Saturday, February 17, 2018

Totally Doable If Done Right

In the last few weeks, I've stumbled across a whole new group of people who are suddenly concerned about their child's education either because they decided it would be nice to have an actual child in the next few years, or they have an actual child and just found out about the COGAT, or they are getting COGAT scores back and deciding that it's time to get serious.

My Power Mom's Group, or PMG, from last year is officially demoted to Last Year's Power Mom's Group because your kids all met their ridiculously high cutoff goals (and are solidly on their way to additional goals).   There's one more item on the todo list for the next few months and then I'll declare a 100% success rate based on selection criteria that includes a) great parents and b) capable kids.  The new members of LYPMG are going to get heavy doses of my super secret program to crush the MAP test in the coming years.  How similar are the COGAT and the MAP?  COGAT skills are a prerequisite of the MAP, but the COGAT type math isn't what people generally consider to be math and the MAP has way more math than anyone realizes.  If you are not in LYPMG, then you'll read about my super secret MAP program but you won't realize that you're reading about it until I can get everyone in the house past the 7th grade MAP.

For newbies, I've been working on a less insane sounding description of my math approach, with a nice sounding title like Easy Fun Math*.  (*Also known as Ridiculously Hard Insane Math until you get it, and then it's just Ridiculously Hard Math.)

Here goes.

First, read read read read.  If your child only has 60 minutes per day of at home schooling, devote 40 minutes to reading.  If your child has 6 hours a day because it's Saturday, devote 5 hours and 40 minutes a day to reading.

Secondly, do not, under any conditions, every teach math.  The skills your child needs to excel in math are organizing, seeing patterns, trying again, iterating, comparing, trying out different options, defining, extending, explaining, rethinking, simplifying (ie organizing), decomposing (ie organizing), and not being put off by mistakes, lack of information and clarity, and total confusion because if your child isn't working in on a math problem that starts with mistakes, lack of information and clarity, and total confusion then they are not working on a math problem that will develop the skillset.   The super advanced skill set for math includes good executive skills and a lot of Grit.  If your child develops these skills under your guidance, your child will excel in math.  If you teach math, your child won't need any of these skills, won't develop them, and then someday will fail at math.

Look at 'First' and 'Second' again.  Higher order math skills are developed by reading.  This really matters when your child is 2 and 3.  By 4th grade, it will be assumed but not a major factor in the program.

Third, at the 99.8% level, which is totally doable if done right (Totally Doable If Done Right, my new motto, and this just replaced the original title for this article which was Advice for Newby Math Parents), there are a lot of parent skills involved.  While the child is learning each new skill, you will be learning a new skill.  Your child will see math in a different way, and you will see coaching math in a different way.

Forth, your child's math score is going to be constrained by working memory.  I can't stress this enough.  School math needs one or zero working memory buckets in the brain.  Think 'Ann has 2 apples and Bob has 5 apples.  How many apples do they have together.'  Test Prep Math starts with 2 and ends up with 3 working memory buckets - or more - on every problem.  I've settled on 3 since it appears after 3 a pencil is needed.  

Test Prep Math emphasizes messy, sometimes unanswerable problems (in clumps of 3, all mixed up and interspersed with vague words and ridiculous plots).  Now you know why.

There is an ongoing debate on whether or not children should memorize their math facts.   Teachers who need to get all 30 kids in the class past arithmetic errors in 2nd or 3rd grade are generally stuck with memorization exercises  - even in GAT classes.  Researchers who are figuring out how to get kids to the upper levels of math excellence can explain why memorization is counter productive. 
If you search 'Boaler Memorize Math Facts' you should find a few really good articles explanating why memorization is a bad idea by the leading researcher in this field.  You may also come across an counter argument from Greg Ashman that totally misses the point, but get's so close with this diagram that he's one sentence away from solving his own problem.  Look at this diagram:

Note to Ashman, the goal here is not to use long term memory to help with the math facts but to triple working memory.  Also note that this diagram makes me want to sneeze.

Boaler attributes number sense to strong math skills.  Number sense and math fact memorization are two exclusive roads to math, and memorization falls short.   In my ground breaking research I found that use of working memory isn't just a tool for math, it's a math skills generation factory.   The child learns the next level of math skills while working arithmetic in working memory.  When people see the term 'Working Memory', they see 'working MEMORY'.  It's more accurate to view this as 'WORKING memory AND MATH SKILLS GENERATION FACTORY'.  Please note that Boaler's research concerns making math accessible to everyone, but my research concerns a child who just blew away the COGAT and is looking for the next big leap in skills.  

Maybe groundbreaking doesn't cover it.  Here's what we got out of the workings of working memory in action:  an 8 year old who is solving problems off of middle school competitive math tests.

When I wrote, and rewrote, and refactored and added to Test Prep Math, I met my goals to tackle working memory, base skills, and no math if it can be helped.  I failed on the no math part because I couldn't help sneaking in math.  A little geometry, a little algebra, and if you look closely, you'll see the makings of other maths, but I generally avoided division, and avoided decimals and anything else that is on a Common Core list.  This approach doesn't work for everyone.  Some people are short sighted and think of math as topics from a math book.  Others already taught their kids math and the horse already left the barn.

One of my favorite exercises is to do Every Day Math Grade 2 in K.  For those that missed the opportunity in K, it's simply known as Current+2.   I think of this as an exercise in Grit and not math, kind of a warm up to the challenge that will follow.   Last week, a reader shared her child's current math situation which sounds so dire, what with mistakes, frustration, and not getting it.  Once again, my children are even worse in comparison, but we manage to score consistently in the high 90's (like 99, which is what I expect) and do almost no work at all.  One year ahead in math for us and maybe 40 to 60 minutes during the week.  That leaves plenty of time for reading, crafts, and projects.  My secret isn't smarter kids but kids who don't quit.  And we do things totally different, like work smarter and not harder.

After successfully avoiding the memorization of math facts, I've extended the counter cultural approach with not really ever learning math or being remotely competent in any one math topic.  Focusing on underlying skills for years at the expense of math has really paid off in a big way.

You'd think the next step after Test Prep Math would be learning actual math, maybe tackling Pre Algebra.   Instead, we took a detour into competitive math, not really like school math at all, and then I've opened up 7th through 12th grade math topics for any given weekend.  I think we have about 3 20 to 30 minute sessions each week, and the topic could be a first look at derivatives, exponents, polynomial zeros, 'What is sine and why am I making you go through this pain?' or anything else.  One week it was exponents, and the next week my older kid saw logs for the first time and had to invent and derive formulas for logs that corresponded to the exponential formulas that we worked in the prior week.  When this child sees logs again in a month, he will have remember exactly zero of it, but he's got the tools to make short work of it.

After 4th grade, the little one will spend the next year or two working through SAT books.  Other parents will try this and find that it's a disaster.  Our experience will be even worse, but we'll plod on come out with 2 completed books, about 18 practice tests in all, and then move on to the reading comp sections.  I've recently summarize the parent coaching skills needed to get through this approach successfully.  When the 9 year old gets through the first page, 3 problems attempted, 3 wrong answers, and a lot of complaining and tears, I'll wonder why the heck I'm doing this.  Then I'll remember that I've done this type of thing many times before, and it will magically work out in the end.


  1. This is totally my kid! He's in 6th grade GAT program that teaches math 2 years ahead. Even though he can keep up with the pace of the program I honestly think his math skills are lacking and what you're describing is spot on. At this point what should I be doing to help him develop his working memory? Is there a way to 'fix' the traditional memorized math that he's so used to? We were looking at competitive math questions together and he was just stumped on so many of them. Thank you in advance for your advise!!!

    1. Studying math 2 years ahead is dangerous. Kids get on a treadmill of memorizing to keep up and may miss the learning and thinking. Research states convincingly that 8th graders should not study high school geometry. But those researchers study "kids", and I study "kid". Competitive math is a great antidote, as is just picking out a few fundamental topics from next year and studying slowly ahead of time. Send me a link to a test you're interested in (because there's a lot of competitive math on the web) or a few problems you tried, and I will demonstrate exactly what I go through when I see these problems, which is awful, and what you are experiencing now, but because you haven't been through this, you think it's bad and I think it's normal. In both cases (comp or regular), there is a wealth of problem solving techniques and base skills that emerge. Plus it's fun. What we go through is nothing short of a disaster, then we'll try out 5 essential problem solving techniques, and a few 20 or 50 minutes and 3 attempts later there's the solution. In those failed attempts and mistakes, learning happens, and the results are really powerful.

  2. Totally off topic but my third grader is struggling with computerized tests for math and reading. He is advanced in math and reading and COGAT was 99%. However, he bombs school math and reading test done in computer. This is the primary test in our district that would decide where he is at in those two subjects and he ends up in the bottom or mid group in his class and he is not surrounded by peers who are in the same advanced level. He gets bored and unchallenged in his group and we can't fight back to change his group unless his computer test score is high. I'm not familiar with this type of computer test and I don't know what he is lacking at. It's called iready and the website link below. I wonder if you know anything about this and may suggest what I can do to help him. We're doing advanced math (2 years ahead), vocabulary, reading comprehension, reading every night...etc. at home.

    1. You've joined my growing list of computer test nightmares. The product information for your test does not describe the test mechanics. We have 2 big computer tests each year and 4 other computer tests and we don't ever practice on the computer. But, now that I think about it, the kids do a lot of computer testing all the time.

      I recommend you use the 4th grade MAP test prep (about $60) on The MAP has things built into it that make test taking harder than knowing material. I expect this to take a long time per question, which is a good skill.

      It doesn't hurt, and you can find out if the computer is the problem. As a backup approach, you can give the child a 25 minute per day home curriculum consisting of 4th and 5th grade material, alternating math and reading comp. Your child is most likely seeing 4th, 5th, and 6th grade material on the test he takes. You'll see it on the practice test for the MAP. This is the most likely cause of the problem and what you need to fix.