Whatever your political leanings, it’s clear that the anti-1% movement in the US continues to take its toll on Mitt Romney’s chances of becoming president. Are there similar negative feelings toward the intellectual 1% in our country? Chester Finn, Jr.’s recent op-ed in The New York Times entitled “Young, Gifted and Neglected” echoed a sentiment widely felt in the gifted and talented community for a long time now. Support, both financial and non-financial, for publicly funded gifted schools and programs has always been woefully inadequate. The struggle to keep such programs going is one with which we at IMACS are deeply familiar. (Read about our history in the public sector here.)
As Mr. Finn points out, one of the most common but inaccurate criticisms of gifted programs is that they are “elitist.” In math and science, related obstacles to greater support are (1) a lack of understanding of how important these fields are to sustaining and improving the quality of life for us and generations to come and (2) unrealistic expectations about how and when the payoff from supporting talented children comes. Some of this is rooted in the sad state of math and science literacy in the US, and some is influenced by our always-on media culture.
At IMACS, we’re the first to celebrate advances in technology, but one undeniable consequence of our “insta-world” is that people want to see the results of their actions right away. The same may be true of the tax-paying public. By definition, the large majority of parents do not have gifted children. Human nature is such that people are inclined to advocate for what benefits themselves or their own. So how do you convince them that it’s worth supporting someone else’s kid because five or ten or 20 years from now, he or she may discover the cure for a disease that someone they care about might suffer from one day? This is a mighty challenge, but that’s what the gifted and talented community specializes in, whether it’s the amazing work our kids do or the tireless advocacy of their parents on their behalf.
As one “science guy” recently put it, “We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future.” While raising math and science literacy over time is the best long-term solution for everyone, gifted or not, that doesn’t help today’s bright kids whose growth years are ticking away. It certainly would help if media outlets gave as much exposure to Taylor Wilson’s nuclear research as they do to Taylor Swift’s love life. Let’s get out there as parents and educators unabashedly shining a positive light on our best and brightest students. After all, they’re not here to ruin the curve but to improve people’s lives by solving the toughest problems. There shouldn’t be any doubt that this 1% will give back to society many times over.
Editor’s note: Going forward, The IMACS Blog will be published every four weeks with our next post appearing on October 25, 2012. Thanks to all our readers for your continued support!
It’s the middle of September, so your school-aged kids are likely back in the rhythm of classes, extracurricular activities, homework, and maybe even part-time jobs. Busy schedules are taking shape, and the effort to fit everything in will likely mean some trade-offs. To the extent that your kids still look to you for help with their homework, take this moment to remember (or learn) this: Letting your children struggle at first will lead to better outcomes than if you simply provide the answer in the name of expediency.
In a study published earlier this year, education researchers compared the performance of math students in two groups. One group was given direct instruction when learning a new concept. In other words, they were told at the start how to solve a new type of problem. The second group was given the problem and asked to come up with as many approaches to solving it as they could before receiving any formal instruction. In several comparisons, researchers found that both approaches were effective at imparting basic knowledge of the new concept. However, students in the second group formed a much deeper conceptual understanding and were better able to transfer their knowledge to different situations.
This was the case even though the second group usually failed to come up with a completely correct solution. Researchers call this approach “productive failure.” Their study also showed that a higher number of incorrect solutions correlated to increased learning when those students were finally given instruction on the topic. The more we struggle to figure something out, the better we understand it when we finally do understand it. Why is that?
The theory behind the difference in performance has to do with the learning process. It seems that when we try to solve a new type of problem without new information, our brains have to lean on what we already know. When we are finally presented with correct approach, our brains make connections between the existing knowledge that was called up and the new knowledge. This seems to be a fundamental part of successful long-term learning.
Here’s the sad part for American students and where you, as parents, can try to help your kids. Math education in the US typically follows the direct instruction model. By contrast, consider how students in countries that outperform the US in math learn a new mathematical concept. The section of the video below that starts at about the 1:43 mark discusses the TIMSS 1999 Video Study of eighth-grade mathematics and science teaching in seven countries. Consistent with the “productive failure” study, the TIMSSS videos showed that teachers in countries that outperform the US allow their students to struggle with new math concepts first.
In the best case, your child’s teacher already uses the “productive failure” approach. Keep up the good work at home when it comes to homework help. If the teacher uses direct instruction, then try encouraging your child to think of various ways of approaching the problem before attempting to explain the teacher’s way. Many of us at IMACS are parents too, so we know this is easier said than done with the busy lives that kids and parents lead today. In the long run though, it’s well worth the effort.