Sunday, July 25, 2010

Time: The Case Against Summer Vacation?

(cross-posted at

This week's Time magazine cover story deals with a thorny issue: summer vacation. Why is it thorny? Because most of us romanticize it, and yet it does serious academic damage to people who can least afford it.

We all have grand summer memories. Certainly by middle school, this was my favorite time of year, a nearly 3-month break from a plodding school routine. Before I was old enough for a full-time job, I did summer theater and went to academic camps at Northwestern, both of which were far more stimulating than most things that happened during the academic year. (Now, my two full-time summer jobs at age 17 and 18, working at Fazoli's Italian Restaurant, and Osco Drugs, were a different story, but all nostalgia requires a bit of finessing).

We all like to picture Tom Sawyer-esque romps, but viewed more critically, there are many problems with this break now that most of us are no longer farmers. For starters, it leaves working parents scrambling for childcare. I've been amazed how many work-from-home parents seem to be trying to stumble through it, with Facebook posts complaining about the situation. School is not supposed to be childcare, but that is the reality for many people, and most jobs don't only run September-June.

More importantly, though, there's reasonable evidence that taking 2-3 months off from school really harms vulnerable students. This makes perfect sense; artists and musicians need daily practice to stay on top of their game, and students do too. While my summers featured plenty of reading and enrichment opportunities which could be deemed academic "practice" (again, until the Fazoli's/Osco's fun), many kids wind up in what is charmingly referred to as "self-care." That is, they are home alone while their parent or parents work, with watching TV considered the least bad of all possible options. This is not doing anyone any favors.

I thought the Time article made a good case that the solution is not merely to extend the school year (since much of what happens in American schools is sclerotic and ineffective anyway). The solution is to make a better net of summer camps and programs that make learning fun. Frankly, this should happen during the whole school year, but we have to play the cards we are dealt. The link, above, gives an intro to the piece, and the article in the print magazine highlights several great programs from Indianapolis to Corbin, KY where programs provide as much as 10 weeks of 10-hour days which sound like a lot of fun. Think arithmetic and fishing, balancing each other out. Or a fire-fighting themed camp.

For readers here, what are you doing with your kids during summer break? Is it a scramble, or do you have something you always do?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mathematics and Lockhart's Lament

Presumably some of you have already read this, but my mother and little brother forwarded me an interesting essay by Paul Lockhart, a math teacher, which was written in 2002. You can read a PDF of the essay here. (It's 25 pages long - so I'll forgive you for skimming it instead...). Called "A Mathematician's Lament," the essay makes the case that the way math is taught is usually boring and irrelevant, turning children off to the beauty of mathematics. Or to use his words:

"If I had to design a mechanism for the express purpose of destroying a child's natural curiosity and love of pattern-making, I couldn't possibly do as good a job as is currently being done -- I simply wouldn't have the imagination to come up with the kind of senseless, soul-crushing ideas that constitute contemporary mathematics education."

He writes that instead of learning formulas, students should play games, play around with shapes, pose their own word problems based on questions that are actually interesting in real life, etc.

It's an interesting read, though I'm of mixed mind about it. I took a geometry class during the summer after 7th grade that used this conjecture method, and while it was fine, I can't say that it made me enjoy math more than the traditional geometry class I took the next year. I also think that creativity and discipline have to be closely linked. One of the most frustrating things, looking back on my own writing education, is how often teachers just encouraged me to be creative. It turns out that there are actually rules of grammar and best practices of argument and story plotting and other such things which can be enormously helpful in getting your point across!

But anyway, I'm quite curious what Gifted Exchange readers think -- does the usual method of math instruction kill all the joy of the subject?

Monday, July 12, 2010

USA Today: Some Schools Grouping Students by Skill, Not Grade Level

Here's a silver lining if I ever saw one. Kansas City, MO, is having to make such deep cuts and changes as part of its reorganization that the school district is willing to try something a little radical: ending the widespread educational obsession with grades. According to an article called "Some schools grouping students by skill, not grade level" in USA Today, the plan calls for students to move forward based on mastering certain skills, not based on 9-year-olds generally being in 4th grade. If you get through the K-12 material in less than 13 years, great. You can start on college. And as KC Superintendent John Covington told USA Today, "This system precludes us from labeling children failures...It's not that you've failed, it's just that at this point you haven't mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level."

In other words, readiness grouping!

As readers of this blog know, the age-grade lockstep is one of the most pernicious ideas in education. Though mounds of research (see A Nation Deceived) has determined that grade skipping is perfectly fine for most advanced kids, schools hate to do it. But organizing children by age for academics doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Kids learn at vastly different paces. Better to have a certain body of knowledge and learning methods that we want educated citizens to know, then let kids take what time they need. Maybe it's 6 years. Maybe it's 15.

I know there are logistical issues with this, but I wish the Kansas City schools the best of luck in this endeavor, and I applaud them for being willing to try something new. Hopefully, when kids are able to learn at a challenging but doable pace, they'll be more excited about learning generally.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Disease-IQ Link

We know that infectious disease inflicts many burdens on developing countries -- high infant mortality rates, for instance, and shortened lifespans. But new research highlighted in the Economist this past week indicates that perhaps too many pathogens can result in lower intelligence among the populace, too. You can read the article here.

While controversial, here is the explanation. In young children, a developing brain demands the majority of a body's metabolic energy. Any competition for this energy will result in less energy for the brain at a crucial juncture. Infectious diseases require quite a bit of energy to fight (or result in diarrhea, which prevents the body from absorbing nutrients which would feed the brain). Some practical evidence seems to support this; many children who manage to recover from cerebral malaria suffer cognitive disabilities afterward.

Of course, one has to be careful with all this. For some time, "experts" cautioned that teen girls shouldn't be educated because tending their brains would divert energy from their developing reproductive systems -- a sort of reverse of this hypothesis. But it does appear that the countries with the highest measured average intelligences (like Singapore and South Korea) have the lowest disease burdens. And, of course, this explanation does offer hope for future development. If you eradicate disease, you get a human capital boost apart from the fact that people will be healthier. They may be smarter too.

And as readers of this blog know, intelligence matters. A 150 IQ kid whose intelligence is lost due to disease is an asset a developing country will sorely miss.

Friday, July 02, 2010

My interview with My Gifted Girl

If you're not already a fan of My Gifted Girl on Facebook, I suggest you become one! This community looks at nurturing the gifts of girls and women of all ages. And, as a side benefit, is currently running a Q&A with me about 168 Hours, and gifted girls/women generally. Here's a taste of the interview:

Q:What advice do you have for gifted young women who are just beginning careers?

A: Many gifted young women flounder as they transition from college to career because work is not like school – and gifted girls are often good at school! In school, if you do a project according to the teacher’s specifications, you’ll get an A. If you finish all your assignments and pass your tests, you’ll move to the next grade. The real world isn’t like that. You can definitely move backwards. You can do everything exactly right, and still lose your job because your company is in the middle of a slump. There are no right answers in the back of the textbook. Sometimes, no one even knows which questions are important! You have to be comfortable with a lot more uncertainty. But once you embrace that uncertainty – and realize that most people don’t have any better clue what’s going on than you do – you can soar.

Q: What are your thoughts about how impostor syndrome can impact our time?

A: When you lack confidence in your abilities, it’s easy to waste time on things that you think may “prove” to the world (or yourself) that you deserve space on this planet. This leads to the SuperMom problem. If you’ve decided to take time out of the workforce to raise children, you may spend a lot of time showing people that you’re still a high achiever by volunteering for school projects only a martyr would take on or enrolling your kids in every activity available. If you’re working, you may try to over-deliver on the job on things that don’t matter (writing a dissertation when your boss wanted a memo) or constructing hand-made Valentines for everyone in your second grader’s class (to show that you’re still a good mom).

In general, you should spend most of your time on three things: nurturing your career (which includes keeping a hand in your profession if you’ve stepped back for a bit), nurturing your family, and nurturing yourself. If something doesn’t fit into these categories – for instance, a volunteer project you’re not passionate about – then it’s probably not a good use of your time. Somebody else can do it better. It will take your attention away from the things you do best. Unfortunately, imposter syndrome has us doing a lot of things that aren’t good uses of our time.