1st grade.

The SAT plan began in 2nd grade with TPM.  If you've ever seen it, and you think 'this isn't school math' your right.  It's the base of the mountain.  School math is more of a detour through the foothills.  This doesn't mean TPM is super hard (some of it is), it's just super different.  Different will get you into Stanford, according to the article.  I started experimenting with SAT books with older kids when TPM was written.

My last insane idea was to start assigning work from an SAT test prep book after 4th grade.  Here's your SAT question:  How long will it take to get through a 600 page book if you only do 4 or 5 problems a week?  The work accelerates on it's own, by magic, just like my other insane ideas.

Back to the new new bar.  On May 7, my 13 year old will spend the morning in a high school taking a 3 1/2 college entrance exam.  What fun.  I'm not sure how he's going to do, but here's what's going to follow:
  • First, we get to see the whole test and his answers.  This is a new service by the college board.  I can't wait.  I'll be able to compare our practice to the real thing and prepare little brother appropriately.
  • Then in a few years, he'll be sitting for the PSAT, the shorter easier version of the SAT.  Will he be stressed taking a test that is easier than the one he took in 7th grade?  I don't think so.
  • But even more importantly, a few weeks later he'll sit for the Test That Won't Be Named for entrance into high school.  How can you expect a child to do well without practice?  I don't consider a test prep course practice.  You don't practice sky diving jumping off the stairs onto a mattress.  You practice sky diving jumping behind enemy lines in the dark while the plane is buffeted by flak.
I gave him his first timed test today - one 55 minute math section.  I think it was section 7.   He did awful, as usual.  I let him go 90 minutes and I think he quit after 75 minutes on his own.  (He's on to my trickery.)   Awful is a normal performance going into the test, as I have pointed out to many, many parents worried about COGAT prep.


This morning - a day after the timed math test, and the day after I published the article above - I'm assessing our situation.  I don't like timed tests and he needs to get every single answer correct no matter how long it takes for that other test.   So I'm going to do only one timed reading test and then we're going back to our normal program for that other test.  The SAT is going to an endurance exercise of concentration.   I had this idea that we will 'prepare for the test' if you know what I mean, but this doesn't really work for our plan, so instead we're just going to sit for the test and I'll find out how ready my 13 year old is for college.  In other words, he's not going to get an extra 150 points because we made a concerted effort to get an additional 150 points. 

I know kids at this age who are ready to sit for an SAT type test.  They've had the right training.  They are nearly at the peak of the mountain.  Math house is working toward a much much higher mountain and we're only at about the 40% mark right now.  It's really hard for me to be competitive and patiently hold back at the same time.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Word Board

At a young age (like 4 to 6 or 5 to 7), each of my kids made trips to the Word Board a few times a week to see if any of the words from Vocab Workshop or phonics were mastered.   Of course, if 'organize' appeared, I couldn't help but throw in 'organization', 'organic', 'origami' or anything else I could think of, so it was hard for them to keep up.  The best part of this exercise was that it made up for a lack of discussion in the house, because we were usually reading or doing math or cleaning or eating.   It turned me into a vocabulary parent.   Our nightly reading time became more question and vocabulary oriented.

The Word Board started simply to track which words from the Vocab Workshop book were mastered.  If I got a slow response and some thinking, the word stayed.  If it was a really important word, the bar was raised and I wanted synonyms as well.  There are two reasons for delay.  First, if you zoom through Vocab Workshop, you get to a level that's too hard, or you have to use Wordly Wise, Vocab Workshop's more boring cousin.   Oppositely, some words are really hard, and you can leave the word on the board and move to the next section.

Recently, a Power Mom suggested that I advertise. While I'm not interested in monetizing my blog, I will gladly include an ad for my favorite toothbrush, even if I don't get paid and their graphics leave little to work with. Also, currently only available on eBay.  But they are soft, grippable, and counter cultural.   Here is my ad.

Click to buy.
The Word Board saved us in phonics.  Phonics at a young age go really slow.   At one point, we had 100 words on the board, including 'CAT', the very first word, which was never read adequately.  I know from experience in any subject that a child may take 3 weeks on the first page and 2 weeks on the next, but if you stick with it and wait for their brain, suddenly they get it and zoom through everything.  You just have to be patient and keep reminding yourself that you are reading the blog of an insane person.  But once it happens in reading, math, COGAT test prep, you see the process and can relax.  Until that delay happens in science, writing, pre-algebra, and everything else advanced you do, then it's just annoying.

I think that the Word Board was mainly about me learning to be a parent in an educated household.  It raises the level of expectation and it raises the level of the discussion.  More importantly, it trains a parent to let the child do the work with no help.  It trains the parent to wait for a correct answer, even if it takes 4 weeks.  It trains the child that mommy won't help.  The child realizes that he actually has to do the work.  But there is no penalty, no time limit.

By no help, I mean this:
  1. "What's this word mean?"  (Let's say ambidextrous is the vocab word.)
  2. 10 minutes of silence later, Live on water and land?
  3. "No, that's amphibian.  Last time, I said an amphibian is an animal that lives on water and land.  'Ambi' means both.   Phibian probably means tell a small lie or something to do with habitat.   It's greek from about 2500 years ago.  Or latin.  Small break for daddy to wiki phibian.  Ambitdexterous means that you can write with both hands because you either have brain damage or you practice writing with both hands.  Let's take a break to write our names with both hands at the same time.
  4. I know what habitat and amphibian mean.
  5. "Those words aren't coming down until you get ambidextrous"
Then mommy will come by and ask why I'm subjecting our 5 year old to ambidextrous.  By 4th grade, he will have forgotten what this word means.

Once we both got past the training, I could raise the bar as high as 'Stand and Deliver' while I challenged them on word meanings.   Since I didn't care whether the word came down this week or next month, it was all them.  Nor do I give a fig about their self esteem.  They can earn it if they want it.  Which they did.  The hard way.  I've got 2 kids with enough self esteem to fill a class room.

We retired the Word Board after about 3 years.  The Word Board only came back sporadically.   Three years defending at the Word Board produces a child who will acquire and retain word definitions on sight, and this makes the Word Board less useful except for advanced math and science.

I speculate that bilingual children are going to get a permanent advantage for the same reason.  The first few years of their lives are a big Word Board to sort through.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Step One

I see a strong correlation between what we're doing now at the end of grade school to make gains on the TTWBN and what we did years before simply to gain entry into a special program.

In the this series of articles I'm going to rehash the groundwork and put a bookend on it.  I think reading is the foundation, so I'm starting with reading.

In the last article, I stated that success in education is highly correlated to the level of discussion that takes place in the home.  There are only 3 areas of research that have identified a cause of intelligence (roughly defined as permanent academic skills that manifest themselves in a strong, accelerated academic performance).

The first is summarized in Welcome to Your Child's Brain and concludes that if you maintain an ongoing one way discussion with your infant, your infant will reach age 4 reading at a 6th grade level.  I've see parents do this and it's breathtaking. 

The second area of research is more important because most of us are too busy being a parent to talk.  This line of research concludes the level of vocabulary used in the house will determine you're child'd education potential.  I like this line of research better because it allows for a late start.

The third area of research is presented in The Read Aloud Handbook and states that reading to your child will put them permanently ahead of the crowd.   I like this approach even better because I was never good at having an ongoing discussion with my child because he was always knocking something over, and 'Please refrain from disassembling you're brother's block tower until he has indicates disinterest' didn't seem as appropriate as shouting 'Stop it right NOW!'.  During nightly reading, however, we could have some fairly productive Q & A.  Nightly Read To is good parent training.

What I like best about reading, however, and the reason I put it number one is that many kids get into special programs simply because they do nothing but read.  They struggle mightily with figure matrices, and it takes them extra years to finally get past the test.   But once they do, they generally end up permanently at the top of the academic heap.   Whereas my approach is simply to cheat with lots of logic and problem solving.   Why spend 6 years reading when you can just spend 3 months in thinking and working memory boot camp?  Being the underdog and trouncing readers is quite satisfying.  Then I stepped back and wondered 'What if a child did both?'  Light bulb.

In the introduction to Pre-K Phonics and Conceptual Vocabulary I lay out a reading program that goes way beyond over the top.  It was the most fund* I had with my kids.   I probably only need a few changes to my advice:

  • 'Pre-K' is somewhat misleading because it goes straight through 2nd grade material.
  • No child will ever grasp the difference between 'dew' and 'due', but presenting a fairly advanced and confusing concept at such a young age pays dividends for test prep.  (I should write a whole article on this bullet, but in short a child who knows there is a concept lurking out there that is extraordinarily complicated and thought consuming is on the verge of some serious thinking when faced with cognitive skills workbooks.)
  • You will definitely want science and nonfiction represented in your reading list, but do not show any enthusiasm or push this in any way.  As soon as you hand your child the Magic School Bus and indicated that it is really important to know science, science will become uncool automatically and you may discourage a future scientist.  Same with history.  Try to look at science books nonchalantly.  
*Fund is a typo.  It was supposed to be 'fun'.  But I'm going to leave it as is because I think fund is just as appropriate.  However, reading was a lot of fun.

When we read, I'm more than happy to short circuit the learning process and define words, share background and history, point out logic.   The child will get enough time testing their skills in silent reading and picture books.  As a bonus, eventually you will lack all credibility and merely stating the obvious becomes an exercise in your child pointing out why you are wrong.  But that comes later.  In the meantime, this is the best of all times to make up for the fact that you didn't carry on a lively discussion at ages 2 and 3.

The classical approach to education reserves this time in your child's life, maybe up to 4th grade, for packing their brain with as much information as possible.  Pack it in.  Then jam some more in there.  Reading together will help you do it.  This is a low pressure exercise.  Throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks.  You can do this a little at a time or use a spaghetti cannon like I did.  It's not really about gaining anything but just having fun.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Covert Blog

I'm trying to minimize the SEO on my blog.  SEO stands for search engine optimization, and it means that you put key words in your articles so that it shows up on search engines.  If my editor finds out, then I'm in trouble.

In this article, I'll answer a common question that I get.  Where is this heading?

From the beginning, I've found summarizing my research for the public allows me to scrutinize my evidence and edit out failed experiments so that what's left is reliable advice that you can bank on.  In the first year, when I was competing for a spot in a "special school program" (you know what I mean) I nailed that test for that program.   As I was writing, and reviewing past articles a month or so later, I would see things I missed, obvious things, and the door was opened.

I feel like this special test (you know what I mean) is 100% crushable way beyond the required cutoff score.  The pedagogy to get there is counter cultural and counter intuitive.  I don't see evidence that it can be replicated in a school setting except in a few standout programs led by visionaries.  Most parents will never meet success because they can't let go of 'learning something'.  'Something' always interferes with 'learning'.

I'm turning my attention to that other test that 40,000,000 kids take every year in school.  My research is sneaking into my blog whether I like it or not.  Our target is this year and then again in 3 years.  It is much more competitive than the first test mentioned above, and the approach is almost identical with the exception of shapes being replaced by advanced math and the pictures replaced by unknown vocabulary words.  I refer to this test as the TTWBN (the Test That Won't Be Named test).

Most parents face both the special test and the TTWBN test for entry into a special program. Before 2nd grade, the best way to prepare for the TTWBN is just to be 2 years ahead in school.  Somewhere around 2nd grade, other bright kids catch up, and it's not enough to be ahead.  A child has to master academic skills at a very high level.   I'm going to write more about this test without giving away the most critical competitive element - its name.

The common view of special programs is that that the children of wealthy parents will always have a competitive advantage.   The skill set behind this test is almost always attributed to inherited or genetic intelligence, a myth which has been dispelled.   The genetic link only makes sense to researchers oblivious to the scientific method and who have never met an actual child.  'Intelligence' is not definable let alone measurable, and you can't correlate an unmesaruable variable to anything else no matter how much wishful thinking is passed off as results.  If you sit in a wealthy household, you'll observe educated parents maintain an environment rich in vocabulary, discussion, and reading.  Education is highly correlated to wealth.  Vocabulary is the foundation of the whole enterprise.  Thus wealthier households are much more likely to produce gifted children.  The research on vocabulary as the predictor is strong, compelling, and generally ignored.  If you sit in the house of a poor science teacher, you'll see the same dynamic in action and the results are the same.  If you don't have a stack of data on household discussion and test scores you'll miss the dependent variables.

So my first long term goal is to put vocabulary and reading into the poorest households at the level that my children experienced.   It's unlikely I'll do this, but one of the children who went through my program (thanks to a parent who found out it's possible) will decide on a career in education.

The other long term goals, in order of priority, are for bright thinkers of the next generation to tackle poverty, violence, and the propensity of governments to spend the money of the next generation and bankrupt their educational and social systems.  This makes me a liberal and a hard core conservative at the same time, so I'm throwing in a forth goal that one of our future leaders will get democrats and republicans to work together, something along the lines of 'let's spend money on poverty by doing something effective' subject to 'we can't steal money from the next generation to do it'.  Sounds like a republicrat program to me.

I've been watching young people step up in two areas recently; both areas have been in the news.  They are beginning to touch on the core arguments but are not tackling the lies and fallacy and mislogic and ingrained misthinking that need to be overcome .  They're close and they're hearts are in the right place, but we really need a few young John Locke's to step up and transform the world in these areas. 

I'm too busy to do it myself.   I have too much education research to do.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Really Bad Advice

My google news feed has delivered articles from the SAT experts.  I've been reading how to solve the hardest math problems on the SAT to see if I can improve my super secret strategy for the TTWBN test.  I'm learning that the experts don't know anything useful.

The goal of an expert is to dissect the problem down to steps that lead to the solution.   This teaches nothing, of course, except for a memorized list of steps for a problem that will never be seen again.  The solution advice has an element of time management, as in narrow down the problem to the work that has to be done in the shortest time possible.  This approach will backfire, because once you short circuit the analysis with time pressure, it's much harder to find the right path.  Dead ends will be stress inducing.  Unless you are an expert and already at the 1600 level, in which case it's easy. 

The TTWBN test has no time limit, and we're going to take full advantage of that fact, like 4 hours per topic.  The difference between preparing for the TTWBN test now and the SAT in high school is that we'll spend one or two sessions under time pressure before the SAT .  The prep process is going to be identical, including spending 10 minutes per question.

I've rarely mentioned one of George Poyla's strategies for solving geometry problems.  Rarely mentioned it, but we do it all of the time and it's behind 'Read The Question' for little people preparing for the COGAT.  He warns readers that geometry proofs will need to use prior results, maybe from the last proof or from last week, to solve the current problem.

The version that I use for grade school is that if you see a geometry, solve everything before you read the question.   I want every line labelled with a length and every angle with degrees.  If it's an algebra problem, be prepared to rearrange and transform.  I've written before about this in the context of verbal analogies.  Here's what inevitably follows:

  • We get stuck because someone forgot that a + b + c = 180 or adjacent angles sum to 180 or something else that we didn't cover yet.  So we cover it.
  • During this process, the characteristics of the problem at hand become clear.
  • The solution strategy presents itself and the answer usually becomes known before the pick list is surveyed.
This is a much better approach than "What I am supposed to do?" followed by me explaining solution steps.  I might as well talk to the wall.

Before 4th grade, this skill is called 'Read The Question' and involves me asking lots of what if questions about a figure matrix or verbal analogy for 20 minutes before we actually pick an answer.  I originally did this because really challenging COGAT test prep questions take me a long time to create and aren't found on practice tests so I wanted to get the most out of each question.

I'm currently experimenting with similar approaches to Reading Comp.  When I get to the end of a boring passage, I remember very little about the passage, maybe 2 nouns like bridge and engineer.  Then I get a list of questions that ask who the author is, what type of writing is this, how are they feeling, how many arguments are in the passage.  Then I go back and reread the passage to find out.  3 years into this, it dawned on me that I'm going to be asked this stuff anyway, so I might as well look for it.

A parent might be fooled by the engaging quality of most reading comp passages.  Don't be fooled.  You're an adult now.  Everything is interesting to you.  Your child is totally bored beyond comprehension.  So I announced that after the passage is read, and before we begin work on the questions, I want be told a lot about the passage, like who's writing it, what type of writing is it, what's the point of each paragraph, when did it happen?  I'm inching our way toward not having to read the passage a second time thoroughly (thinking ahead to a timed test).   I'm the same way about the questions.  Was line 32 about eclectic dissension?  Exuberant facilitation?  Ascetic abnormalism?  If we're luck, the answers will have about 20 words that need definitions analysis in the context of the narrative.  Unless it isn't a narrative.

Will the child take the hint and adopt this approach to reading or math?  Certainly not in my presence, out of spite, but probably in the classroom and when it counts on the test.  I've caught them both doing things properly when they thought I wasn't looking.

So here's my bad advice.  If you follow my approach properly, your child will get through very little material, probably do it wrong 5 times, forget the next day what was learned, and not have any academic knowledge to show for it.   All the while, the important skills will be forming.  Then one day they will magically know everything and things will be really easy.  The first few months are a struggle.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Test That Won't Be Named

In this article, I'm going to jam 7 articles into one because I'm really pressed for time on the weekends.

Review of Home Schooling Literature
I've been reviewing home schooling guides lately to see if there's anything that I can add to my At Home School curriculum.  "At Home Schooling" means doing a little extra work weeknights and weekends to make up for the slow pace of learning at school.

Home school curriculum guides are pretty disappointing.   If I were full time home schooling my child, I would be planning to send the child to Stanford at age 14 because home schooling is so easy.  The curriculum guides shoot for something more average.

As most curriculum guides point out, trying to teach anything to your child is really hard.  What they don't point out is that your child will learn at an accelerated pace once you stop teaching.  The impossible becomes the easy.  The secret is in the approach, which I will describe in the next article (below).

The Secret to Learning
Almost every week, I have to remind my kids that they have to slow down.  I had to tell the younger one this story again.

There were two equally bright, equally capable children.  One was dumb and one was a genius.  The dumb one looked at a hard problem, became frustrated because he didn't know it, and started guessing.  He got the wrong answer.   The genius looked at the same problem, became frustrated because he didn't know it, and started to work on it slowly one step at a time.  He tried 3 times to do it, and finally chose the answer, which was also wrong.

A third child who was equally bright and capable also struggled with this problem.  He was smart.  He also took a long time to work through this frustrating problem, and after his fifth try, he bothered to check his answer, found a mistake, and fixed it.  The smart child got the correct answer. 

The smart child is getting 99% on the Test That Won't Be Named, but the genius is stuck between 85% and 95%.  Both are learning about the same amount.  Maybe the smart child is getting a bit more out of the learning process because he's checking his work.  What's the problem here?  The problem is that the smart child is fixated on the goal of a solution, especially the correct solution, and the genius is more interested in the learning process.  Eventually, the smart child is going to be in an advanced accelerated course (or maybe pre Algebra) and the work is going to be really hard.  Both the genius and the smart kid will make lots of mistakes, and this will bother the smart kid so much that he drops out.  But the genius, who doesn't care about the answer in the first place, will just plod on as usual until he has a PhD in a joint Law Medicine Chemical Engineering Medieval Slovakian Literature.

I've warned the genius that he better start checking answers because if he doesn't get a perfect score on the TTWBN test he can forget about AP courses because he won't get into a good school.

The Secret For Parents
Among equally capable parents, we find dumb, smart, and genius parents.  The problem that parents need to solve is that you have a child doing a problem - whether it's a cognitive skills exam, or one of the 2 main sections on the TTWBN test - and your child is totally not getting it.  Dumb parents expect their child to get it, smart parents expect their child to get it after a long struggle, and genius parents really don't care.

Once you see a child go through this process, you get it as a parent, and work and frustration is replaced by work and learning.  For this reason, the 2nd child should always end up twice as smart as the oldest sibling, given a fraction of the learning time.

When I was a dumb parent, I came up with the parent skill set in order to survive the first few rounds of my ridiculous At Home School curriculum goals.  The very first goal was to skip first grade math and do 2nd grade math starting on winter break in Kindergarten.   This was the worst and best idea I ever came up with.  (Tip - if you do hard core COGAT test prep at age 4, 2nd grade math at age 5 isn't all that challenging).

As a reminder, my survival steps include start every problem by acknowledging that you are totally baffled, take a long, long time reading the question, going so far as to do a workbook on the topic before you get to the answer, make a lot of mistakes and go out for ice cream any time the child gets 100% wrong, and if a test is coming up, check the #%$!!!! answer.  The parent will encourage these steps.  For the parent, I'd like to add 1) set your expectations at zero, 2) I really mean zero, not .0001 but zero, and 3) stop looking at the solutions.

You can't practice learning skills (see prior paragraph) if your child is doing a 30 question timed worksheet or knows the material or doesn't make mistakes.  That's why we have a pace of 1 to 5 super hard problems in Math House.

I always considered reading to be a filler activity.  I'm beginning to think differently.  Competition for GAT seats is between kids who read 6 hours a day, and those of us who will just become really good problem solvers (aka shapes, math and logic) and cheat our way into the program.  Cheating is much more satisfying and is the basis for higher order math.

To be on the safe side, we did lots of vocab ( and 2nd grade phonics starting on day 1 (Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Vocabulary and Thinking).  But it was always primarily silly and fun.  Why discourage a life of reading by putting pressure on the first year?

I think my casual approach to reading is the reason language arts thrived in Math House.

Yes, I grilled the kids at the Word Board (How would a commander on the battle field use the word 'dispersion' in a sentence?), but they didn't actually have give me a proper response and I didn't want to take the words down because I was going to quiz them on the synonyms in a few days anyway.

But mainly we went slowly and had fun.  When I say slowly, I mean when you try to slow down to nothing the child learns at a highly accelerated rate.  That doesn't make sense until you see it happen, but it always does.

The Magic of Slow
I've decided that I'm no longer teaching math in Math House.  Once again, I want to teach How To Figure Out A Problem.  We lost that last summer trying to tackle high school math.  Figuring out a concept is a much more useful skill than getting a correct answer on known material.  That was the whole point of TPM.  If your child masters Figuring Out A Concept, then At Home Schooling is more productive.

In order to prepare for TTWBN, we've been working with an SAT test prep book.   This doesn't mean that we're tackling high school material at a high school level.   The SAT is more like grade school material for an advanced child in really convoluted problems.  This characterization of the SAT motivated Test Prep Math and it's been paying dividends ever since, until we started doing high school math last summer and started to focus on knowing match concepts.

Here's a problem that demonstrates the full range of skills, those listed above, and the skill of Seeing (aka take time to look at every element of the problem and see the things that other kids miss for lack of vocabulary or patience).  No matter how old your child is or how long he's received this training, he still forgets to practice the basic skills because he's in a hurry to finish math and get on to something more enjoyable, like going to the dentist.

The triangle above is isosceles and AB > AC.  Which of the following is false?

I'm going to omit the answers because of an important technique Poyla's How To Solve it  (1945).  When I translated Poyla for 5 year old's preparing for a gifted exam, it becomes 'Read the Question'.  The translation applicable to preparing for the TTWBN is 'if you see a geometry problem, solve everything before you look at the actual question.'  (If this were age appropriate SAT test prep, then I'd take Poyla at face value because the topic of the book is geometry proofs for high school students and we'd be working under time limits.)  The version for algebra is 'you're going to transform the equation so stop trying to solve it in your brain' and for trig, 'get out the basic formulas and be prepared to do geometry or algebra on top of that'.

Anyway, we reviewed the definition of an isosceles triangle (totally forgotten since age 5 training), the sum of the angles in a triangle, and a hint where the base of the triangle is.  There are the 3 steps that require Working Memory.  Love this problem.  Don't care about the solution.

Initially, this problem resulted in guessing so I had to jump in and 'help' by asking questions.   When I work with other people's children, they are more than happy to work thoroughly and patiently, but when I work with my own children they get frustrated and guess.  Am I exaggerating?  No.  This is why it's so much work for a parent.  Other kids just assume that I'm a teacher and therefore this will be a doable problem or else I wouldn't teach it, and things go well, but my own kids assume I'm an Insane Tyrannical Cruel Math Despot and am torturing them.  You will face the same problem with your own children, which is why the survival skills above are so important.

We've been working consistently at a pace of about 5 problems per day, and over time the child might do 3 problems on his own (incorrectly) and only need help on 2, and before you know it, he's back to needing help on all 5 problems because I had to switched to much harder material.

Anyway, it was this problem where we ran into guessing and I decided I would much rather have him just work the question than try to solve it until he substitutes his subpar approach with '15 minutes of reading the question and 1 minute of getting it right'.

I've been happy to ignore reading until now, just doing the minimum lots of vocab and a couple hours of reading a day, an approach that paid dividends, but this year the older one has to take TTWBN for real and the younger one would rather do the verbal sections than the math sections to spite me.  So it's time to get serious.

When I bought the SAT books a few years ago (2nd dumbest and smartest idea ever), we had a lot of success but my 5th grader and I failed at the reading comp.   We never made it past baffled.

I knew a high school English teacher named Yoda who taught SAT test prep classes and begged the little green guy for advice.  He said, 'Ask why you got the question wrong, you must'.   I'm not kidding, aside from the Yodese accent; this is the only thing he said because we were sitting in a Boy Scout meeting whispering and then got shushed, and I haven't seen him since.  For a year, we kept coming up with the answer 'Because neither of us know what the heck we're doing trying to do with SAT reading comp questions in 5th grade' and then gave up.

Now I've got a 4th grader and a 7th grader with identical books (each have a copy) and I'm starting to get it.  If you've got a 99.6% GRE level in vocabulary (because on the pre-test you got a 50% so you did some serious test prep back in the day) or a good dictionary, the reading comp section boils down to...but first I should point out that given the age difference, it's a totally different experience with each and the 4th grader finds those small passages that ask about sentence structure - saving the long passages for 6th or 7th grade.

By the way, to overcome the vocab deficit, I've found that about half the time if you just add a 'y' to a word it's good enough.  Decisive becomes Decisiony and we can move on.  The rest of the time its a longer discussion.

Anyway, it once again boils down to Math.  It boils down to math.  It's all just logic, one word at a time, counting sentences, iterating.  If Math is 100% language based (I've said that before) it's only fair that reading becomes 100% math based.   The left-brain-right-brain theory turned out to be totally wrong.

Or, if you don't like that answer, it boils down to math in the sense of be baffled, spend a lot of time on the question (including the pick list), go slow, make mistakes and try again, and check your work.

It's also patterns.  By the time we're done, I'll know every technique, aspect, variation, and trick of the SAT.  For example, when an answer choice is 'the author reluctantly agrees partially', you need to find concrete evidence in lines 30-33 of reluctant, agreement, and partial not whole.  Applying Poyla to this material, you better be able to tell me the author's life story after you read the passage and before you start answering questions.  It took me a year to figure that out, but now it seems obvious.

The Danger of Test Prep Classes
The problem of a classroom of any type is that to serve all 20 or 30 students, you have to TELL them the material.  All kids are paying the same amount, and they'll all come out KNOWING the material and performing well on a test if you just tell them.   This will work on a standardized test or even some gifted tests for some kids with specific learning styles.  I worry about the longer term impact (jury is deliberating).

The problem of TTWBN is that there isn't enough time to teach all of the material that the test covers at the level we need to be each year, and this is the big year.  So I'm back to focusing on figuring things out.

How important is At Home Schooling?  Is it important enough for me to set aside a few hours a week, maybe a few more for research and preparation?  Is it important enough for me to go through the frustration and headaches?

What will the child think if I say 'This is not important at all to me to spend any time on it, but I'm going to make you go to this totally unimportant class'.  The child cannot visualize money and he doesn't visualize you sitting in traffic.   If you are not physically there going through the same pain, a bright child will conclude you do not value this activity at all that you are making him do.   You won't see an impact with little kids, but you will see it later.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Kindergarten Challenge

Here's a challenge I received from a reader. 

The 1st grade child scores 99% on the NNAT one year than falls to 80% the next.  Reading and math scores also fall.  All scores have to be near the 100% mark in three months for GAT entry.

The child is going to be home schooled.  I'm very excited about this.  It only takes a few hours a day to give the child 8 hours of education, and the child can sleep in every day which is critical for intense instruction.  This leaves about 50 minutes for test prep and 2 hours for art, crafts and projects every day and 3 hours of reading.  I consider science to fall under crafts and projects at this age.  Think sorting rocks, vinegar and baking soda.  First grade will take about 4 months under these conditions, and second grade another 4 months.

The parent needs to find out the times of day when math works.  Is math first thing in the morning, or is it morning painting and Read To?  Test prep needs 2 times, one in early, late or mid morning, and one sometime in the afternoon.

There are a few reasons why the scores fell year-over-year.  I could write a whole article just on that topic. For now, the things I care about are a) anything score 50% is not a bad starting point, b) three months of prep is better than eight weeks, and c) we need to slow down the pace of learning, probably by about 90% and ramp up the complexity of the material.  If the child did not do well on the test because the parent teaching methods and attitude are a total disaster (been there) then we need to fix this, which will be a separate article.

Yes, I said slow down the pace of learning.  This is probably the biggest factor in GAT preparation.  My pace when I coach is 1 problem in 20 to 30 minutes (depending on the child's age) and 5 or 6 problems when the child works alone.  We're just as slow in math, and I've managed to get two kids into high school math at age 9 or 10 on 5 problems a day.  Not that they're especially talented in math.

The premise of "slow" is slightly counter intuitive under a deadline.  Here's the explanation.  When you build an academic culture where a little work goes a long way, you're using the skills measured by the GAT tests, skills that are also critical to standardized tests like the MAP.  Unless it's a timed test, but we can account for that after the learning takes place.  When you have a culture where problems are easy, correct answers are expected, and worksheets are long and fast, the child is going to totally bomb on a test like the COGAT and NNAT.

I would make time for Vocabulary Workshop because it's so much fun and children learn how to eliminate answer choices as they quickly progress toward harder material.  I would have a Word Board for something because it's where adult discussions take place and where the child has to stand up and deliver.  Or fail.  There's always the next day.

For math and test prep, let's teach this child so that he or she gets to 99%.  I've been going back through my articles thinking about my teaching methods.  I don't think articles are clear on my preferred approach:
1.  Give the child super advanced material and let them flounder.  Eventually they will pick up the skills to work with super hard advanced material.
2.  Give them advanced material and let them do all the work before you don't grade it.  (No typo, read that again.)
3.  Walk through the super hard material together, one question at a time after they do it.
4.  Do it with them, one question at a time, mostly just asking questions.
5.  Give them simple material on a super advanced topic so that they can learn one step at a time on their own.
6.  Give them last year's workbook (last year may actually be next year depending on the circumstances) so that they can catch up on material they need to know in order to keep up with 1 to 3 above.  They can do this on their own, or with some starter help.
7.  Lay 5 skittles on the table, one of each color, and provide a skittle each time your child gets a correct answer.
8.  Give them a skittle just for making an attempt.
9.  Do the problems yourself while they watch.

Lately I've been doing 4b, which is to break down a problem entirely and a class or rules, but I didn't do this in first grade.  I did say Shape Size Color Count over and over when they were stuck to remind them not to look at a problem for 15 seconds and announce that they were stuck, because that's called 'The Beginning of the Work'. 

Which approach do you use?  I used them all.

I used a variety of material, not because of the Spaghetti approach, but because sampling is the best way to find out what works, a child needs to learn from all materials, and a child needs to learn all learning styles and accommodate all teaching styles.  It's not a matter of what the child likes best (aka the easiest), but what works best on which day to meet our goals.

Finally, both cognitive kills tests and the upper levels of standardized tests in math and reading require deep, careful thinking over an extended period of time, mistrust of answers, tackling something unknown, surprising, new, with subtle, hidden complexity.  How to you train a child to have these skills?  #1 through #5 on the list above.  It works the best with 1 super hard long 25 minute mind numbing problem, but in practice, this is a total disaster with crying and yelling, so I've settled on 5 medium really hard problems in 25 minutes.   After that, brain exhausted.

I almost forgot.  We also did music starting in Kindergarten.  I gave my child an electric piano and the Piano Adventure series, and no help what so ever except for tempo. 

Remind yourself that the child will be sitting in some advanced class someday without your help.  The child will be taking a test without your help.  This is what you are preparing them for.   So many people get hung up on them having to know math because they have to get above 95% on the math section.  It's so much easier to train them to think and then math comes really easily after that.

What would this take?  I think a few reading comp books, about 10 to 15 each, maybe 3 math workbooks, judicious use of the web, 2 vocab workshop books (current followed by current  + 1 for starters), maybe one reading comp book, but lots of reading of all kinds.  I would go to Michaels and buy lots of cheap crafts and things like that bead thing, concentrating and creativity activities, painting, and then whatever test prep books you want. 

Origami.  Almost forgot.  Origami is really good for visual spacial and fun, and the test we're challenged with in this case is the NNAT after all.  You can create all sorts of animals.  Do not let you're child do an activity that requires you to do it.  It's kind of the opposite of test prep and how I do math. 

Totally excited about this.  The thing I got out of this time period is a) I learned how not to be impatient or expect anything or care about correct answers and b) I ended up with a much closer relationship with my children and some credibility with them.  a) led to b).  a) also leads to a boatload of learning in a short period of time.