Sunday, June 24, 2018

Teaching Styles and Learning Styles

On my other website, I'm working on a piece on grit. There is no formula for grit yet, except for the one I use, so that's what the article is about. The other site is published only once a month, which gives me a few weeks to get every book and research paper on the topic to determine whether or not I'm right.

Almost all of the research investigates grit for high end private schools for over-privileged children of high strung parents, kids in the bottom quartile, and rats. However, there is some really cool work out there.

Alfie Kohn demonstrates in The Myth of the Spoiled Child that everything that's ever been written about children is completely invalid. For example, 70% of survey respondents report that other parents are overprotective helicopter parents, but 95% of survey respondents report that they are personally not overprotective. In other words, the myth of helicopter parents is a myth. There is a wealth of literature going back 2700 years complaining that today's generation is worse than the previous one, education standards have slipped, and schools are failing. In other words, the good old days of education involved carbon drawings on a cave.

Paul Touch does a very thorough job of cataloging contemporary grit research for older kids in How Children Succeed. He mentions Tools of the Mind for little kids in the context of the bottom quartiles. What happens when you apply Tools of the Mind training to kids who are probably going to end up in a GAT program? I think I'm the only one who tried this. The answer is you get a 9 year old who learns Algebra I from final exams.

I recommend everyone read The Rug Rat Race by Ramey & Ramey and start freaking out about college now. I don't think the conclusions of this paper are solid for the broader population, but it's likely that they apply to the authors' cohort, which includes me and my readers.

On to the topic for today

Lately, readers have been asking about how I teach. What is the approach? What is my teaching style? Fortunately, no one asked about children's learning styles. A child's learning style is an adaptation to whatever teaching style I happen to be experimenting with. They can apply their own preferred learning style when they follow their own pursuits. They're not going to learn how to learn by sticking with their own preferred learning style. That's called not learning.

My preferred teaching style is a range between nothing and spoon feeding.

On the not helping end of the spectrum, I will wait hours while the child flounders over and over again, and over and over again I ask to the child to read the question to me again and explain it. I spend most of my time focusing on this exercise early on because it builds a rare set of skills. With kids who are just starting down the GAT path, kids who are currently at about 50%, we might spend 6 to 12 weeks doing math word problems in this way. It's painful for both coach and child, but it's the fastest way to produce results. It might appear that the child is learning nothing.

The next step is to help the child by presenting other problems, easier problems, one-step problems, but problems that capture the topic being learned. For example, suppose we're struggling with 1/2 * 20 with a child who doesn't know either multiplication or fractions. We'll start with 'half of one' and 'half of two' and just work our way up to the problem. In this category of teaching, I also like to approach problems by asking 'You do anything you can think of and then we'll find out what the question is asking', especially with all things geometry.

I may present the problem in 19 different ways. You never know which one will stick. I had to do that a lot with counting, with addition, with anything in Shape Size Color Count. I may take a break, and then that night try yet another approach with beans on the dinner plate, or with the stuffed animals.

When we did Every Day Math Grade 2, at the wholly inappropriate age of 5, without bothering to do 1st grade math, we would get to a topic and put progress on hold for a week while we did some 1st grade math worksheets to cover a topic more thoroughly until we come back to the 2nd grade presentation.

On the reading and vocabulary front, I like to throw a whole bunch of content at once to the hapless student, and then spend the next 3 weeks sorting it out. Usually with reading and with vocab, I'm more than happy to provide answers, but the content is about 1000% of what is needed to answer the question, and the child is now on the hook for anything I just mentioned. What does 'tube' mean? The Word Board might get whacked with a dozen plumbing terms and we might spend two days on wiki.

If I know that the child is going to see the material again (and again and again) later in the book, and if the child is having a bad day, I'll not only tell the child how to do it, I'll do it myself. On numerous occasions, I do have done entire worksheets. Sometimes, I explain the whole topic, as in here's how a fraction works. Sometimes, I don't. I'm not going to run out of challenging topics for the child to figure out solo.

What I never do
Unless we are backtracking, or tackling a new vocab unit, I never do more than a handful of problems. Never more than 5 in math or test prep. My favorite number is one. If the child is working on one big problem, you've got problem solving, cognitive skills, executive skills, grit, and learning all taking place at once. Unfortunately, it's hard to keep a child at that level, but I've managed to find hard but not undoable material with 4 or 5 problems that will exhaust the child' brain in 15 to 25 minutes.

The two tests we need to tackle are the COGAT and MAP. Neither of these have a time limit. The worst thing you can do is teach the child how to do 20 problems in one sitting; an exercise like this is strengthening the wrong skill set - the go fast and ignore minor details and subtleties. This is no way to teach a thinker how to learn. If a child routinely tackles 3 or 5 problems at a time, they'll have no problem getting the more mundane parts of school work done, but on any decent test or school assignment, there's that one piece that differentiates thinkers. A child speeding along will miss it.

Putting it all together

Once we get past the first 6 weeks of crying, and there is usually crying when the child figures out that parenty is not going to do the work for them, then you can put it all together. Start with today's 5 problems. Let the kid do them. Then do them again together. On problems with a correct answer, ask the child to prove it, and with problems that have an incorrect answer, pick one, or more, or all of the above approaches.


  1. Thanks, this is great! It makes a lot of sense. I am suddenly excited to teach my kids.

    Danielle (I asked the question on the other page, about how to teach with test prep materials)

  2. Whats your other website?

    1. We have a long way to go to get to Stanford in 30 minutes a day. It’s competitive Just starting out. I think of this blog as my expertise, and the new one as my insanity.