Thursday, November 29, 2007

"Dangerous" and "Daring" Books for Boys and Girls

When I was young, I remember hauling around one of those big books of everything -- a phone book-sized tome with page-long essays on Cleopatra, dragonflies, volcanoes, etc. -- and devouring its pages. I'd read 50 entries on a Saturday, or 10 before bed. I bored the rest of my family senseless with various tidbits gleaned from my reading and, at one point, announced that I loved my volume of "facts, all facts."

Yes, those were good times for a curious kid. During the pre-teen years, the voracious reader wants to learn everything she can about her universe, and how to have fun in it. That's why I've been smiling nostalgically for the past 24 hours as I've paged through two new books, The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls. Done up to look a bit like old-fashioned encyclopedias, these volumes offer bite-sized essays on everything cool in the world, as well as how-tos that give you a mischievous feeling in this era of toy recalls and injury-proof playgrounds. For instance, the Dangerous Book for Boys tells you how to build a go-kart and hunt and cook a rabbit (with explicit instructions that you must eat it -- it's no good to kill things just for sport). Delightful!

Not to be outdone, the Daring Book for Girls instructs on building a clock powered by lemons (who knew?), biographies of female pirates, examples of karate moves, instructions for telling a really good ghost story, how to whistle with two fingers and how to tie a sari. Yes, the world is a complicated place, but armed with this knowledge, the 8-12 year old reader will sail through.

These books couldn't come out at a better time. As I've been pondering Christmas presents for the children in my life, the lists of hot toys are bringing out the Grinch in me. For starters, many of the mass-market girls' dolls are completely brainless. One that "eats like a real baby?" Oy -- girls, you'll spend enough time trying to steer strained peas into real babies' mouths later in life. Why play it now? Most of the other hot toys feature screens of some variety -- as if kids don't spend enough time watching TV -- and the one science kit type that's made some lists is for making bubbles. In other words, no chemistry set with strong oxidizers that go BOOM! And forget any possibilities of skinned knees. The seemingly-cool SmartCycle, a stationary bike type contraption you hook into a TV that gets kids spinning in order to zoom through video games is, in reality, a bike that can't fall over, located in the living room where you won't get the ruddy cheeks that come from zooming down a real hill.

The Dangerous and Daring books, on the other hand, tell you to save up for a Swiss Army Knife. They tell you how to play 14 kinds of tag (banned on more politically correct playgrounds). They give you a brief history of artillery. They note the differences between genders ("as a general rule," observes the Dangerous book, "girls do not get quite as excited by the use of urine as a secret ink as boys do.") And yet, both contain poetry and instructions on foreign phrases and proper grammar. We may be dangerous and daring, but it is important for all of us to learn to be civilized as well.

In short, I think these books make much better Christmas presents than more video games for the curious children in your lives. Here's hoping they stay atop the best-seller lists for the rest of the holiday season.

Monday, November 26, 2007

What's So Great About Singapore Math?

Recently, on this blog, we discussed the performance of US 8th graders on the NAEP, and how that compared with exams taken by students in various countries. As usual, Singapore came out right at the top. The vast majority of Singaporean students were deemed proficient; a far lower percentage of American students were.

Of course, the US has a long tradition of incorporating what works in other countries here. So it comes as no surprise that a number of districts have adopted "Singapore Math" curricula. Some have achieved test gains after doing so, though educational studies are almost impossible to control (i.e., are the gains from the curriculum, or the fact that the teachers went through additional training, and were excited about it? Etc.) You can read a handful of articles about the roll-outs here.

I don't have any personal experience with Singapore math. I haven't observed a class learning it. But reading over these articles, I have to say that the curriculum seems to be doing a number of things right.

First, kids learn fewer topics each year, but learn them more in depth. American kids might see 30 math concepts a year, and then re-cover 25 of them the next year. Singapore math does not repeat concepts. You learn a concept, then move on or build on it.

There are pros and cons to this. One of the reasons American schools review so many concepts is that kids move around, and there is no national curriculum (or even state curriculum sometimes). Singapore kids might move from school to school, but they'll be covering the same stuff even if they do. Kids who move into Singapore math districts in the US wind up with some big gaps.

But on the other hand, covering and then recovering concepts leads to burn-out and shallow knowledge. American students have covered various basic arithmetic concepts many times by the time they officially get to algebra. But they may not actually understand what's going on. I had a conversation with a grade school child recently in which he asked how old my baby was. Six months, I told him. So how long until he's a year old? the child asked. I turned it around and asked the kid how many months were in a year. Once we established that there were twelve, I repeated the original question. The child was somewhat confused. I have no doubt that if I'd given him a worksheet saying "12-6 = ?" he would know what to do. But a multi-step word problem requires deeper understanding of what subtraction is and why you use it. American schools tend to skimp on these.

Singapore math also encourages students to do problems in their heads, to talk them out, and to draw visual representations of the problem (as an intermediate step to doing that visual work in your head). There is some stress on speed in order to keep kids interested. I developed all kinds of short cuts and visual ways of figuring out problems when I did math contests in school, and those skills certainly helped me master various concepts. Singapore math seems to incorporate these strategies into the curriculum for kids who aren't on the Math Counts team. That's certainly a good thing.

I am not sure how this winds up working for highly gifted children. To accommodate them in a Singapore Math curriculum, one would have to rely on acceleration. If a kid has mastered the year's 10 concepts, bump her to the next year. But, on the other hand, even in the absence of acceleration, Singapore math seems to bring so many kids up to the advanced level on international comparisons that perhaps even many gifted kids are reasonably challenged. After all, Singaporean 4th graders start learning algebra (though they don't call it that -- it's presented as simply figuring out numbers you don't know in a problem).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

University at Age 7, or a "Normal Childhood"

From the UK, we have an interesting story this week about a 7-year-old boy with an intense interest in chemistry. Little Ainan walked and talked early (as many highly gifted children do) and then taught himself chemistry on the internet. Now his parents want him to go to university to study chemistry on that level. They are searching for a place that will take him, and are warning that the child will become very frustrated if he is denied the chance to do such advanced work. You can read the story here.

I don't know about the particular merits of this case. I know little Ainan needs a lot of challenge. I also know that universities are most wary of having him participate in labs (even a brilliant 7-year-old can have the coordination and concentration of a 7-year-old).

After reading enough of these stories, though, you start to notice certain throwaway comments that are in fact quite profound. For instance, the reporter feels the need to note that "Experts believe that the lack of a normal childhood can do irreparable long-term psychological damage."

Do they? What is a normal childhood anyway? I'm not sure I know anyone who feels they had one. Children who move around a lot because their parents are in the military, or are missionaries, don't have a normal childhood. Likewise, children who go to university at age 7 probably don't have a normal childhood either. But unless one believes that anyone who doesn't go to normal, local schools for grades K-12, has a perfectly normal family and normal activities, is suffering irreparable long term damage, it's hard to argue that a normal childhood is so important. Or else we're all damaged, which may be the case too.

(As a side note, I particularly enjoyed the list of child prodigies on the bottom who met a variety of fates. These two are right next to each other:
*Ruth Lawrence graduated from Oxford at the age of 13 with a first-class mathematics degree in 1985. She is now a maths professor in Israel, married with two children
*Terence Judd made his first appearance as a classical pianist at the age of 12, playing at the Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. At 22 he threw himself off Beachy Head, just before Christmas 1979.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

We're Number 18!

Every international comparison of US students with students in certain Asian countries presents an opportunity for self-flagellation. A new analysis by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research is no different.

Phillips used various statistical techniques to convert the scores other nations achieved on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP, or "nation's report card" test that a sample of American 4th, 8th, and 12th graders take every few years). Specifically, he compared 8th grade mathematics scores. The results show that the U.S. is right in the middle of the pack. About two-thirds (65%) of 8th graders scored at or above the basic level, 27% scored at or above proficient, and 6% scored at or above advanced.

This isn't awful (the Jordanian equivalent of 8th graders came up with a 35-11-2 basic-proficient-advanced split on this international comparison, and those in the Philippines came up with 10-1-0). It puts the US squarely in a cohort with other nations such as Finland, England and New Zealand.

However, Americans seldom like to view themselves as being mediocre. The true stars on this international comparison are, no surprise, the industrialized Asian nations. Singapore's split is 96-73-34, South Korea's is 93-65-26, Hong Kong's is 94-64-23, Japan's is 92-61-24, and Chinese Taipei (which I understand to be the politically neutral name for "Taiwan") posts 87-61-31. Interestingly, the Flemish part of Belgium is fairly close to the Asian tigers, posting an 88-51-15 split. You can see the whole report here.

I think there are two key take-aways from this analysis. Many Americans know we have a problem with educating our most disadvantaged students. They still believe, however, that our top quarter of students is doing pretty well. This comparison shows that to be completely false. The top quarter of American 8th graders is equivalent to the "top" three-quarters of Singaporean students. Six times the proportion of Singaporean students test at the advanced level, compared with American students. Even the folks in Flanders are managing to educate two-and-a-half times the proportion of students to the advanced level as here in the U.S. There is no reason the top quarter of American students can't be educated to the advanced level, defined as being able to generalize and synthesize concepts and principles in the key mathematical areas (such as statistics and probability, algebra and functions, etc.) The fact that only 6% of American 8th graders score at this level shows that American schools are failing to challenge their top students. This is a problem, since knowing how to generalize and synthesize are key skills for competing in the knowledge economy, and given the state of American high schools, it's unlikely that kids who aren't figuring these things out in 8th grade will get much better at them later on.

Second, if we're serious about raising mathematical achievement, we need to look at what these Asian countries are doing. This isn't a new idea; periodically, some school district tries to implement "Singapore Math" or what have you. But in education, as in any social science field, it is difficult to separate out which factor works. Perhaps a certain kind of instruction is key, or perhaps Singaporean students watch a lot less television. We'll examine studies of Singapore math in some coming Gifted Exchange posts to see what people have come up with.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Joy of Distance Learning

When I attended the Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics and the Humanities in the mid-1990's, some of my AP classes were broadcast state-wide via some innovative (for the time) software. This set-up allowed kids at other high schools to see the same lectures and ask questions. Their own on-site teachers supervised labs. It wasn't perfect, but it did allow Indiana to spread around scarce resources (high school teachers who could teach advanced science well) to as many students as possible.

Ten years later, this concept still hasn't caught on as well at the high school -- or college -- level as it could have. So there's a certain genre of "gee, isn't this cool?" article that runs about these programs whenever they're launched. For one example, see this recent Baltimore Sun article called "Technology Goes the Distance for Students." These Maryland students now have the option of taking advanced math classes without going to community colleges, which is logistically easier for all involved.

Any lecture-style class can lend itself to this format. Since most 101-level classes at college fit this mold, too, it begs the question: Why not adopt distance learning for higher education more broadly? If you think about it, there's no real reason for multiple versions of Econ 101. One awesome lecturer, nationwide, could be recorded giving the basic lessons, perhaps with computer simulations that class members could do on their own PCs, all at the same time. Grad students or other faculty could lead short break-out sessions once a week to answer questions and go over homework. Of course, this would make it seem a little more odd that some universities charge much more than others. But it would probably raise the quality of most basic college level courses and create lots of efficiencies.

The distance learning model is much harder to make work for discussion-oriented classes (which would include good literature classes). Still, a few programs such as Stanford's EPGY, and Northwestern's Gifted LearningLinks, are starting to fill the void.

This is a long time in coming. The biggest problem for gifted learners is that they are so rare. In order to have enough highly gifted kids to form a class, you need a broad geographic reach for a school. This doesn't work well if kids need to go to one place to meet with certain teachers, unless you live in a big city. There are enough highly gifted children within New York City's 8 million residents to justify a high school like Stuyvesant. There probably aren't so many highly gifted kids in a rural area. With distance learning, these obstacles start to disappear.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Rush, Little Baby

The Boston Globe ran a fascinating (and, warning, rather long) piece on the infant education industry a little over a week ago. You can read the piece, "Rush, Little Baby," here.

Author Neil Swidey reaches the standard conclusion of these pieces. For most children, early formal instruction (before the usual start of first grade or at most kindergarten) does little good. Early readers are not really reading, they are memorizing and, in fact, children who are pushed to read too young are less avid readers later on. All the commercial products out there to maximize infant brain development may in fact retard such development. After all, just look at the recent study pointing out that Baby Einstein video devotees had less well-developed vocabularies than children who didn't watch such videos.

Swidey puts a lot of the research in one place, and is good at pointing out the absurdity of some claims -- and some parents. My 6-month-old son has never seen a flashcard in his life (he has seen Sesame Street, but that's because we found out it shut him up the other morning when my husband and I were both trying to get things done. We were surprised that Sesame Street had kids learning about the number 18, though. Maybe this is a testament to the infant education movement's reach. We didn't think Sesame Street went past the number 12!)

But what is true for the average child -- that kids parroting back Dick and Jane books are not really reading -- is not at all true for the highly gifted child. Swidey does mention that maybe 3% of children are truly early readers. That is, they comprehend what they are reading on the page, and how each letter or letter combination corresponds to a sound, and how stringing those sounds together makes a word. These children are able to figure out words from context. Readers of this blog -- who have seen their five and six year olds devouring Harry Potter, reading silently -- know that these children are, in fact, reading. Generally, these kids haven't been pushed at all. They learn to read because they want to discover what wonderful things are in books.

The problem is that the research cited in this piece, and the general tone of "oh those crazy parents" is often used to say that early enrichment for gifted kids isn't necessary. After all, kids all even out by third grade or so, as Swidey says. This is why many gifted programs don't start until third grade. By then, the effect of early parental striving has allegedly disappeared, so we can get down to business of figuring out who is "actually" gifted. But believing that toddlers can't actually have advanced intelligence that needs to be nurtured is as absurd as showing a 6-week-old baby a flashcard. Many parents of gifted kids have the experience of being labeled "pushy" at some point or another, and articles like this certainly add to the adversarial nature of the relationship between parents and educators. Maybe some brilliant kids haven't been pushed at all. Maybe they push their parents. Trying to hold them back is silly, and stating that they may possibly become less avid readers later on just adds to parental insecurities.