Tuesday, July 31, 2012

It's OK to be wrong

(Cross-posted at LauraVanderkam.com)

Over at CBS MoneyWatch today, I have a post on “5 reasons you should fail more often.” This post came out of an experience last week on vacation of doing puzzles with my 5-year-old. I realized he seemed hesitant to try pieces, in part because he viewed trying a piece in the wrong spot as making a mistake -- something one wouldn’t want to do. This was obviously slowing the puzzle-doing down considerably. I don’t care about doing puzzles quickly but I do hope my child doesn’t get too hung up on the idea that everything has to be done right the first time. I hope he doesn’t think people are “good” at puzzles and “bad” at puzzles and trying a piece in the wrong spot indicates that you are “bad” at such things.

I’ve written before of Carol Dweck’s famous experiments on praising children for effort rather than ability. When children view their performance on a task as a result of some innate and unchanging characteristic -- you’re a smart kid or you’re good at puzzles -- they become risk averse. After all, failure would show your label is wrong. So best not to attempt anything too difficult, and put that identity in question. When children view performance as a result of how hard they are trying, however, then failure is less scary. Maybe you just didn’t try hard enough. You can always try harder, whereas you cannot magically become more smart.

So I dutifully spouted such motherly advice as “Look, I’m trying pieces in the wrong place too! That helps me figure out where else they might go! We just have to keep trying. That’s the fun of puzzles!” I praised my kid’s effort and made sure not to say “wow, you are good at puzzles” or any such thing.

But broadly, I have been thinking of other activities that reinforce the idea that trial and error is part of life, and not a case of Error with a capital E. Blogging for different outlets has certainly helped me with this. One of the beautiful things about blogging is I can try lots of different ideas. Some get no attention whatsoever -- the blogging equivalent of failing -- and some just explode. Oftentimes, I am completely wrong about what people will find interesting. Good to put things out there as concepts before I invest too much time in them.

The Olympics is also a good example of the inevitability of failure (with a little f). The best volleyball teams give up points against good competition. Imagine how many times those divers belly-flopped as they learned those beautiful somersaults! If they failed once and stopped they certainly wouldn’t be competing now. Missy Franklin doesn’t win every heat she enters. In her amazing 2-events-in-10-minutes performance yesterday, she squeaked into the finals in her first swim before winning gold in the second.

How do you teach your children that getting something wrong, or losing, isn’t always, or even often, bad?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Obama's $1 billion master teacher program

Two years ago, an advisory group on scientific competitiveness recommended that the US create a "master teacher" corps in STEM fields. These highly compensated teachers would mentor other teachers, create new lesson plans and aid in professional development. Recently, the White House threw its weight behind this idea, calling on Congress to create a $1 billion master teacher program for science, math and technology.

While it's unclear any new spending will get passed these days, it's a fascinating idea. Several years ago, I wrote about a program called Math for America that provided extra professional development and bonus checks for math majors who became teachers. People with STEM degrees may be in more demand in industry, so education represents a potential income cut that might not be as pronounced for an English major. A program that paid them more and gave them an elite status could help with recruiting.

Broadly, the idea also hints at extending the reach of knowledgeable teachers. This raises the whole class size issue again. In recent years, there have been several programs to reduce class sizes. The problem is that if it's already hard to get good math teachers, getting more of them is going to be even harder. If you have to dip lower into the applicant pool to get smaller class sizes, the class sizes might not wind up being the deciding variable.

So what I'd love to see is this master teacher idea combined with a blended learning program, so that even more kids could get access to the best math lectures, and work on problem sets, and then get one-on-one time from master teachers, who could potentially handle classes with 40 kids or more with an instructional aide. Maybe that aide could be a student who's a math major, apprenticing with one of these master math teachers. It's an idea...

What do you think of the master teacher idea?

Friday, July 06, 2012

The trouble with "broadening reach"

Humans are social creatures. Like anyone, gifted kids enjoy being around their real peers -- people who understand them and can have conversations on the same level. In big enough districts, a good way to offer this is to create magnet gifted programs that pull kids from lots of schools to receive instruction targeted at a higher level. Gifted kids get challenged and, as a side benefit, they often learn there's more to their personalities than just being "the smart one."

I have never understood why so many people are so opposed to such programs, but they are -- and a recent article from Gazette.net on Frederick County, Maryland showed one way school districts have found to disband such programs while trying to claim they're still serving gifted kids' needs.

The argument? Claim you're broadening the reach of your gifted teachers. Rather than send kids to a magnet program, keep them in their home school. Then send around your gifted teachers to do enrichment programs for an hour or two at a time at each school. That way, more students can participate.

But why, exactly, do more students need to participate? If there are gifted kids who aren't being served by the magnet program, make more seats in the magnet program. If the kids and their parents don't want to go to the magnet school, a grade skip or subject matter acceleration can work for individual cases. I suspect that the desire to broaden reach is really that school districts don't like creating special programs for "the 1%" (to borrow a phrase from a different subject). By sending gifted kids back to their home schools, their test scores get included in those schools' results. Gifted education becomes a small and more easily cut part of the day. And as teachers struggle to meet everyone else's needs, the needs of gifted kids will be forgotten.

School officials may argue differently. According to the article, "School board President Angie Fish said on June 28 she understands how parents ... can be concerned. But she also was confident school staff will ensure advanced learners receive the services they need, regardless of the other challenges of their schools."

Sure. Except that it usually doesn't happen.