Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Test That Won't Be Named

In this article, I'm going to jam 7 articles into one because I'm really pressed for time on the weekends.

Review of Home Schooling Literature
I've been reviewing home schooling guides lately to see if there's anything that I can add to my At Home School curriculum.  "At Home Schooling" means doing a little extra work weeknights and weekends to make up for the slow pace of learning at school.

Home school curriculum guides are pretty disappointing.   If I were full time home schooling my child, I would be planning to send the child to Stanford at age 14 because home schooling is so easy.  The curriculum guides shoot for something more average.

As most curriculum guides point out, trying to teach anything to your child is really hard.  What they don't point out is that your child will learn at an accelerated pace once you stop teaching.  The impossible becomes the easy.  The secret is in the approach, which I will describe in the next article (below).

The Secret to Learning
Almost every week, I have to remind my kids that they have to slow down.  I had to tell the younger one this story again.

There were two equally bright, equally capable children.  One was dumb and one was a genius.  The dumb one looked at a hard problem, became frustrated because he didn't know it, and started guessing.  He got the wrong answer.   The genius looked at the same problem, became frustrated because he didn't know it, and started to work on it slowly one step at a time.  He tried 3 times to do it, and finally chose the answer, which was also wrong.

A third child who was equally bright and capable also struggled with this problem.  He was smart.  He also took a long time to work through this frustrating problem, and after his fifth try, he bothered to check his answer, found a mistake, and fixed it.  The smart child got the correct answer. 

The smart child is getting 99% on the Test That Won't Be Named, but the genius is stuck between 85% and 95%.  Both are learning about the same amount.  Maybe the smart child is getting a bit more out of the learning process because he's checking his work.  What's the problem here?  The problem is that the smart child is fixated on the goal of a solution, especially the correct solution, and the genius is more interested in the learning process.  Eventually, the smart child is going to be in an advanced accelerated course (or maybe pre Algebra) and the work is going to be really hard.  Both the genius and the smart kid will make lots of mistakes, and this will bother the smart kid so much that he drops out.  But the genius, who doesn't care about the answer in the first place, will just plod on as usual until he has a PhD in a joint Law Medicine Chemical Engineering Medieval Slovakian Literature.

I've warned the genius that he better start checking answers because if he doesn't get a perfect score on the TTWBN test he can forget about AP courses because he won't get into a good school.

The Secret For Parents
Among equally capable parents, we find dumb, smart, and genius parents.  The problem that parents need to solve is that you have a child doing a problem - whether it's a cognitive skills exam, or one of the 2 main sections on the TTWBN test - and your child is totally not getting it.  Dumb parents expect their child to get it, smart parents expect their child to get it after a long struggle, and genius parents really don't care.

Once you see a child go through this process, you get it as a parent, and work and frustration is replaced by work and learning.  For this reason, the 2nd child should always end up twice as smart as the oldest sibling, given a fraction of the learning time.

When I was a dumb parent, I came up with the parent skill set in order to survive the first few rounds of my ridiculous At Home School curriculum goals.  The very first goal was to skip first grade math and do 2nd grade math starting on winter break in Kindergarten.   This was the worst and best idea I ever came up with.  (Tip - if you do hard core COGAT test prep at age 4, 2nd grade math at age 5 isn't all that challenging).

As a reminder, my survival steps include start every problem by acknowledging that you are totally baffled, take a long, long time reading the question, going so far as to do a workbook on the topic before you get to the answer, make a lot of mistakes and go out for ice cream any time the child gets 100% wrong, and if a test is coming up, check the #%$!!!! answer.  The parent will encourage these steps.  For the parent, I'd like to add 1) set your expectations at zero, 2) I really mean zero, not .0001 but zero, and 3) stop looking at the solutions.

You can't practice learning skills (see prior paragraph) if your child is doing a 30 question timed worksheet or knows the material or doesn't make mistakes.  That's why we have a pace of 1 to 5 super hard problems in Math House.

I always considered reading to be a filler activity.  I'm beginning to think differently.  Competition for GAT seats is between kids who read 6 hours a day, and those of us who will just become really good problem solvers (aka shapes, math and logic) and cheat our way into the program.  Cheating is much more satisfying and is the basis for higher order math.

To be on the safe side, we did lots of vocab ( and 2nd grade phonics starting on day 1 (Pre-K Phonics Conceptual Vocabulary and Thinking).  But it was always primarily silly and fun.  Why discourage a life of reading by putting pressure on the first year?

I think my casual approach to reading is the reason language arts thrived in Math House.

Yes, I grilled the kids at the Word Board (How would a commander on the battle field use the word 'dispersion' in a sentence?), but they didn't actually have give me a proper response and I didn't want to take the words down because I was going to quiz them on the synonyms in a few days anyway.

But mainly we went slowly and had fun.  When I say slowly, I mean when you try to slow down to nothing the child learns at a highly accelerated rate.  That doesn't make sense until you see it happen, but it always does.

The Magic of Slow
I've decided that I'm no longer teaching math in Math House.  Once again, I want to teach How To Figure Out A Problem.  We lost that last summer trying to tackle high school math.  Figuring out a concept is a much more useful skill than getting a correct answer on known material.  That was the whole point of TPM.  If your child masters Figuring Out A Concept, then At Home Schooling is more productive.

In order to prepare for TTWBN, we've been working with an SAT test prep book.   This doesn't mean that we're tackling high school material at a high school level.   The SAT is more like grade school material for an advanced child in really convoluted problems.  This characterization of the SAT motivated Test Prep Math and it's been paying dividends ever since, until we started doing high school math last summer and started to focus on knowing match concepts.

Here's a problem that demonstrates the full range of skills, those listed above, and the skill of Seeing (aka take time to look at every element of the problem and see the things that other kids miss for lack of vocabulary or patience).  No matter how old your child is or how long he's received this training, he still forgets to practice the basic skills because he's in a hurry to finish math and get on to something more enjoyable, like going to the dentist.

The triangle above is isosceles and AB > AC.  Which of the following is false?

I'm going to omit the answers because of an important technique Poyla's How To Solve it  (1945).  When I translated Poyla for 5 year old's preparing for a gifted exam, it becomes 'Read the Question'.  The translation applicable to preparing for the TTWBN is 'if you see a geometry problem, solve everything before you look at the actual question.'  (If this were age appropriate SAT test prep, then I'd take Poyla at face value because the topic of the book is geometry proofs for high school students and we'd be working under time limits.)  The version for algebra is 'you're going to transform the equation so stop trying to solve it in your brain' and for trig, 'get out the basic formulas and be prepared to do geometry or algebra on top of that'.

Anyway, we reviewed the definition of an isosceles triangle (totally forgotten since age 5 training), the sum of the angles in a triangle, and a hint where the base of the triangle is.  There are the 3 steps that require Working Memory.  Love this problem.  Don't care about the solution.

Initially, this problem resulted in guessing so I had to jump in and 'help' by asking questions.   When I work with other people's children, they are more than happy to work thoroughly and patiently, but when I work with my own children they get frustrated and guess.  Am I exaggerating?  No.  This is why it's so much work for a parent.  Other kids just assume that I'm a teacher and therefore this will be a doable problem or else I wouldn't teach it, and things go well, but my own kids assume I'm an Insane Tyrannical Cruel Math Despot and am torturing them.  You will face the same problem with your own children, which is why the survival skills above are so important.

We've been working consistently at a pace of about 5 problems per day, and over time the child might do 3 problems on his own (incorrectly) and only need help on 2, and before you know it, he's back to needing help on all 5 problems because I had to switched to much harder material.

Anyway, it was this problem where we ran into guessing and I decided I would much rather have him just work the question than try to solve it until he substitutes his subpar approach with '15 minutes of reading the question and 1 minute of getting it right'.

I've been happy to ignore reading until now, just doing the minimum lots of vocab and a couple hours of reading a day, an approach that paid dividends, but this year the older one has to take TTWBN for real and the younger one would rather do the verbal sections than the math sections to spite me.  So it's time to get serious.

When I bought the SAT books a few years ago (2nd dumbest and smartest idea ever), we had a lot of success but my 5th grader and I failed at the reading comp.   We never made it past baffled.

I knew a high school English teacher named Yoda who taught SAT test prep classes and begged the little green guy for advice.  He said, 'Ask why you got the question wrong, you must'.   I'm not kidding, aside from the Yodese accent; this is the only thing he said because we were sitting in a Boy Scout meeting whispering and then got shushed, and I haven't seen him since.  For a year, we kept coming up with the answer 'Because neither of us know what the heck we're doing trying to do with SAT reading comp questions in 5th grade' and then gave up.

Now I've got a 4th grader and a 7th grader with identical books (each have a copy) and I'm starting to get it.  If you've got a 99.6% GRE level in vocabulary (because on the pre-test you got a 50% so you did some serious test prep back in the day) or a good dictionary, the reading comp section boils down to...but first I should point out that given the age difference, it's a totally different experience with each and the 4th grader finds those small passages that ask about sentence structure - saving the long passages for 6th or 7th grade.

By the way, to overcome the vocab deficit, I've found that about half the time if you just add a 'y' to a word it's good enough.  Decisive becomes Decisiony and we can move on.  The rest of the time its a longer discussion.

Anyway, it once again boils down to Math.  It boils down to math.  It's all just logic, one word at a time, counting sentences, iterating.  If Math is 100% language based (I've said that before) it's only fair that reading becomes 100% math based.   The left-brain-right-brain theory turned out to be totally wrong.

Or, if you don't like that answer, it boils down to math in the sense of be baffled, spend a lot of time on the question (including the pick list), go slow, make mistakes and try again, and check your work.

It's also patterns.  By the time we're done, I'll know every technique, aspect, variation, and trick of the SAT.  For example, when an answer choice is 'the author reluctantly agrees partially', you need to find concrete evidence in lines 30-33 of reluctant, agreement, and partial not whole.  Applying Poyla to this material, you better be able to tell me the author's life story after you read the passage and before you start answering questions.  It took me a year to figure that out, but now it seems obvious.

The Danger of Test Prep Classes
The problem of a classroom of any type is that to serve all 20 or 30 students, you have to TELL them the material.  All kids are paying the same amount, and they'll all come out KNOWING the material and performing well on a test if you just tell them.   This will work on a standardized test or even some gifted tests for some kids with specific learning styles.  I worry about the longer term impact (jury is deliberating).

The problem of TTWBN is that there isn't enough time to teach all of the material that the test covers at the level we need to be each year, and this is the big year.  So I'm back to focusing on figuring things out.

How important is At Home Schooling?  Is it important enough for me to set aside a few hours a week, maybe a few more for research and preparation?  Is it important enough for me to go through the frustration and headaches?

What will the child think if I say 'This is not important at all to me to spend any time on it, but I'm going to make you go to this totally unimportant class'.  The child cannot visualize money and he doesn't visualize you sitting in traffic.   If you are not physically there going through the same pain, a bright child will conclude you do not value this activity at all that you are making him do.   You won't see an impact with little kids, but you will see it later.

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