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.

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