Friday, December 22, 2006

Vacation Homework

Gifted Exchange readers with middle or high school children may be personally involved in one of the latest educational controversies: the idea of homework, especially over weekends and vacations. As schools close for the holidays today, many kids will come home with assignments to be completed before they return in January. Is that a good thing or bad thing?

Two books that hit shelves this year from respected education writers (Alfie Kohn's "The Homework Myth" and Sara Bennett's and Nancy Kalish's "The Case Against Homework") claim the latter. These books have gotten a lot of attention. Bennett and Kalish were on the Today Show, for instance. On national television, they told parents that the amount of time kids devote to homework has "skyrocketed," to the point where kids are losing out on quality time with family, educational play opportunities, etc.

I've long been suspicious of this claim, so I'm glad to see that Washington Post education columnist Jay Matthews has likewise poked some holes in this argument. In late November, his column, The Weak Case Against Homework, notes that the studies both sets of authors cite hardly show an oppressive load. In the past two decades or so, the time 6-8 year olds spend on homework has increased from 8 minutes a day to 22 minutes a day. As Matthews points out, that's less than the time it takes to watch one episode of SpongeBob Squarepants. For 15-17 year olds, the ones supposedly crushed by homework these days, the daily homework burn rate has increased from 33 minutes in 1981 to 50 minutes in 2003.

Maybe 22 minutes or 50 minutes is too much if such work takes time away from other edifying pursuits. But 15-17 year olds, by some estimates, spend about 2.5 hours each weekday on TV and other non-studying related screen time (ie, cruising MySpace and IM-ing friends). Matthews notes in amazement that Kalish and Bennett try to nuance this figure by claiming it's so cozy to cuddle up and watch Lost together as a family.

Matthews (and I) agree with the anti-homework crusaders that much of the homework kids get assigned is dumb. Worksheets may drill and kill. Far better to assign reading and ask kids to bring in comments to class for discussion. It amazes me how many teachers do not ask kids to read a chapter in a textbook, or a primary document, before the subject is first broached in class. Won't kids get more out of a lecture if they're not encountering the material for the first time? Extended research may also be best done at home, when kids can synthesize and delve into issues before being whipped over to the next subject by a bell 50 minutes later.

But... and here's the big "but." Spending two hours a day watching TV is pretty dumb, too. Why not devote more energy to calls for better homework and more academically rigorous schools instead of penning an ode to watching Lost together as a family? Bennett and Kalish got the idea to write their book because their own children were suffering under a high load of homework in a very upscale school. The average child, on the other hand, hardly suffers from this excess of expectations. I'm still reeling from a figure I cited on this blog last week (that only 18 of 100 high school freshmen graduate from a 2-year college within 7 years or a 4-year college within 10). Spending a few hours over Christmas vacation reading or studying hardly seems like a worse way to spend the time than playing video games.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Ages 6 and Up?

I spent my weekend doing some Christmas shopping. There are a few children on my list. Some of them are extremely gifted. This raises the question that I'm sure many parents on this blog have encountered. What on earth do the age guidelines on toys mean when it comes to developmentally advanced kids?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates these little "Ages 9 through 12" messages found on toy boxes. If you want to read their reasoning on the different categories, you can find the PDF file here. The CPSC chooses the guidelines based on many different criteria. Some, such as motor control and choking hazards, apply to most kids. Others, such as complexity, role-playing, strategizing and other things, can lead to the same problems if you follow the guidelines as you get by putting a highly gifted 8-year-old in a regular 3rd grade classroom. Once, I was considering a toy labeled for 3-5 year olds that said it would help a kid learn her letters in a fun way. The 4-year-old in question, though, was already reading whole books and writing stories. If I'd chosen the alphabet game, she probably would have just made a castle out of the box (not that she wouldn't anyway... 5-7 year olds can really get into creative role-playing, and so do gifted 4-year-olds).

I'm curious how people get around this. How do you choose toys for bright toddlers that don't have small parts, but still involve a reasonable level of complexity? How do you choose toys for gifted preschoolers that don't involve high levels of motor control, but also won't bore the kid? Are there any particular toys you'd recommend for shoppers facing these dilemmas? We still have a few shopping days left...

Friday, December 15, 2006

Middle School Honors Classes Come to Grosse Pointe

Thanks to a Gifted Exchange reader for sending in this item. According to The Grosse Pointe News, the Grosse Pointe, Michigan school board recently approved a proposal to add honors science and social studies classes in middle schools. The board chose to do this in order to make the curriculum more rigorous. While many middle schools in Michigan and elsewhere have honors math or English classes, for some reason other subjects tend to not be viewed as needing such rigor. There's no real reason for this, but so it goes. Grosse Pointe decided to change this and do ability grouping (or "readiness grouping") for most subjects. For this they should be commended.

I also don't see why it's particularly controversial. Is math so different from science in a way that makes ability grouping OK for one and not the other? But true to form, some educators decided that they needed to protest. The Grosse Pointe News is subscription-only, but I thought I'd share a few choice quotes from recent articles.

For instance, Roger Hunwick, a social studies teacher, says that "separating diverse learners" is against teaching philosophy. Dissident board member Alice Kosinski says that "Tracking and segregating students is contradictory to our strategic plan." Strategic plan for what -- mediocrity?

And then there's the kicker from dissident board member Angela Kennedy. She notes, "I am concerned about the trend of high school academics demanding college level achievement. I cannot support the transformation of middle school into high school. I'm worried that we are raising a generation of uber children who can read early but never enjoy literature, who are challenged but not engaged (and) who burn out before graduate school."

Uber children? Graduate school? New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg mentioned a fascinating new study in a Wall Street Journal column the other day that found that only 18 of 100 high school freshmen will graduate from a 2-year-college within 7 years of starting high school, or a 4-year-college within 10 years. Kennedy's worries that rigorous classes will make children burn out before graduate school are a bit misplaced. Very few children even make it to the point where graduate school is an option under our current educational set-up.

On the other hand, some evidence does suggest that children who try accelerated classes, even if they don't do so well, are more likely to go to college than those who don't. So cheers to Grosse Pointe for taking the risk of adding honors classes for middle schoolers, despite the opposition.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Specialization

As a belated birthday present to myself, I went to a matinee performance of the Nutcracker today. New York City Ballet has been performing this Christmas masterpiece for over 50 years now, ever since George Balanchine stamped his vision on Tschaikovsky's music.

Starring several children, the Nutcracker is always a crowd pleaser. But it was watching the young adult principal dancers of the NYC Ballet company that really got me thinking. In fields like ballet, becoming a top-tier professional takes decades of practice. With dance, especially, you have to commit to training your body into the correct form and technique quite young -- often, younger than a child could rationally make a decision about wanting to be a professional dancer on her own (well, all of us probably did want to be professional ballerinas at some point -- but before a child could rationally size up the situation and decide it was feasible). Unless the child's parents make a decision that they will commit the child to that kind of intense training, the child will not become a principal ballet dancer years hence.

Other fields don't have quite the same unforgiving age elements as dance, but certainly it is easier to learn to play an instrument and read music when our brains are new enough to learn other languages easily. Early problem solving training also makes new mathematical leaps second nature. All of these issues raise the question for parents: When are you being a pushy parent when you allow or encourage a child to spend hours a day training in a subject, and when are you trying not to cut off a child's future career choice?

It's a tough question. Certainly if a child hates an activity, or is even indifferent, making big commitments of time, money or energy toward a future career is silly. Making a living as a musician or a dancer is almost impossible. If the child doesn't love it, he'll never survive. So following the child's interests is key. Asking for an evaluation from a trusted adult who's had a career in the field is important. Maybe 2 or 3 adults. Prodigies I've interviewed also recommend allowing "breaks" from time to time. If the child gets truly frustrated with her instrument or her arabesques (not just tempted by what's on TV), don't force it. If you force it, the kid will quit for good. Children who love what they're doing will eventually come back to their avocation, maybe with a different teacher or a different approach.

Beyond that, I guess it just has to be a gut decision -- and one with no guarantees. You can study ballet intensely for decades and still never wind up in the NYC Ballet program. But if you don't study intensely for decades, you definitely won't.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Gifted Adults (and Grindhopping)

This post will be both about a serious topic... and a shameless plug for my new book, which I just learned is now available at Amazon.com (not just for pre-order; they're actually shipping! You can order in time for Christmas, in case anyone on your list likes career books). It's called Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career without Paying Your Dues, and is published by McGraw-Hill. The thesis is that if you're a young, ambitious person with out-of-the-box career aspirations, you don't have to pay your dues in the corporate grind to get anywhere. You can hop out of it, and build a micro-business or freelancing venture doing what you love, without much capital or experience. Indeed, thanks to technology, there's never been an easier time to do just that.

So what does this have to do with gifted education? Well, it turns out that Grindhoppers, as I call them, are often grown-up gifted children (gifted adults, in the official terminology.) Like gifted children, gifted adults tend to have certain characteristics that make them different from average. There's a list of some of the characteristics posted here.

Many of these characteristics make climbing up a typical corporate hierarchy difficult. For instance, gifted adults tend to be perfectionist, both toward themselves and others. There's little "go along to get along." They can also be very aware of slights and moral issues, all of which are part and parcel of group dynamics. They often feel out-of-sync with others, so they don't like to identify with groups. They question authority and rules. They have many interests and learn things rapidly -- far faster than a career track ("we promote people to senior account manager only after 3 years") says they can.

Of course, while all these characteristics make climbing a hierarchy unpleasant, they make gifted adults into great entrepreneurs. As anyone who's run a business knows, when you're in charge, and when it's your idea on the line, you have to learn to do everything. You have to learn to do it yesterday. And you have to be better than everyone else at what you do, which makes perfectionism a good thing. You can also run your business based on whatever morality you think is right. For instance, one of my Grindhoppers' new start-up ventures, GreenPrint, was profiled yesterday in Walter Mossberg's column in the Wall Street Journal. GreenPrint stops your printer from printing wasted pages, e.g., ones with just a line of text, like the copyright statement at the bottom of a webpage. This particular Grindhopper really values the environment, and so can run a company that exists both to make money and to save trees.

I certainly did not ask my subjects' IQs, nor did I ask if they'd been in gifted classes growing up. But I could certainly sense the same impatience that I'm sure many readers of this blog see in their children.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Anything but IQ

New York City's public schools, according to a news release from Florida State University, recently decided to switch from using IQ tests to identify gifted students, to using something called the Gifted Rating Scale. The GRS was developed by FSU prof Steven Pfeiffer, who was the head of Duke's TIP program for awhile, and has written about gifted educaion. You can read about it here.

According to the article, about 400 school districts use the rating scale (so I'd love to know if any of your children's districts are among them). The scale measures children in six areas: intellectual ability, academic ability, creativity, artistic talent, leadership and motivation. Teachers evaluate the children on these scales.

Since Pfeiffer has spent so much time around gifted kids, I'm sure his GRS is meant to make the concept of giftedness and gifted education more palatable to school systems, not to undermine gifted education.

However, I have to admit I'm wary of it. Given how few teachers have extensive training in gifted education, basing the criteria on teacher observations seems prone to problems. Also, a highly motivated child, or a child who motivates others (and hence, is gifted in the leadership category) will certainly be a successful child -- but that's not what giftedness has traditionally meant. The traditional thinking is that gifted children need more advanced work than even a good grade-level class can provide in order to stretch their brains. Motivated children who are good leaders may not. Also, the "academic" scale seems designed to mollify people who complain about students who get straight A's and yet are not labeled gifted. But giftedness and good grades are not the same thing. That's one of the reasons that just using teacher evaluations is a problem.

Of course, I have not seen the scale in practice. I'd love to be proven wrong if anyone has seen it used to great effect. Either way, I do have a question. What's so horrible about IQ anyway? IQ tests may try to put a precise number on something that's hard to measure precisely, but we don't know exactly how many calories the human body needs per day, either. Yet we know that a starving person should be fed. Quibbling about definitions of giftedness, and how to measure it and identify it, can keep us from meeting kids' needs if we're not careful.