Abstract reasoning ability entered the national conversation this year as the Common Core State Standards in mathematics were broadly implemented in the United States. In particular, one of the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice is to “reason abstractly and quantitatively.” The so-called STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — are well-known for emphasizing this skill. Given that STEM-related fields are where most high-skilled job growth is predicted, today’s students would do well to develop their ability to think abstractly.
So what is abstract reasoning, and why is it so important? Let’s break it down: To reason is to use logic in piecing together information, usually with the goal of forming an inference or conclusion. Abstract simply means that this process is a thought-based exercise of the mind as opposed to being based in concrete experience. For example, if you know that ice melts at temperatures above 32°F, you can reason abstractly that an ice cube placed on the counter of your room temperature kitchen will melt. You don’t have to take an actual ice cube out of your freezer and observe it for an hour to arrive at this conclusion.
Of the subjects that you could study in order to develop strong abstract reasoning skills, computer science is a natural and practical choice, as well as being a highly creative and exciting area in which to learn and work. The programming aspect of computer science is well-known and is one area where abstract thinking matters a great deal. Programming, after all, is the creation of a set of instructions that a computer can follow to perform a specific task. Such tasks typically involve the manipulation of digital information, decidedly not the kind of stuff you can grab hold of to see how it reacts in the tangible world.
Learning to program well involves developing the ability to think logically and abstractly so that you can anticipate how the computer will react to the instructions you give. Great programmers are actually capable of writing correct code without having to check it with a computer because they have the ability to analyze processes in their minds. If you cannot think abstractly, you may still be able to get your code to “work” with trial-and-error tinkering, but that approach lacks the robustness needed to solve meaningful problems that tend to be more complex.
The rich experience of learning computer science, however, is so much more than coding. When you study computer science, you engage in computational thinking, in which logic, abstraction and creativity come together to help solve intellectually interesting problems. As Professor Jeannette Wing of Carnegie Mellon University argues in her seminal article* on the topic, computational thinking is a skill set from which everyone would benefit no matter their career path.
Why so? Because when you study computer science, your mind learns to grapple with high-level questions such as: How can existing information be used to deduce further information that will help solve the problem? How should a complex system be designed in order to maximize simplicity and usability? How can a complex problem be broken down into smaller pieces that are easier to solve? Can a common approach be devised to efficiently handle similar problems?
If these questions seem like they would be applicable in a wide variety of fields, STEM and non-STEM, it’s because they are. In essence, when you study computer science you learn the valuable skill of thinking abstractly like a computer scientist even if you don’t plan on becoming one.
*Wing, Jeannette M. “Computational Thinking.” Communications of the ACM 49:3 (March 2006) 33-35.
IMACS hopes this Thanksgiving day finds you with much to be thankful for as you enjoy the company of friends and loved ones. To our students, parents, instructors, staff and partner schools — you have our deepest appreciation for making this another fun-filled year of learning and achievement!
The IMACS Blog will return next Thursday, December 5, with a regular feature article. Happy Thanksgiving!
A recent study found that number sense in infants is a predictor of how well they later learn the symbolic math typically taught in school. Researchers observed how long 6-month-old infants looked at a screen with a changing number of dots compared with how long they looked at a screen with a constant number of dots in changing patterns. (See video above.) Three years later, these children were given an IQ test and several types of math tests. The infants who looked longer at the screen with a changing number of dots, which is indicative of stronger number sense, subsequently scored higher on the math tests, regardless of IQ. So what is “number sense,” and does this mean that parents should start packing dotted flash cards in the diaper bag?
What is Number Sense?
There are different definitions of number sense, but they generally agree on a few basic factors:
• Number sense is intuitive. In other words it is not arrived at through conscious reasoning.
• Number sense includes an understanding of magnitude of amounts, relationships between amounts, and how amounts change through natural actions.
Examples of number sense in an infant might include observing and understanding the following: There are a lot of stars on my blanket. Daddy has more food on his plate than Mommy. I have a bunch of blocks on my high chair table. If I knock some off, I have fewer blocks. From what current science tells us, pre-verbal infants cannot actually have these words running through their heads. Nonetheless, a primitive understanding is there as humans seem to be born with an innate ability to perceive quantity before they can speak about it and well before they can write about it.
Nurturing Number Sense
So should you start showing your baby flash cards with dots? No. While the study’s authors hope that their findings will lead to improved strategies for math education, they are careful to caution that “[O]ur infant task only explains a small percentage of the variance in young children’s math performance. But our findings suggest that there is cognitive overlap between primitive number sense and symbolic math. These are fundamental building blocks.”
Still, we know that there are benefits to talking to your baby as an essential part of the early learning process. It’s not unusual to hear a mother carrying on a one-sided conversation in which she emphasizes the phonetic sounds in the names of everyday objects. For example, “This is a banana. Buh buh banana.” The baby eventually catches on that the “buh” sound is associated with a banana, and that Mom’s lips do this strange “roll in-then-pop out” motion when she makes this sound. This happens before the baby ever learns to say “banana” or that there is this symbol we call the letter â€œbâ€ that represents this sound. When the letter “b” is finally introduced, children can connect it back to the “buh” sound and objects such as a banana to which they were introduced in infancy.
But how frequently do you notice a parent holding up two different bananas and talk about which one is bigger, or which one has more brown dots? Or what happens to a bunch of bananas when you pull one off? Or when you cut that banana into pieces? The study’s lead author indicates that “We believe that when children learn the meaning of number words and symbols, they’re likely mapping those meanings onto pre-verbal representations of number that they already have in infancy.” If she is correct then adding number sense talk to those parent-baby conversations makes, well, sense!
The new school year is now a month old. By this time, most children who attend a public K-12 school in the US will have experienced the new Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSSM). On the one hand, IMACS is pleased to see that key elements of the teaching philosophy we have lived by for more than 20 years are reflected in the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice. For a variety of reasons, however, we maintain a healthy amount of skepticism about whether the implementation of the CCSSM will lead to meaningful, positive change in mathematics education, particularly for our most talented youth.
Common Core Was Not Designed for Gifted Kids
First, the CCSSM was not designed with exceptional kids in mind. The official Common Core Web site states plainly that:
“The Standards set grade-specific standards but do not define the intervention methods or materials necessary to support students who are well below or well above grade-level expectations.”
The Web site further acknowledges that Common Core, like its predecessors, cannot adequately address the unique needs of individual learners:
“No set of grade-specific standards can fully reflect the great variety in abilities, needs, learning rates, and achievement levels of students in any given classroom.”
As to what educators should do about serving the diverse needs of a student body, Common Core guidance leaves them with unresolved internal conflict, offering both:
(i) “Learning opportunities will continue to vary across schools and school systems, and educators should make every effort to meet the needs of individual students based on their current understanding.”
(ii) “The Standards should be read as allowing for the widest possible range of students to participate fully from the outset, along with appropriate accommodations to ensure maximum participaton (sic) of students with special education needs.”
[Note that Common Core does not include gifted children as an example of "students with special education needs."]
But children in the right-hand tail of the distribution do have special education needs. Whether due to a failure to understand this fact, budgetary pressure, or some other constraint, some school districts seem to be latching on to (ii) above, using the arrival of Common Core as a reason to reduce or eliminate services or accommodations for gifted students. Should this become a national trend in education policy, our country will surely suffer as the majority of gifted children who rely on public education are left without appropriate alternatives.
What About Creative Problem Solvers?
Notwithstanding the potential for improving the thinking skills of typical students, the CCSSM are simply not built to inspire or nurture the creative problem solver. The unfortunate embracing of computerized testing as a cheap means of measuring “learning” — consequently resulting in a culture of teaching to the test — has made the K-12 classroom a place to dread for many unique thinkers. The plan to continue use of computerized testing under the new standards suggests that the non-standard thinker may still be out of place in the Common Core classroom.
IMACS recently asked Gerald R. Rising, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus at the University at Buffalo, how he thought the CCSSM would affect mathematics education for bright children, to which he replied, “Any imposed curriculum can have a depressing effect on special programs for gifted students.” He also shared the following anecdote about the limits of standardized testing:
“On one of the tests appeared the trivial-sounding question that went something like this: ‘A workman seeks to pass a 20-foot long board through an opening with rectangular 6-foot by 8-foot cross-section. What is the maximum width of the board that is possible?’ The answer choices were: 8 feet, 9 feet, 10 feet and 11 feet. Several of our students answered 9 feet, because the board would necessarily have some thickness that would prevent a 10-foot wide board from passing through the opening. They lost full credit for thinking that was perfectly reasonable but that did not fit the professional test constructor’s overly simplistic model.”
IMACS has been delivering courses and administering tests online to bright and creative children for over 15 years, so we know a thing or two about designing effective computerized assessments of high-level thinking skills. Let’s just say that it takes tremendous creativity, foresight, and a deep understanding of how to leverage the power of technology. If high-stakes testing is here to stay, as it appears to be, we sincerely hope that the consortia working on Common Core-aligned assessments will find ways to reward (or at least not penalize) creative problem solvers.
Inadequate Investment in Training
Common Core marks a major change in teaching philosophy for math education in the US. The intent is to move away from just teaching procedural skills by giving equal weight to conceptual understanding. Teaching math with an emphasis on thinking and understanding, however, is not something one becomes proficient in after a few hours of training, which is all that many districts have provided to their teachers.
Such a radical shift in mindset can be especially challenging for some who have taught math with a completely different focus for many, many years. This is not to say that teachers are incapable of learning to teach a new way — quite the contrary. But, as with any field undergoing fundamental change, extensive training and professional development are necessary if districts and schools want a successful implementation of Common Core. So far, the evidence suggests that they cannot or will not be making that investment.
“Common Core” Textbooks In Name Only
Many of the textbooks currently on the market that say they are aligned to the Common Core standards were developed before the creation of the CCSSM. Note the example below of pages from old and new versions of a math text currently being used in California. The pages on the left were from the edition published in 2009, the year before states began adopting the CCSSM. The pages on the right are from the current edition that proclaims “Common Core” on the cover. (Click on an image to enlarge.)
Furthermore, such textbooks often only align to the specific content skills listed in the CCSSM rather than subscribing to the overall philosophy of the CCSSM. Many that claim to be aligned to the CCSSM do not include problems or tasks that involve the higher-level thinking skills that are supposed to be measured by the new Common Core standardized tests being developed.
Awareness and Advocacy Are More Important Now Than Ever
What does all this mean if you are the parent of a talented child? Probably more work for you. Just over a month ago, nearly two-thirds of respondents to a poll on education said they had never even heard of Common Core! So, if you’re thinking that someone else will speak up first, don’t count on it. Advocacy for a gifted student has never been easy given the lack of awareness and amount of misinformation about their unique educational needs. With the potential for Common Core to bring more harm than good to the education of exceptionally bright kids, it is more important now than ever to be heard.
This month the IMACS Blog speaks with IMACS student, Fiona Brady. According to Fiona’s mom, Susan, “IMACS was the first time Fiona had encountered a community of teachers and learners who were excited to hear her ideas and creative ways of problem solving.” After the Brady family moved out of the area, Fiona continued taking courses through our distance-learning program, eIMACS.
Having studied University Computer Science and AP® Computer Science through eIMACS (and scoring a 5 on the AP® exam), Fiona was able to pick up the Python programming language* when she encountered it at a summer mathematics camp at the University of Chicago with students several years older than she.
For students as talented as Fiona, homeschooling and early college courses often make the most sense as they and their families seek educational options that provide enough challenge, flexibility and inspiration to help them reach their highest potential. Let’s hear what Fiona has to say about pursuing this path:
Please tell our readers a little about yourself.
I’m turning sixteen this fall and I’m in tenth grade. I’m a second degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and I enjoy figure skating and horseback riding. I don’t feel like this gives a real image of me, but there it is. I enjoy making things with cardboard and duct tape, but definitely not wallets. I’ve made my Halloween costumes for the last few years. The year before last, I was Medusa. I wore a snake hat that I built in my bedroom and needed to turn sideways to get out. I have since learned that on some occasions it is important to get dressed outside of your room. When I’m not doing math, I love reading.
You are homeschooled and also taking college classes at Northwestern University. What is it like to do both? How do you balance the academic workload, extracurriculars and time with friends and family?
Homeschooling is not like regular school because there is no large division between having fun and learning. So I don’t balance it. However, when I have a large assignment due, my mom probably doesn’t see me for two days. My extracurricular activities — skating, horseback riding and Tae Kwon Do — force me to do something active. I also enjoy volunteering at the barn where I ride because they work with children with special needs. Our three dogs keep me pretty busy too, especially my own puppy, Mole (named because the white fur around his nose made him resemble a star-nosed mole when I first got him).
What circumstances led you to take university classes?
I have always liked math, so I started taking more than one math class a year. In my eighth grade year I took five. After that, I sort of ran out of other options. I participate in the University of Chicago’s Young Scholars Program, which is led by Professor Paul Sally. He and others at Chicago gave me advice and helped to set up a meeting with the head of the Northwestern Math Department, Professor Mike Stein. Professor Stein gave me permission to sit in on the courses, and introduced me to the professors.
Which classes are you taking at Northwestern? How did your IMACS courses prepare you for those classes?
Last year I took a course on Abstract Algebra and one on Multivariable Calculus and Linear Algebra. This year I am taking Physics and Analysis. IMACS was the first place where I encountered the idea that to learn something you have to own it; that is, you have to be able to form a picture of it in your head, and you need to be able to construct it from basic principles. In the IMACS computer science classes I took, you really needed to do that, otherwise you would get lost in the middle of writing a program and forget what you were doing. IMACS Logic for Mathematics is a continuation of that because it is constructing the basic principles of mathematics, which are skipped over in most high school classes (but assumed to be known in college courses).
[Editor's Note: This past spring, Fiona received an award from the Northwestern Mathematics Department for outstanding achievement in mathematics by a high school student.]
What advice would you give to young students who are thinking about taking university classes before they officially enter college?
Ask your teacher questions. I’ve had people in classes ask me questions, instead of asking the teacher. That’s a really big mistake, and it’s an even worse mistake to make in college because the professors are amazing. One of the things I most admire about the professors I’ve had at Northwestern is the unshakably solid understanding they have of the material. Also, if your professor asks the class a question and you think you know the answer, you should raise your hand. Even if your answer is not correct, that just gives you the opportunity to ask a question and figure out what you don’t understand before you try to learn something that builds on it or have a test.
What do you see yourself doing in the future?
I have three more years before I go to college and I want to keep taking classes and learning more. Being a professor sounds like an interesting career. (Being a stuntman does, too, but I don’t think I’ll pursue that.)
*IMACS added Python to University Computer Science II in November 2012 after Fiona had completed the course.
UPDATE, October 9, 2013: Congratulations to IMACS student, Peyton Robertson, on winning the title of “America’s Top Young Scientist,” $25,000 and a trip to Costa Rica! Watch Peyton’s winning moment.
From the moment you meet IMACS student, Peyton Robertson, you can’t help feeling that he is one of those bright, young people who is going to leave his mark on the world in a big way. His creative ideas and energy seem boundless. His smile and enthusiasm are infectious. And he’s just 11 years old!
Most recently, Peyton entered the 2013 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and is one of only 10 finalists (and the youngest) in this prestigious national science competition for 5th through 8th graders. The Young Scientist Challenge encourages students to explore science and innovation during the pre-teen years when interest in math and science typically starts to decline.
Peyton’s project, SOS: Sandless Operational Sandbags, focuses on developing a more effective and less costly sandbag design to protect against damage from saltwater flooding. As Peyton notes in his finalist video, 80% of the $43 billion dollars worth of flood damage caused since 2005 has been from saltwater flooding. Peyton’s native Florida is at risk for hurricane-driven saltwater flooding every year. So he’s decided to do something about it by re-engineering the basic tool of flood control: the sandbag.
The design of traditional sand-filled sandbags means that they are heavy, difficult to transport and, when stacked, leave gaps through which water readily flows. Peyton’s design uses a thin, expandable polymer to keep his bags light and easy to transport. He also pre-fills his bags with enough salt so that when it dissolves, the salt content of the solution inside is higher than that of seawater, helping to keep the seawater from penetrating the bags. Finally, Peyton uses an ingenious interlocking design to minimize the gaps between the bags when they swell. When the water recedes and the bags dry out, they return to their thin, easily transported and stored form, ready for use during the next storm.
IMACS is so proud of Peyton and delighted to count him as one of our many exceptional students. When we asked Peyton’s mom, Shannon Robertson, to describe the influence that IMACS has had on his education, this is what she had to say:
“Iâ€™ll never forget our first encounter with IMACS. My son, who was three at the time, was with me at a school activities fair. He had a strong aptitude for math, so I wanted to learn more about the IMACS program. I immediately loved their focus on math and logic education. Even though we were not able to immediately enroll in the program, IMACS counseled us and gave us outstanding advice on other programs for gifted students.
Today, my son has been a part of IMACS for four years and frequently comments on how IMACS has helped him solve word problems or logic puzzles at school. IMACS fills in many of the gaps that exist in his school-based math curriculum and has given him a deeper understanding of the math that he has learned independently.
My twin girls are also in IMACS. We wanted to establish a strong foundation in logical thinking for them at an early age. After just a few months, we saw a leap forward in their math skills and critical thinking.
All three of our children look forward to their IMACS class time and dive into the supporting assignments after class. IMACS creates a uniquely fun and challenging experience for gifted student through their innovative curriculum and supportive staff. It has been an essential component of the education program for our children.”
Congratulations, Peyton! Your friends at IMACS wish you the best in the finals of the 2013 Young Scientist Challenge.
This year IMACS celebrates 20 years of educating talented, young students in mathematics and computer science. In all this time, we have never wavered in our philosophy that providing children with a deep and strong foundation in logical reasoning would enable them to take on virtually any intellectual pursuit with ease and confidence.
In mathematics, we continue to receive regular confirmation of our approach. Recent IMACS graduates often write to tell us of how advanced they are compared to their college math classmates, even at elite universities. Non-IMACS students who were so deftly skilled at applying formulas and algorithms in high school suddenly found themselves in college turning to our graduates for help in proving why these formulas and algorithms worked. It seems this phenomenon is steadily growing in computer science.
As strong advocates of K-12 computer science education, we are heartened by the broad realization that teaching children about this amazing and empowering field is of great importance. At the same time, IMACS urges parents, educators, and policy makers to understand the difference between coding and computational thinking, as well as the consequences of promoting one path over the other. As CS education decisions are made, we must not repeat the ruinous mistakes of math education policy lest we end up with computationally illiterate generation after generation as well.
Learning to Code Isn’t Enough
In a recent article titled “Learning to Code Isn’t Enough,” computer scientist Shuchi Grover offered the most articulate and convincing argument we’ve read on the shortcomings of the “learn to code” craze. In particular, Ms. Grover notes that the cognitive benefits gained through the process of good programming often fail to develop in online coding academies:
“Decades of research with children suggests that young learners who may be programming donâ€™t necessarily learn problem solving well, and many, in fact, struggle with algorithmic concepts especially if they are left to tinker in programming environments, or if the learning is not scaffolded and designed using the right problems and pedagogies.”
“While the fun features afforded by these programming environments make for great engagement, they often draw away focus to the artifacts, many of which employ relatively thin use of computational thinking.”
The IMACS Approach
At IMACS, we have taken a considerably different approach to teaching computer science than the trendy, new organizations. Most importantly, we focus on universal thinking and problem-solving skills. That’s really what any programming exercise comes down to: thinking clearly about how to solve a particular problem. As Ms. Grover points out:
“If the goal is to develop robust thinking skills while kids are being creative, collaborative, participatory and all that other good stuff, the focus of the learning needs to go beyond the tool, the syntax of a programming language and even the work products to the deeper thinking skills.”
In our introductory computer science classes, IMACS deliberately uses programming languages that have trivial amounts of easily-mastered syntax. As a result, our students are able to concentrate their mental energy on learning the core concepts in computer science instead of on memorizing rules of syntax. Rather than focusing narrowly on ideas that only apply to a specific environment, IMACS classes develop computational thinking skills that can be applied to any programming situation.
Learning to Think with Logo
Children may begin taking IMACS Computer Enrichment classes as early as 3rd grade. Computer Enrichment uses Logo, an easy-to-learn language with a strong graphical component, to introduce students to programming ideas. Using a language with graphical components allows even our youngest students to understand and master advanced programming and problem-solving techniques.
IMACS Computer Enrichment places a heavy emphasis on computational thinking — thinking about logic, thinking about processes, thinking about good design. (All this takes place in a fun-filled class that incorporates interesting puzzles and problems.) A working program is not the main goal; rather, it is understanding how and why a program works or doesn’t. With a firm foundation rooted in computational thinking, IMACS students as young as 11 or 12 are well-prepared to move up to our university-level classes in computer science.
University-Level Computer Science
The IMACS curriculum continues with our Modern Computer Science track comprised of three university-level classes. The first course, UCS1, teaches the fundamental principles of computer science using Scheme. Scheme’s expressive yet simple syntax allows students to focus on learning universal concepts applicable in any programming language, even future languages not yet invented.
The second course, UCS2, begins in Scheme, but by the end students are programming in Haskell and Python. One reason that we introduced these additional languages into UCS2 was to show our students just how easy it is for them to learn new languages given their solid foundation.
The third course is our College Board-approved Advanced Placement Computer Science course in Java. This summer IMACS will be updating our APCS course with a new section on how to write Android phone apps. Although app development is not part of the AP Computer Science curriculum, the new component will allow IMACS students to gain experience in developing real applications.
The IMACS Advantage
While it sounds impressive to say that students who complete the entire IMACS computer science curriculum will graduate with significant experience in five diverse programming languages, what matters is that they leave us with something even more highly-prized: the ability to succeed in virtually any coding environment. Incidentally, whether or not IMACS graduates go on to study or pursue careers in computer-related fields, they gain an unfair advantage over their peers throughout their lifetimes thanks to their unmatched ability to dissect problems and articulate solutions. IMACS CS alumni, we look forward to receiving your emails.
|Can you link all nine dots using four or fewer straight lines, without lifting your finger and without tracing the same line more than once?|
We all understand what is meant when a person exclaims, “That’s so creative!” This is a typical reaction to a new and often pleasing, useful or clever idea. It might range from a musical composition to bionic limbs to proof of a longstanding conjecture in mathematics. Whatever the form, praise for the idea is rooted in its originality. Designed to be ever-learning, the human mind relishes new “food for thought,” and so as a society, we place a high value on creativity.
Books and blogs offer up a variety of tips on how to foster creativity. One piece of advice that is at odds with our experience at IMACS is the claim that logic stifles creativity. There is even a meme of Albert Einstein with the quote* “Logic will get you from A to B — Imagination will take you everywhere” posted frequently in support this misconception.
To the contrary, many students who studied our curriculum in mathematical logic have gone on to thrive in fields — puzzle and game design, teaching and medical research, just to name a few — that require creativity and logic. They succeed because they have a fundamentally superior understanding of what it means to think with logical creativity.
With respect to the cliché “think outside the box,” some consider logic as a villain that keeps creativity bound and gagged inside the box. As the argument goes, illogical ideas are either withheld or discarded too soon when they might have led to winning ideas, thereby hindering the creative process. But consider this quote on creativity by iconic creative force, Steve Jobs:
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.”
— Steve Jobs, Wired, February 1996
“Creativity is just connecting things.” In our view, logic is one of the most powerful facilitators, if not the most powerful facilitator, of connectivity. Yes, logic will get you from A to B … and then to C … and to D and to E and so on, and that’s a good thing. Logic helps you think clearly about your knowledge and experiences, make connections among them and synthesize new ideas.
When learned well, logical reasoning has the power to unleash creativity. Build enough connections and you can follow a more direct path to the winning idea. You needn’t worry that the unstable bridge of an illogical idea was the only way you were going to get there.
*This attribution to Einstein has not been documented on Wikiquotes, not even as disputed or misattributed. Perhaps the meme is the result of creativity without logic.
|By drawing lines that extend outside the box formed by the outermost dots, one can find a solution to the puzzle at the top of this post.|
Developing good study habits before entering college is an essential skill that many gifted and talented children and their parents overlook. Some parents are often surprised to learn that their bright child can ace a schedule of honors or Advanced Placement courses with little studying. They might assume that if their child is receiving top grades in the most advanced classes offered by their school, he will be well-prepared to handle the rigors of university courses. This is an unlikely outcome without good study habits, and waiting until college to learn how to study is much too late when one might already be dealing with living on one’s own for the first time. Here are three tips to help foster this important skill while you still can.
Find a Challenge That Requires Studying
If a talented child attends school in a structured setting, chances are she is already being asked throughout the school day to cover material she already knows or can learn quickly. To ask her to take time at home to study the same material is to double her frustration. You’ll have greater success instilling good habits if you ask your child to study material that actually challenges her.
The experience may take some getting used to by both child and parent because, if done correctly, it will involve:
• A healthy struggle to understand new ideas,
• Getting less than perfect scores,
• Not always being the smartest kid in the room, and
• (Drum roll, please) having to study to do well.
Sometimes subject or grade acceleration can help, but parents should keep in mind that even with acceleration, a gifted child is still being asked to learn material that was designed for the way a typical student’s brain works. A better alternative to getting through standard curricula faster is to find an alternative that will encourage your child to understand subjects more deeply by addressing the “Why?” questions bright children are so naturally inclined to ponder.
Encourage a Growth Mindset
Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, is noted for her ground-breaking research on praise and motivation. She found that children who believed that a person’s intelligence was fixed tended to believe that truly smart people don’t need effort in order to succeed. By contrast, those who believed intelligence could be developed were much more likely to credit hard work as a key factor in achievement. (Going back to our previous point, Dweck also found that children who were praised for their intelligence instead of their effort were more likely to avoid challenges for fear of failing and losing praise.)
Dweck’s later research showed that children can be taught this growth mindset when educated on how the brain gets stronger and smarter through the process of learning. In this later study, students who were taught about brain development in addition to study skills outperformed those who were taught only study skills. The latter group was not motivated to put those skills to use. So parents, make sure your child understands the positive impact he can have on his brain and save your praise for the effort he puts into learning and studying.
Turn the Tables and Have Your Child Quiz You
One way to make studying more fun and give your brain cells a workout at the same time is to have your child test you. Turn the tables by being a student again with your child as the teacher. Have her create, administer and grade an exam that you take. Bright children often enjoy discussing and sharing their knowledge and may be more than happy to “show you up.”
In the process of creating the questions, your child reinforces in her own mind the concepts on which she will be tested. When grading, your child must go through the analytical exercise of determining whether your answers are correct and why incorrect answers are wrong. Even if you know the material well, be sure to throw in some wrong answers and ask for explanations of the right answers.
There is no simple solution for helping a gifted child develop the study habits he will need in the complex world of university life. However, should he find himself facing true intellectual challenges for the first time without this basic learning tool, he may be at a distinct disadvantage relative to his classmates, regardless of the natural ability that used to take him so far. Like most good habits, studying is one best formed at a younger age when behavior and attitude are more malleable.
It’s standardized stressing, um, that is, “testing,” season in the US again. Scores will soon be crunched, the debate as to whether they belong in teacher evaluations will rage on, and powerful and connected people will quote the results, no matter what they are, in support of their agenda. But regardless of what the numbers say, will outcomes actually improve for the constituency that this annual exercise claims to be benefiting, that is, the students?
Of course not. Worse yet, for all the dollars and time and energy expended by all involved, US students are worse off by many measures. Whether you ask at the university level or at the K-12 level, teachers lament the declining level of competency that students gain during their school experience.
I Passed the AP Exam and All I Got Was This Worthless Score
In February, American Public Media reported that several universities will no longer give credit to students who passed AP exams. More and more, professors are finding that even these students, who are typically advanced among their high school peers, are arriving unprepared to handle the rigor and complexity of college courses.
“[T]he general problem of college readiness ‘raises questions about whether the courses students took in high school, that might have been labeled AP or dual enrollment, were really providing students the preparation in writing and research that college itself will emphasize.’ ”
— Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities
If you haven’t read the highly-publicized resignation letter from New York public school teacher, Gerald Conti, you really should. That a single teacher’s grievance on the destruction of his profession went viral tells you just how widely and deeply this topic strikes a chord.
“The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom.”
— Gerald Conti, Westhill High School
Now comes word that some states are rolling out new tests to meet the Common Core State Standards before the higher-level skills they require can even be taught. Should we expect anything other than a continued decline in US public school education when we are continually met with the same stuff, different decade?
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning — A Very Good Place to Start
What would it take for real reform to happen? First of all, time. You can’t just take older students who have been raised on weak curricula, throw a test requiring critical thinking at them, and expect them to respond well on any level. Critical thinking skills take time and experience to build, and the damage done by years of teaching to the old test cannot be undone in short order. This is especially true when teachers have neither the flexibility nor the training to teach critical thinking properly.
For meaningful and lasting reform to come about, deep changes need to start in the primary grades where minds and attitudes toward learning are most malleable. In US public schools, there has been a tendency for the brightest teachers to accumulate in upper grades where more complex subjects, larger bodies of knowledge and greater numbers of students require stronger teaching skills. These positions tend to pay more as well. On the face of it, this makes sense if you assume that teaching the skills of critical thinking, complex problem solving and abstract reasoning to younger children is less valuable. This is where our mindset as a nation must shift radically because, not only is imparting these essential skills to young children arguably more valuable, it takes incredible teaching talent to do it well.
Learn to Think, then Think to Learn
Why is teaching these skills at a young age so important? Because of all the good that would follow from children starting with a strong foundation. As any secondary school teacher will tell you, when a student arrives in class with these skills in place, teaching more complex ideas and larger amounts of information to that student is a breeze. He or she has a sense of how to gather and assess information, dissect and formulate arguments, and articulate thoughts clearly and effectively. Furthermore, he or she usually wants to learn because past experience hasn’t been one of yearly frustration, grade level after grade level.
Students who first learn to think subsequently use those advanced thinking skills to learn with significantly improved outcomes for the student. They learn more, and they learn more deeply. They feel greater confidence and control. The in-born love of learning is nurtured, which, along with higher-level thinking skills, serves these students well in high school, college and beyond. If you can envision the positive ripple effects through society of teaching this way, then you will understand why having more talented teachers at primary grade levels would be one of the most effective components of undoing the damage of high-stakes testing.
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