Friday, March 21, 2014

How busy students get it all done

I had a fun mash-up of my different worlds this past week or so when I interviewed several of the top finishers in the Intel Science Talent Search for my Fast Company blog on time management. You can read 7 Time Management Strategies From Some Brilliant Teenage Prodigies by following that link.

I've got a pretty full schedule now, but I certainly remember feeling about the most busy I ever have in my life during my senior year at the Indiana Academy, when I was taking various tough classes and applying to college and still trying to look like the sort of well-rounded kid colleges would like. I don't really remember how I got it all done. Some times I probably didn't.

Eric and Zarin had some great strategies that adults can use too. If we want to get big things done, we need to block in time for those priorities. Even if you don't know exactly what you'll need to do, blocking in 30-60 minutes for a big project every day guarantees that you will spend a lot of time on it. I'm kind of doing that right now as I'm working on a new novel. I don't know all of the plot or characters yet, but by forcing myself to produce 2000 words a week, I wind up spending time and mental energy on it, and as I do that, I figure it out.

They also pointed out that big projects can be broken into manageable chunks. And those chunks can often be done in bits of time. Eric would do his homework in the waiting time he'd have in the lab. Consequently, he didn't have a lot of work waiting for him in the evening or on weekends.

One thing I didn't put in the article, though, is also the importance of space in your normal schedule. Eric got to go to the lab during school hours frequently, which means it wasn't added time. When I was at the Indiana Academy, we had classes M-W-F, mostly, with more open time on Tues and Thurs. So there was time for studying and projects that just wouldn't be available with 5 full days of classes. Schools can arrange to make big projects possible if they want, and a lot of the schools that send people to Intel STS finals every year have just this sort of option available.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bedtime math is back!

My kids loved the first Bedtime Math book (by Laura Overdeck) when it came out last year. We read through the whole book multiple times, and it was fun to see my then 3-year-old and 6-year-old work through the book together. So we made sure to pre-order the sequel, Bedtime Math 2: This Time It's Personal. It just came out this week.

If you liked the first installment, there are even more reasons to like this one. For starters, there are 4 problems, instead of 3, for each story. The fourth is labeled a "bonus," but basically it's a new level that is just a little trickier than the "big kids" problems. So that extends the readership to kids who might be just a bit beyond the big kids level. It's also a nice development, in general, to have more problems per story, as it makes each individual story more satisfying and gets kids thinking about the topic longer.

I've also found that some of the "wee ones" problems in the second book are more accessible to the very earliest mathematicians. For instance, some problems involve counting things in the pictures. This makes Bedtime Math even more of a family activity, as you can potentially involve a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old. Whether they're going to bed at the same time is, of course, a different matter, but bedtime math doesn't just have to be done at bedtime!

Of course, while Bedtime Math is like a bedtime story, I was informed by my 4-year-old the other night that it couldn't take a story's place. "Bedtime math is just math!" he told me. "I need a story too!" Anything to stay up later, right?

On a side note, I wrote about Bedtime Math from the lean start-up angle over at Fast Company. The title is a little misleading (it's a non-profit, not a business) but there you go.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Perfect Score (or not)

I've been fascinated to read the media coverage of Debbie Stier's new book, The Perfect Score. As her teenage son prepared to apply to college, Stier decided to uncover the secrets of the SAT, and took it 7 times herself in the course of a year. She went through lots of coaching and SAT prep too in her quest for (as the title notes) the perfect score.

What's most fascinating to me, though, in light of the debate about the role of the SAT in college admissions, and hence society, is that she didn't actually succeed.

The SAT began to be used, many decades ago, as a way to compare students from various backgrounds. In some ways, such a standardized test was supposed to be an equalizer. A kid from a rough background could still score well on a test of intelligence, and hence could open up elite colleges to students not from the Andovers and Exeters of the world.

Of course, the idea of testing intelligence has gone in and out of favor over the years. The SAT has broadly been changed to test more of the material covered in high school. In theory, it can still be a way to compare kids from different backgrounds. Some high schools are much harder than others. Straight A's at one school may mean little in terms of how prepared for college you are, whereas straight A's at another school may mean a great deal. I experienced this myself in my two different high schools. A good college admissions test should be able to show this.

But people can prepare for tests. And so, one widespread criticism of the SAT is that well-to-do kids can spend thousands of dollars on test prep. They can be coached to higher scores, and take the test numerous times, and hence appear more prepared than they are.

Which may be true. But stories like Stier's also show that the SAT may still mean something. After her year of coaching and prep, she did manage to get a perfect score on the writing component. And guess what? Having worked in publishing for years, and as a published author of a book, she probably is quite competent at writing!

On the other hand, she never managed to boost her math SAT score higher than 560 (out of 800). This is after a year of studying the high school math covered on the SAT and taking the test numerous times. Given that, isn't it possible to believe that a high schooler scoring in the 700s on the math section is, in fact, showing serious mathematical promise? Whether she's been coached or not?

If the SAT were perfectly "coachable," you'd see a lot more perfect scores. As it is, only a few hundred students per year score perfect 2400s. It's fashionable to trash the SAT, but it may mean something despite its flaws.