Thursday, September 28, 2017

The Most Important Skill

I often get requests from parents of children of super bright little children wondering what they should do with their geniuses.  If your school is teaching arithmetic, and your child is doing pre-algebra, this is a real problem.

I also get helpful advice about how I should have a wider range of interests and broaden my outlook because I write a blog about cognitive skills.  Thanks for the advice, but  the absence of articles about sports and recreation is due to the fact that I'm not the world's foremost expert on sports and recreation, but I have a heck of a lot to say about cognitive skills that is nowhere in psychology and education literature.  There are no articles anywhere that prove that you can teach these skills and demonstrate how they pay off in a big way.  A big way.  There are many articles of failed attempts because cognitive skills researchers have never met an actual child and wouldn't know a teachable skill if it bit them in the backside.  (Hint to researchers:  talk to the parents in your next study and you'll have more success.)

On the topic of advanced math, I have a few comments. 

If you give your child 20 minutes of super hard thinking a day, like a single question or problem in Test Prep Math, they are exhausted mentally.  It turns out that the race to the 99th percentile only takes 20 minutes a day.

With all of this extra time, you can then turn your attention to other skill gaps.  For example, with an additional 30 minutes each day you can take out vocabulary or Reading Comp like a Super Advanced Ninja Expert of Reading Comp.  Or you can spend a few hours learning about history or science.  If your math is so strong, this should buy you plenty of time to do something more useful than a relentless march to calculus (in 20 minutes a day of math because if you stop doing math, your kids won't earn video game or chat time) like art or crafts or projects or science or history or just wiki-ing everything or designing websites or making stop motion lego videos.  Or take a 2 mile Minecraft Talk Walks to counteract last summer's Donuts and Math program.

I don't ever say this, and I would never write it, but in the back of my mind I'm always thinking "you probably need to start worrying about your child's social skills or get the child outside playing baseball or something".  I categorically deny I just wrote that.  But after 6 to 12 months of effective test prep, your child might join a select group of kids who can't have a conversation with the neighborhood children because no one understands him.  It's painful to watch as a parent and takes yet another effort to fix.

The most important skill for your child is the one he doesn't have yet, not the next mental algorithm to crush the competition in competitive math.  The competition is already 4 algorithms ahead of you anyway and we're working on the 5th.

In the classic education approach, grades 1 through 4 are devoted to memorizing everything.   Learning to think starts in grade 5, and having opinions is left for high school.  I refined this approach by focusing grades 1 through 4 on cognitive skills (think of this 4 years of COGAT test prep and you've got the idea) in addition to memorizing everything plus plus.  If you finish a little early, you can take off math for an entire year and do other things.  The only downside of this approach is that the child starts having opinions by 4th grade.

For the last 6 months, we've been working on the clarinet instead of math (with the exception of math competition released tests).  It just paid off yesterday when my 4th grader entered intermediate band which is totally against the rules.  Here's how I did it.  First, I taught him the first 3 basic scales with the instructions to play it as fast as possible squeaks and all, then with quarter notes then a slur.  In the beginning, it was 3 or 4 good notes and then 2 minutes of a horrible squeaking noise per scale.   Then, I gave him Star Wars, Frozen, etc plus the types of riffs you hear at half time of a college football game, but he mainly had to figure out how to do this on his own.  In other words, I followed the 4 core skills of Bafflement, Read the Question, Mistakes, Try Again (a lot), and have fun, darn it. 

Clarinet on top of the core skills is like advanced accelerated clarinet on steroids.  Not getting any help from me, he learned to sight read music. He can also play 3 notes above high C, which only dogs can hear, and which aren't taught in grade school at all.  That was his idea of payback.

As a final step in his training, I dropped him off at a comic book store for 2 hours alone to play whatever they do in there.  He was terrified.  If you've ever been inside a comic book store, you know that culture shock doesn't cover it.  That was preparation to show up for band practice without a parent and without a meltdown.  Mission complete. 

I think I'm up for another Pettie, which is Competitive Parent Magazine's annual Competitive Parent of the Year Award.

I'm the only voting member for this award, but I think competition is going to be tough this year because of a certain mom who's third grade children are smarter than I am.  If they figure out how to vote, I may lose.


  1. I have a second grader taking COGAT in less than 2 weeks. What should be my focus? Getting new practice questions or reviewing old questions that got wrong? Should we stop math workbook or reading comprehension in the meantime or continue to do it if time allows?

    1. Good question. The COGAT is has something like math but not like normal workbooks and no reading comprehension. Really hard reading comprehension is a good proxy for the test because they are both grueling and involve lots of looking and thinking. I'm not sure math helps but you can't do test prep all day. In terms of questions, yes to both. See if you can get your child to explain each diagram/question in detail and what is happening in each answer, either why they are wrong or what has to happen in the question for these to be right. If there is a trick, and there are, try to identify it (the child, not you, you can only ask leading questions.) This is the point where you might want to enforce good test behavior - look at every answer before answering, look at the question again if you are tempted to guess, come up with something to do when you are stuck to free your mental blockage. I need a Mickey Goldmill video clip but it won't fit in the comment section.