Why Do So Many Gifted Kids Think They Don’t like Math?

by TIStaff on Sun, 2011-12-04 14:15

Why do so many bright and gifted kids think they don’t like math? Experience and the reading of lots of research leads me to believe that boredom, under-instruction and poor instruction throughout elementary and middle school lie behind the problem.

My best girlfriend since high school is a math teacher north of Philly. We’ve talked about this a lot. She and I are both aware that our own math instruction lacked a lot. As I give IQ tests, too, I see something that I thought many people would be interested to know. As those who have read the work of Benbow and Lubinksi, among others, know, math-reasoning ability has a huge ability spread among individuals of the same age. Even when kids are ability grouped, there tend to be outliers—people who are truly math geniuses compared to other really bright kids—in the top group. My friend Pam and I were not math outliers but we were 99th percentile people in math. Having an outlier in your class is a problem for self-esteem and confidence related to math. What I see really missing in math instruction for high ability kids who aren’t outliers is twofold:

1. Their route through math during their school years is way too slow and easy for the first 8 or 9 years and then they’re slammed with stuff that is really challenging and for which they aren’t prepared;

2. They don’t get nearly enough practice on “story problems,” that is, how to recognize what needs to be done so they can set up the proper sequences and steps for solving the problems. There is far too much time spent on memorization of how to solve problems that are laid out for you (memorization of math facts, for example), and really bright kids who aren’t outliers quickly become overwhelmed and conclude they aren’t good at math as they see the smarter kids “get it” so quickly.

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Quo Vadimus?

When you begin to burn out on your research topic, where do you think you will move on to?

My focus is on gender and education. I am specifically focused on advocacy for boys in education because it seems to me that is where the biggest damage is being done now. However, of course, I work on gender-based issues and strategies for both sexes. I don’t think I’ll burn out on this until more attention gets focused on this subject or until it becomes clear that I’ve done all I can do. There are some very committed and capable leaders in this area and I do hope we can effect some change.

My second area of interest is expanding the acceptance of John Ratey’s research (see Spark) on exercise and learning. He has some fascinating things to say about the influence of exercise on brain functioning and some very specific suggestions and practical examples on how it can strongly influence educational outcomes. That might be my next focus.

Another subject that hovers in my peripheral vision is SES and education. This is such a very big topic. SES itself is a huge topic and one where open discussion is not very common or safe. However, it seems probable from the reading I have done that much of educational failure is actually and unavoidably caused by SES-related factors beyond the power of any educational system to fix. There is so much to this topic and it is so important because by not addressing it we are condemning millions of people to an unnecessarily difficult life. This would be a sad, dangerous, and challenging subject to pursue. However, honestly, until we stop think of poverty as something to be “prevented,” I think our society will continue to “create” poverty in the name of preventing it.

A safer subject but closer to the “darkside” is the pursuit of computer-driven learning strategies/tools. In a standards-based, standardized testing-based world, it is probably possible to largely replace teachers with very well programmed computers that drill the “essential” information in a fraction of the time. There are interesting questions about whether computers can even create the open-ended learning promoted by art and research and general inquiry. They probably can. Anyway, I am certain there are dark forces moving out there to automate our classrooms. I would be tempted to follow that fascinating train of inquiry, if only to bring “light” to the process.

To conclude, I am always drawn to areas that have big problems that have relatively simple solutions. These “80/20 Rule” situations are among the very few where, I believe, major improvement can be made in the human condition. Until very recently, I wasn’t too concerned about the human condition. Now, however, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what I can do if I put my full effort into making the world just a little bit better in areas where I have some wherewithal.

Less Art in the Classroom!

In my view there is too darned much art coming out of kindergarten and 1st grade.  Ok, I am sort of kidding but what I mean is that, as parents, we receive a blizzard of art.  It’s too much to honor or use in a meaningful way.  As a parent volunteer, I find myself in a mad rush to get the students to complete the artwork before the station/center ends.  They get rushed and have no fun and the quality of the art suffers, all to make sure more art is produced.  Anybody else see a problem here?

Every so often, the kids do a “peak” project.  My daughter just made a five foot long stuffed paper dolphin.  She did the dolphin art; parent volunteers cut the dolphin shape, traced that shape onto the back paper, and stuffed the dolphin.  Therefore, the kids did a picture and, really, the adults made the art.  It’s cool and beautiful, but it isn’t completely “hers.”

I am not sure where the mad rush to create disposable art comes from.  It is easier, I suppose, to make disposable art than to work with the kids on truly meaningful art.  And, true, quantity seems to beat quality for many Americans.  However, in my classroom I will try to only do meaningful exercises, art or otherwise. 

Creating a dolphin from start to finish, painting it (two sides, not one), cutting it out (fine motor skills), stuffing it (different fine motor skills plus judgment about how much paper, where, plus – believe it or not – the structural and learning benefits of stuffing them with near skeletally placed and shaped stuffing) all makes for a truly wonderful, memorable, and celebrate-able project that should deservedly be kept and preserved for “the ages.” 

I think teaching quality by taking the time to do art “right” is a far better lesson for the students than, what, churning out high volumes of low quality art?  Really, what is the benefit of rushing through one (or two) pieces of art a day?  Working for two, three, or more days on one fine piece of art is the same amount of art practice as the same hours spent on disposable art.

Sure, there is need for practice pieces to hone cutting skills or drawing skills or color choices or whatever.  Nevertheless, wouldn’t it be better to do those exercises as “practice” so the students truly have the freedom to experiment, make “mistakes,” and build their skills?  Likewise, in practice art, the adult wouldn’t feel compelled to “help” the student do it “right.”

Yes, for me, art will be “practice” work, identified as such and with a particular intent in mind (e.g. cutting), and periodic “peak” pieces that take multiple days and represent accomplishments and even artistic statements of which the students and their parents can be deservedly proud.  

Here’s to less (disposable) art in the classroom!

Cambourne in the Classroom

How may a classroom activity be adapted for students at various stages of language acquisition?  Address evidence of student comprehension and assessment methods.

Many of the techniques that improve outcomes for ELL’s are also good techniques overall.  Echevarria, Vogt, and Short (2008) take Cambourne’s “Conditions of Learning” and apply them to the ELL friendly classroom.  These eight conditions are immersion, demonstration, engagement, expectation, responsibility, employment, approximation, and response (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 24).  I will briefly describe their application below:

1.       Immersion – Constantly use all aspects of language (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) to practice English language and content concepts.

2.       Demonstration – Show students the core learning in practice and have them model those concepts as well.

3.       Engagement – Create a safe environment, emphasize the relevance of the material, and teach it at appropriately challenging levels of difficulty.

4.       Expectation – Hold appropriate but high levels of expectation for all students.  Look past language challenges to the full capabilities of each student.

5.       Responsibility – Give students choices, encourage reflection, hold students to high standards of independent performance, and encourage critical thinking.

6.       Employment – Allow students to demonstrate the skills and concepts they have learned.  Explain real world context and value of the concepts being learned.

7.       Approximation – Encourage and reward risk taking.  Embrace “approximately correct” answers as stepping-stones to completely right answers.

8.       Response – Allow for continual constructive and focused feedback from multiple sources, including peers (Echevarria et al., 2008, p. 23).

All of these eight principles do double duty.  Not only do they promote powerful learning in ELL’s (and other students), they create better opportunities for assessment.  By recasting learning tasks away from passive into active learning, students’ proficiencies and weaknesses are more clearly observable and more easily remediated.

Reference

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (3rd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Evaluation?, Part Two

I have been thinking about my post yesterday.  I think it is a mistake for me to shy away from evaluations of my classroom and my teaching. 

I got into teaching to stand for something special.  I will bend every effort to excel and to incorporate the best elements of teaching into my practice. When I am evaluated, some combination of three things will happen.  One, the high quality of my work will be seen. Two, the observer will make suggestions that improve my teaching.  Three, I may meet one of these dogmatists I fear and disagree with some or all of the assessment.  These are all outcomes that can only benefit all concerned.

The tricky one is where there is disagreement.  I have always felt a strong pull to comply with authority out of a desire to be accepted and/or a fear of sanction. However, I have also always had strong analytic skills of my own.  Given that the former instinct usually overrode the later, these encounters would frequently leave me feeling violated and, subsequently, acting out against that authority in some covert (and ultimately self-destructive) fashion.

Being slightly wiser these days, my philosophy is different.  Now, I trust that the best thing to do is to stand for my beliefs, regardless of consequences.  This does not mean being stubborn.  I have a strong intent to be open in all aspects of my life.  However, it does mean that I need to stand for my reasoned beliefs.

I will be respectful.  I will be inquisitive.  I will be open to learning and to improvement  However, if, in the end, I disagree with the advice or assessment, I will stand for myself.  It is possible that this will have negative consequences for me and that is ok.  However, if I am respectful, if I demonstrate a willingness to listen and an ability to change if persuaded, and if my arguments are sound, I am comfortable that these discussions will generally end positively.

Ask the Students!

Reviewing the success of lessons is a critical element of improving as a teacher.  In the end, if the lessons are effective and entertaining, learning and learning retention will be high and discipline problems will be few.

One of the things I have learned along the way in this class it to involve the students in how they are taught.  This is a little tricky.  Students cannot have control over standards and objectives.  Nevertheless, they can have major input into how those standards and objectives are achieved.

It seems logical that getting their feedback on lessons would also be a good idea.  It would be useful to know what they liked and where they struggled.  Different students would most likely have different preferences as well.  Those preferences would reveal learning modalities and help broaden and focus pedagogical choices going forward.

The classroom culture would need to be setup appropriately to support those conversations.  Nevertheless, in an atmosphere where the respective roles are clear and respect underlies every interaction, it could work very well.

Wissenschaft and Kenntnis

How does teachers’ use of multiple instructional strategies benefit students?

Leonard Sax (2007) talks about different kinds of knowing.  He explains that in most European languages, there are two separate verbs for knowing.  In German, for example, “knowledge about a person or a place that you’ve actually experienced is Kenntnis, from kennen, ‘to  know by experience’; knowledge learned from books is Wissenschaft,  from wissen, ‘to know about something’” (Sax, 2007, p. 28).  He goes on to argue, “American education, today more than ever before, is characterized by a serious lack of understanding of, and respect for, Kenntnis” (Sax, 2007, p. 29).  He cites “more than fifty years of research on the importance, for child development, of multisensory interaction with the real world….in order for the child’s brain and mind to develop properly” (Sax, 2007, p. 29).  Combining direct instruction (DI) with indirect and experiential instruction creates better-rounded educational environment.

In particular, adding experiential instruction to a wissenschaft-heavy curriculum creates a much more meaningful context for learning.  Sax says it well, “You can easily find high school students in America today who can tell you about the importance of the environment, the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle, and so on, but they’ve never spent a  night outdoors” (Sax, 2007, p. 30).  An all-wissenschaft curriculum sucks the life, energy, joy, and curiosity from learning.  Human beings are social animals and made of flesh and blood.  To be fully realized, they need social interactions, exchanges of ideas, touch and taste and texture.  Depriving them of these human experiences necessarily reduces the education and the student.  Of course, there are situations and subjects that require direct instruction.  However, even then the learning, breadth of learning, and the learning retention will benefit from a generous integration with indirect learning strategies.
Reference

Sax, L. (2007). Boys adrift: The five factors driving the growing epidemic of unmotivated boys and underachieving young men. New York, NY: Basic Books.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

The first step in establishing a cohesive, productive group is to establish a common framework of behavior and expectations.  In my case, this means a framework of mutual respect.  Respect is a sound basis for a classroom for many reasons.  First, it creates a healthy, cooperative relationship between teacher and students.  Second, it covers the major frictions and playground quirks of elementary school.  It covers name calling, exclusivity, cliques, criticism, prejudice and much more.  It also covers self-respect and, thus, achievement.  Finally, it wraps the classroom in a set of behaviors that are civilized and calming.

The second step is to establish clear goals for class as a whole and to make clear that each student will be fully supported in reaching those goals.  Under the mantle of respect, each student will be expected to support their fellow students fully in their path to meeting expectations.  Under the mantle of respect, group work would be caring and cooperative.  With respect, social interactions are cordial and cooperative, even under difficult circumstances.  Respect provides a clear framework for resolving disputes.  With clear goals for individual lessons, units and the year as a whole, the students understand expectations and can find safety in that clarity.

Task Analysis

What are the advantages of being able to task analyze your objectives?

Task analysis is an essential part of planning the achievement of any objectives, educational or otherwise. 

Task analysis identifies the steps necessary to achieving an objective.  In doing so, it highlights all the alternative routes to achieving that objective.  By identifying the steps, it also identifies the physical and temporal resources required.  Each of the different routes have different implications for student readiness and capability and place different demands on students’ learning abilities.  Each route requires different resources.  Task analysis highlights the executional details and, by doing so, allows the thoughtful, informed choice of learning path. In short, task analysis makes the choice of lesson plan easy. 

Having chosen a lesson plan, task analysis allows that plan to progress seamlessly and successfully.  It identifies materials and other resources needed.  It identifies time required.  It identifies areas of particular challenge, where special care must be taken.  It provides a roadmap that facilitates mental (and, perhaps, actual) rehearsal.  Perhaps most importantly, it is a confidence builder.  With a solid task analysis, the teacher can be confident of the steps to be taken and confident that the resources are in place to support those steps.

It also allows the teacher more confidence in dealing with any unanticipated issues that might crop up in the execution of the plan.  Having run through a variety of scenarios of how the lesson plan might have progressed, the teacher already has alternative strategies in mind. In addition, having rehearsed the clearly delineated plan, deviations from that plan can be done with more confidence. At very least, the teacher will be clear on where the ‘baseline’ lesson is. There is always a clear path through the material, no matter how far off that path the teacher has to go in the moment.

Task analysis is a basic skill required of effective planning. It is especially useful in the volatile world of teaching.

Testing as a Team Sport

Having the school declare a test score goal is a way to ensure students understand the emphasis on doing well on standardized tests.  Ideas like posting test results publicly and having students make and display “green” handprints and/or giving them out green colored t-shirts when they score proficient or better all reinforce the goal of raising test scores.  The high visibility of students who score proficient or better is great positive reinforcement and incentive.

However, all the students who are not proficient or better not only get left out but also are to some extent at risk of pressure or stigma.  This would be true normally, kids being the occasionally schoolyard meanies they can be.  But it might be particularly true when there is a stated school goal.  Kids who aren’t scoring proficient are, in one way of looking at it, pulling down the rest of the team.  I’m not saying it’s the right way, but the school I am involved with takes great care to treat as private individual results.  I do wonder at the difference in philosophies and which might be used to get students to learn more effectively and successfully. 

Clearly, posting results gives more urgency (and transparency) to success.  It also puts more demands on the school culture to support every child in their educational journey.  Also, it seems pretty logical that if a school was going this way (“green team,” et al), it might also set up study teams and remediation (perhaps students tutored by other students, as well as more conventional means) to support the effort.  Likewise, one could imagine the school being divided into teams (possibly multiage) to compete internally for best performance.  This would fit naturally and do more to achieve the goals than simply posting school goals.

I’d like to know more about the pros and cons of making results public but, in general, I like the idea of making test solid performance a school goal and supporting that goal with student-friendly learning solutions.