Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Mega Skill

When I was in college, I had 3 roommates who were striving to be either pre-med or chemical engineering majors.   There were 2 classes that stood in their way.  One was Organic Chemistry, and the other was an engineering class.  

Two of my roommates started studying two weeks ahead of time for the big tests in these classes.  At 11:00 pm, these two would come back to the room for a break and a quick game of cards before heading back to their study hole for another 3 hours.  The third roommate would come back at the same time from playing basket ball or a date and then go to bed.

I asked the other two about this odd behavior.  They assured me that he doesn't go to class regularly, take notes or study.  The first time he would open the book, they said, was the night before the test.

On the night before the test, at 11pm, the three would arrive back at the dorm, two from studying, and the other one from not studying.  This time all three left with books.  The two studiers had lots of notes and bookmarks in their books, and the third would bend the binding for the first time and survey the table of contents.  I remember very clearly him studying the table of contents.  It was very disconcerting to me.  In retrospect I should have switched majors to cognitive psychology immediately.

A week later one of my room mates would inform me glumly that everyone they knew got a B or worse on the test, except the guy who only studied the night before.  He aced the test as usual.

I want my kids to have this skill.

It's still a bit of a mystery to me, but after five years of researching cognitive skills and watching them grow from completely non-existent to way above average in my kids, I am able to put some of the pieces together and trace progress in the activities that I have been reporting on this website.  This Mega Skill is a combination of many other skills which develop over time.

The first subskill is the complete lack of fear in facing new and daunting.   I've decided that this skill is the most important of all and have generally characterized it as Being Comfortable Being Baffled.   A child may think that math is completely useless to their future, but math is a good way to hone this skill, and that skill is vital to their future in any area.

The second skill is a rock solid, photographic memory.   We've developed parts of this with my relentless vocabulary program that started when we were posting sticky notes of words like "clap" to help with phonics, and continued through many levels of Vocabulary workshop and saved us when we were completely unprepared for GAT science and other subjects.  For many years I drug my kids in front of the refrigerator to read each word to see if any qualified to be removed.

There are elements of memory that we haven't encountered yet, like building an organized structure to hold lots of information for something like a middle school science or history test.  I've watched the fifth grade teacher introducing the kids to this in her study guides.

Next is problem solving skills at an advanced level and would include the high school version, which I've dumbed down and used successfully so far for kids between 5 and 11.   The Mega Skill as I introduced it was applied to a technical course, but I'm also wondering how problem solving skills apply to writing.

I wonder if this is enough?  Would a child in an early grade who can patiently figure out a more advanced topic for 3 grades hence qualify for the Mega Skill?  I don't think yet.  I can only say that we've done enough of my insane cognitive skills experiments to say that we have a shot at the Mega Skill later on.

I don't think there's a magic age where kids have to learn these skills.  In other words, I don't think a kid who has them at age 4 has a permanent advantage or a kid who starts working on them at age 10. Nor is it any easier at earlier ages; it just seems easier because people block out those types of memories.

So here's my academic parenting plan:
1.  Cognitive skills, as soon as possible.  Check.
2.  Strong continuous reading.   This was a struggle for a few years, but Check.
3.  Interest and a strong will to get the work done.  Or grit.  This is still a work in progress.
4.  The mega skill.  Haven't started yet.
5.  Ability for kid to make good decisions, including picking a vocation.
6.  Strong values.
7.  Happiness.

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