Friday, March 30, 2012

Pride and the gifted child

An exchange the other day: A mother was told by a teacher that her child would likely be identified as gifted if they had him tested. Quote from another person: "You must be so proud."

I've been pondering this choice of word. I think "proud" is not the right one. It's like saying "aren't you proud your child has brown eyes?" In the realm of intellectual giftedness, having a certain IQ is probably not something that shows great parenting, or hard work on the part of the child, at least not in the way that getting an A on a tough assignment would. That you could be proud of. IQ, like many human characteristics, has a very strong genetic component. There are probably some things that lower it (like malnutrition), and perhaps things that raise it on the margins. I just read an article about a study in the European Journal of Public Health finding that babies who are fed on demand (as opposed to on a schedule) have a slightly higher IQ than other babies, controlling for parent education and income and "parenting styles." Though really, with that last one, it's hard to know how one controls such things. One can imagine that there are other variables that correlate with demand-feeding that a study would just miss.

So if giftedness isn't really a result of something you or your kid have done, how do you deal with the "proud" comment? Obviously, parents are usually proud of their kids but that language seems to hint at one of the major misconceptions of gifted education, namely, that it's a reward. Ideally, gifted education is an educational intervention for children who need it. How have you responded to people saying you must be "proud" for your children to be in a gifted program, or to have been identified as such?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Answer to lagging scores? Bedtime math

I'm over at USA Today in today's paper writing about bedtime math. As we talked about a few weeks ago, the idea is that by making bedtime math problems as much a part of the culture as bedtime stories, we can change the "math-is-hard" and "math-is-foreign" mindset that seems to grip otherwise intelligent folks. You can read the column, "Answer to lagging scores? Bedtime math problems" by following that link.

We've been doing some of this with Jasper -- at night, at dinner, in the car, etc. He's sometimes been coming up with his own math problems. For instance, the other day, he suggested one: if a fire truck has 4 wheels, how many do 6 fire trucks have? Then he got silent for a while. We were in the car, and so eventually I asked "Are you still there?" A voice comes from the backseat, "Mommy, I'm counting!" He told me there were 20 wheels in total. I was debating how to respond to that. I think I said something like "Cool! I was counting and I got a different number. Do you want to hear my number?" I told him that when I was counting I got 24, but when he got to school he could draw 6 fire trucks and see what number he came up with.

I asked him later and he said there were 30 wheels. Maybe all the fire trucks had a spare.

Have you been doing bedtime math problems with your kids? And how do you respond when your children suggest a wrong answer?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cubicles and blended learning

I'm starting a fairly large research project on blended learning. This is the phrase people use to describe a mix between online/software-based learning and face-to-face learning with teachers. One example would be the Khan Academy, where students watch instructional videos and work online problem sets, with teachers monitoring progress and swooping in to tutor when kids are having trouble.

I think in general it's a good idea. Kids can work at their own pace but with plenty of accountability, moving through lessons as they achieve mastery. So I was a bit surprised at my initial reaction to a profile (in Mind/Shift) of a school that uses a similar approach, the Flex Academy in San Francisco.

At the Flex Academy, students sit in cubicles and work through most of their lessons online. When they need help with something they can ask a teacher or fellow student. The pace is pretty self-directed.

I like self-direction, and I like the idea that you wouldn't even know what level your classmate was working at, so maybe it was the mention of the cubicles that got me. One of the things I write a lot about the workplace is how silly it is that people commute to a place only to use laptops and email and call people in other places. Why not just stay home? Maybe not every day, but 2-3 days a week seems doable. It doesn't seem any better when kids commute and then simply work online, though of course the presence of teachers-as-tutors does change that equation. The school leaders are correct that this is how many people work, so school is preparing kids for the workforce. The problem is it's not necessarily how people want to work. At least the cubicle part. No one likes cubes.

Several of the comment writers on the article had the same visceral reaction. Students choose from online electives as well; perhaps in an ideal world there would be face-to-face electives and online core subjects. It's hard to know. The challenge of blended learning is hitting the sweet spot of learning at your own pace and from master teachers, without producing something like Dunder Mifflin from the Office.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Math of Khan

Last summer, I wrote several posts about Salman Khan and the Khan Academy. I was researching the topic for a feature piece for City Journal, the magazine of the Manhattan Institute. The feature has (finally!) been posted online, and you can read "The Math of Khan" by following that link.

A few other items: I'm also writing about Laura Overdeck's quest to spread the concept of a "bedtime math problem." Gifted Exchange readers may remember Overdeck from her quest to save New Jersey's Governor's School a few years ago. The idea behind Bedtime Math (follow that link to sign up for the daily email) is that kids learn to love language and understand plot naturally from bedtime stories. Why not learn to love math through cozy bedtime math problems too? If the world of the future will require deep math understanding, it helps to view math as a familiar thing, like a first language.

And finally, after years of writing about schools, I am about to experience them as a parent. This week, I took my 4-year-old to register for kindergarten for next year. It was a very straightforward experience, very different from what my life would be like right now if we were still in New York and having to apply different places. He'll be attending our local public school, which is less than a mile from our house. I'm excited about moving into this new phase of our lives and seeing my little boy grow up. And I'm sure being on this side of the American education experience will give me plenty more to write about!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Family vacations

We've been pondering where to take a family vacation this year. I'm going to register Jasper for kindergarten today, and I realized that this is the last year we'll be able to travel at non-peak times (without it being a bit of a fuss -- though kindergarten is only half-day in these parts, so we're still easing a bit into school). Anyway, it reminded me of a post I meant to share with Gifted Exchange readers, written by Kristen (aka "The Frugal Girl") on her blog called "Why I homeschool my children." One of the reasons was the freedom to go places at times that didn't correspond with school breaks. It is true that few family-friendly destinations are really busy the last week of September. I thought you all would enjoy the essay, so here it is.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

When should gifted students be identified?

Recently, the State Board of Education in Maryland adopted new rules on the identification and accommodation of gifted kids. According to this Washington Post article, the goal was to set minimum standards for the districts. In some cases, districts will be identifying children as young as age three.

A few advocacy groups protested the decision, claiming it was wrong to label children. I'm not sure they have much of an argument, given that kids are labeled in many other cases. There is an incredible amount of diversity within the category of "Hispanic" for instance, yet districts often keep statistics on that sort of thing. But a more interesting question, for our purposes, is when should gifted kids be identified?

For years, the common answer among school districts was around 3rd grade. The idea seems to be that by this point, any disadvantages or advantages one came to school with would be ironed out, and you could actually assess if a child needed extra services. With all we now know about early childhood, though, this is becoming a pretty outdated belief. Children are learning since birth. Many children attend preschool these days, and hence are encountering academic work long before kindergarten. Indeed, many preschools with less of a formal curriculum naturally differentiate for different children. Here's a journal. The not-yet-literate ones draw. Others write stories.

Preschools often do this without official labels, but they have certain things going for them that primary schools do not. Small classes, for instance. Multiple adults per class. Less emphasis on a certain amount of material that must be covered in a given year. Flexibility that big school systems often don't have.

When you lack that flexibility, that ability to meet kids where they are, then labels do become necessary. Labels help schools meet kids' needs. I tend to think that the beginning of kindergarten tends to be a good time for an initial assessment. I also think that assessment should be continual, with decisions about gifted programs re-evaluated regularly. You can go in and you can go out.

When does your school district identify children?