This month’s IMACS Blog features Shiva Oswal, one of the top performers in our Elements of Mathematics: Foundations (EMF) self-paced, online program for talented secondary school students. Shiva has been enrolled in EMF since the beginning when IMACS introduced the first course of the series in late 2012. As his mom told us, “[O]ur son is an avid user of online educational resources. I recently asked him to pick his favorite online course. He answered, ‘most definitely EMF, by a wide margin’.”
Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you enjoy doing.
I’ll be turning 11 soon, and I love the EMF courses! As a history buff, I really enjoy reading about decisive battles in world history. I also like playing board games and computer games. Right now my favorite board game is Robo Rally, and my favorite computer game is Castle Empire. On the weekends, I participate in Live Action Role-Playing (LARP) events. Soccer is another activity I enjoy. My favorite position is goalie.
You’ve done some amazing things already at a young age. Tell us about the accomplishments of which you are most proud.
This year, I scored 24 out of 25 to earn a gold pin in the Mathematical Olympiads for Elementary and Middle Schools (MOEMS), and was named MOEMS “Mathlete of the Year” for my geographic region. I also invented a new board game called “Minetrap”. I am currently working on publishing my game. If you’d like updates, email me at shivarasul [at] gmail [dot] com. Finally, I completed the first seven EMF courses and am almost finished with the eighth course. I am excited to start the ninth course, Number Theory soon.
How did you become interested in mathematics?
When I was in preschool, I was doing multiplication. When math in regular school became too easy, I decided to homeschool so I could work on challenging math problems and concepts.
How did you become interested in taking EMF courses?
My mom encouraged me to try the EMF courses, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
What are the things you enjoy most about EMF?
I like the way concepts are explained. The format of EMF courses, reading followed by exercises, helps check my understanding. The interactive tools such as The String Game make learning math fun. Also the point system (i.e., ability to level up based on mastery of material) makes EMF addictive.
What are some ways in which your EMF experience has had a positive effect on your academic and non-academic pursuits?
When I did my first EMF course, Operational Systems, I was very new to the field. I learned a great deal about operational systems and modular arithmetic after I completed this course. I have grown by leaps and bounds as an analytical thinker as EMF courses force me to think. The program has also helped me improve my skills at strategy games like chess.
What kinds of things do you see yourself doing in the future?
First and foremost, I would like to complete all 15 EMF courses. I hope to get to Calculus before I’m 13 years old. I am also working on becoming a professional soccer player.
Thank you, Shiva, for sharing your story and congratulations on your amazing accomplishments!
Half Price Holiday Sale: Try the first course, Operational Systems, at 50% off the regular price when you enroll on or before December 20, 2014.
Bundled Savings: Save 25% on EMF Course Pack 9, which includes the first nine courses, when you enroll on or before December 20, 2014.
Once upon a time, there was a bright student who first came to IMACS when he was already in high school. He was interested in learning to program and had heard high praise for our University Computer Science courses. The class began smoothly as teacher and pupil progressed through the principles of computational thinking. This student, who was used to conquering schoolwork with his brain tied behind his back, slayed the early exercises with ease. As the assignments quickly became more challenging, however, he found himself unaccustomed to the effort of intellectual struggle. One day, our earnest student declared to his IMACS instructor that a certain programming problem was simply impossible to solve! Our wise and experienced teacher considered this student with a measured gaze and pointed out, “But you’ve only thought about it for three minutes.” The student, quite politely, seriously, and honestly replied, “Well, yeah.” If only he had started IMACS when he was younger. The moral of the story: The earlier the experience of true intellectual challenge, the stronger the will of the mind to persevere. (In other words, enroll your elementary school child in IMACS today!)
This month the IMACS Blog caught up with Azzara Nincevic, who has been a star student at IMACS for seven years now. Azzara enjoys reading, drawing, and classical ballet. Although she dances at least 12 hours per week and performs throughout the year, she always finds time for IMACS.
“When I began IMACS in first grade, I immediately loved it.” Azzara says. “Having taken an interest in math, I quickly learned the traditional material and was looking for more challenging enrichment. When I attended class at IMACS, all of the problems were thought-provoking.”
As a member of her school’s math team, Azzara attends competitions such as MATHCOUNTS and Mu Alpha Theta where her IMACS background has been an invaluable asset. As Azzara describes it, “The IMACS curriculum helped me to develop logical thinking skills and the ability to quickly solve math problems, which are key to succeeding at math competitions.”
“With the preparation that IMACS gave me, I was able to score a 5 on the AP® Computer Science exam as a seventh grader.”
While Azzara’s achievements in mathematics and ballet, by themselves, are enough to impress anyone, it’s her recent performance on the AP® Computer Science A exam that readers will recognize as a rare feat. Soon after starting IMACS Math Enrichment program, Azzara enrolled in our Computer Enrichment & Virtual Robotics class where she developed a great interest in programming. Over the years, she continued with IMACS University Computer Science (UCS) track, which culminates in our AP® Computer Science: Java Programming course.
AP® exams are typically administered to high school students, but at the time that Azzara was ready for APCS, she was only just entering seventh grade. That didn’t deter her. “After inquiring, my mom and I found out that there is no minimum age requirement for an AP® exam, so I registered. With the preparation that IMACS gave me, I was able to score a 5 on the AP® Computer Science exam as a seventh grader.”
With such a busy schedule, Azzara appreciates that one of the greatest benefits of IMACS is that the computer science and logic programs are accessible online and self-paced. “I was able to excel at my own pace and access the IMACS curriculum anytime and anywhere.”
What does the future hold for Azzara? “I am entering the eighth grade with a greater passion for and interest in math and computer science. IMACS made me realize that I would like to pursue computer science in college and after. The fundamental skills that I have learned in the UCS courses and the logical thinking skills I have learned in the Math Enrichment and Mathematical Logic courses give me the advantage I need to be successful. As such, I plan to continue with IMACS in the upcoming years.”
Homeschooling is growing in the United States, having shifted from the “fringe” toward the mainstream. In January 2014, the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimated that there were 2.2 million1 K-12 home-educated students in the US, up from an estimated 1.5 million2 in 2007. According to the NHERI, one of the most common reasons that families choose homeschooling is to “customize or individualize the curriculum and learning environment for each child.” Not surprisingly, families with gifted children make up a significant part of the current homeschool movement.
If you thought that homeschooling meant having to teach your child all subjects on your own while sitting together at the kitchen table until you drive each other crazy, think again. Modern technology has opened up a world of educational opportunities. Online courses abound in every subject you could imagine. Social media allows homeschool parents to connect and form co-ops where they can share the work of teaching. Some public school districts offer classes taught by credentialed teachers several days a week at a homeschool campus. And numerous educational organizations offer local day classes for homeschoolers, such as the IMACS Homeschool Program. The job of teaching no longer has to be carried out solely by the homeschool parent.
Homeschooling also supports the need that many gifted students have to be self-directed learners. As eIMACS student and 2011 US Girls Junior (U21) Chess Champion Rachel Gologorsky said, “I recognized this as an excellent opportunity to have a say in my education.” In addition to allowing her to participate in the decision-making process, homeschooling provides Rachel with the flexibility she needs to develop her incredible chess talent, including travelling to national and international competitions.
Another oft-cited benefit of homeschooling is the freedom to custom-tailor an educational program that is matched, subject by subject, to a student’s abilities, learning style, and processing speed. Children can fully develop their strongest areas by going as deeply into a subject as they wish or by advancing as quickly as they are able while getting the appropriate level of support they need in other areas. This can be a good fit for many gifted children who, contrary to common misconceptions, are not always the fastest or highest achieving in every subject.
Consider what mathematician and hedge fund billionaire, James Simons, said in a recent New York Times article: "I wasn’t the fastest guy in the world," Dr. Simons said of his youthful math enthusiasms. "I wouldn’t have done well in an Olympiad or a math contest. But I like to ponder. And pondering things, just sort of thinking about it and thinking about it, turns out to be a pretty good approach." Today, a student like the young Dr. Simons can explore deep ideas in mathematics on his or her own schedule with self-paced, homeschool-friendly options such as eIMACS and Elements of Mathematics: Foundations.
A wealth of advice on homeschooling is available online, from helping families decide whether it is a feasible option to helping homeschooled high schoolers apply to college. Speaking of college, did you know that elite universities such as Stanford, MIT, Caltech, Princeton and Yale have sections on their websites dedicated to admissions information for homeschoolers? Homeschooled students are hot! As one Stanford Alumni Magazine article explained, “Stanford has found that the brightest homeschoolers bring a mix of unusual experiences, special motivation and intellectual independence that makes them a good bet to flourish on the Farm.”
While homeschooling has its advantages, it is not for every family. The benefits described above often come with meaningful sacrifices that should be considered carefully. Many families are already well-served by their local public or private schools. But for those who need a more customized education for any number of reasons, including giftedness, homeschooling today offers many options that make this path highly accessible.
If you are considering homeschooling your gifted child, start by visiting the following informative websites:
Families in the South Florida area may also find The Home Educator Magazine to be a helpful resource for local information.
1 From http://www.nheri.org/research/research-facts-on-homeschooling.html
2 From http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2009030
It’s graduation time! The summer ritual of getting kids ready to send to college is around the corner. Mini-fridge, check. Shower caddy, check. Good study habits, hmmm. Surprisingly, developing good study habits before entering college is something that many talented children and their parents overlook. It’s easy to understand how this oversight happens when you realize that bright students often don’t need to study. That’s because their schoolwork isn’t challenging and requires minimal effort to receive high grades. Kids who are used to coasting like this hit reality in a big and stressful way when they encounter the rigor and higher expectations of college. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Helping your child build good study habits well before college is essential to their long-term success and happiness. You don’t develop your slice backhand by hitting tennis balls that are tossed straight at you. Likewise, you don’t develop strong study skills by “learning” easy material! It’s also important to let your child know that the effort he or she puts into intellectual pursuits, not just the outcome, matters to you. Failure should not only be an option but an understandable expectation when aiming high. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” By encouraging a positive mindset and providing your child with challenging opportunities designed to stretch the talented mind, you’re well on your way to checking off the box for good study habits and many other skills that your child will need before, during and after college.
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, May 27, 2014: IMACS student, Peyton Robertson, impressed President Barack Obama at today’s fourth annual White House Science Fair. Watch Peyton with President Obama starting around the 4:35 mark of this video.
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:
“I’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 students 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.
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.
“The obsession with arithmetic skills that characterizes so many elementary curricula is indeed curious. Consider an analogous situation: No one would ever suggest that the be-all and end-all of the school English curriculum is proficiency in spelling. … It would not occur to anyone to argue that a child who has not first mastered spelling should be denied the right to read and write. … Of course, we must also be concerned with spelling, but we are not obsessed by it. The spelling will come, and surely come more easily, if children enjoy and appreciate the uses of language.”
From “Mathematics Education: A Humanist Viewpoint”, Braunfeld, Peter, Burt A. Kaufman, and Vincent Haag, Education Technology, November 1973.
If you read the guest blog post by IMACS alumnus, Steve Krouse, the following sentence may have resonated with you, either as a memory from childhood or as a more recent parenting experience: “The summer after 8th grade I took Algebra II to catch up in math (a subject I despised only a few years prior because of my failure to perform in arithmetic timed tests).” Thankfully, Steve found his way and is doing well in college today.
But why do some mathematically talented children, who perform exceptionally well in untimed situations, have difficulty with timed arithmetic tests? More importantly, how can we help these kids?
A good first step may be to let these children know that their intelligence is not in doubt because such tests are hardly good indicators of mathematical ability. Rather their primary aim is to measure how many facts a student can recall correctly within a finite period. After all, a student who can memorize and regurgitate math facts is not necessarily able to understand the reasoning behind those facts. Further exacerbating the issue of speed is the fact that in answering an individual problem a student begins by reading the problem and ends by writing the answer.
Just looking at the structure of the tests themselves points to three possible reasons why some bright children perform poorly on them. One might be the repetitive nature of timed tests—you have to do many of the same kind of problems, over and over. When gifted children are asked to do a repetitive task their minds often wander to more interesting thoughts. (And for a child, there are so many fascinating ones from which to choose!) Any resulting score or grade will seem low and out of sync with the child’s natural abilities.
When this happens, why don’t people think “That’s a natural outcome” instead of “That child needs to focus”? Surely you have been obligated to attend a function (e.g., industry conference, religious service, etc.) that was of little or no interest to you. It’s very likely that your mind, gifted or not, “strayed” to more engaging thoughts. Was this a definite sign that you are unable to focus? No. And the same is true for a bright child whose mind wanders away from a bunch of monotonous arithmetic problems.
Another explanation may be the speed at which the child reads, comprehends, and solves each question. Contrary to popular misconception gifted children can, in fact, be slow processors. Others may be perfectionists who go over each problem multiple times to avoid getting wrong answers. Some may be visual-spatial learners who would do better with shapes instead of numerals. Besides, we all know high-functioning adults who are slower at some things and faster at others. How does the slow-processing child grow into the successful adult? Chances are, someone along the way helped that child redefine slowness as carefulness and focus on a career field where carefulness is highly valued.
Finally, a timed test taker must write the answer to each and every problem on the page. This requires significant fine motor skills. For younger children, fine motor skills are often still developing. For gifted children of any age, their thoughts sometimes outpace their fingers thereby causing frustration that can interfere with clear thinking. Again, some may be perfectionists who want the numbers to look just so. Why can’t these students be allowed to give answers orally or type them on a keyboard? Sometimes, you wouldn’t know that we live in the 21st century with the way tests like these are still administered in some schools.
There are certainly other reasons why a mathematically talented child may not perform well on timed arithmetic tests. Organizations like the Davidson Institute for Talent Development provide a wealth of information such as this article on the topic. Whatever the reasons, these kids should be helped by the adults around them to understand that low performance on such tests are neither a measure of math ability nor a predictor of future success. We owe it to them to keep unhelpful and sometimes debilitating barriers out of their way on the path to excellence and high achievement.
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