Thursday, August 20, 2015

Congrats to the 2015 Davidson Fellows

This past week the Davidson Institute for Talent Development (which sponsors this blog) announced the winners of its flagship Davidson Fellows awards. Every year, DITD awards $10,000, $25,000, and $50,000 scholarships to young people who've done amazing things in science, music, math, literature, and the arts.

You can read about this year's fellows here.

Some highlights: A young man who proved a mathematical conjecture that had been open for the last decade, a young woman who built some next generation supercapacitors and a young woman who undertook a literary exploration of mixed ethnic identities.

Gifted young people are capable of amazing things when given the space and guidance to develop their skills and talents. Here's hoping that even more children get the chance to do such things in the future.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Collaboration: the agony and the ecstasy

There are lots of trendy management theories out there (believe me -- I get sent a lot of review copies of the books!) But one that seems to get major attention, to the point of trickling down to schools as a “skill of the future,” is collaboration. (See this article for one example of skills master teachers are hoping to inculcate).

Yes, teams are great. People can often do more together than they can on their own, and working with other people can be quite pleasant as you get to know and support each other. I find the current urge to encourage “serendipity” by arranging tables so people bump into each other in particularly hip workplaces to be laughable, but it is true that random conversations can spark interesting ideas. Humans in the future will presumably work together (just as humans do now).

That said, the urge to increase collaboration in schools can, when it comes to gifted kids, often wind up teaching the exact opposite lesson: collaboration is terrible and a waste of time.

When workers are collaborating at, say, Google, or in the education department of a major university, you’re talking collaboration among a small set of similarly intelligent, highly motivated people. The average middle school class, however, is not nearly so organized. Many gifted students have had the experience of being put into a team for a project, and then doing the lion’s share of the work. In this experience, collaboration doesn’t produce something better than you’d do on your own. It slows you down and makes the work worse.

This is exacerbated by the problem that few teachers actually teach how to collaborate. Though humans have been hunting and gathering together for eons, it’s not a natural skill to know how to collaborate well. Specialization plays a big role in effective teams, with each person’s job being understood. Group members have to trust that each member is pulling his or her weight, and respects the outcome. Getting such “buy in” (oh, that word! I have been reading too many business books) is certainly possible in a classroom, but it’s going to be more readily in place when people have applied for their jobs and have an interest in advancing their careers. Few classroom projects involve establishing processes, and reviewing how each step has gone to iterate toward a better outcome. Often, it’s more “work on this problem set together,” with this somehow teaching the miracle of collaboration.

The best way to teach collaboration, so people can see its benefit, would be to do it within ability/readiness grouped classes. Then group projects selected by people who are interested in a specific topic could bring the passion and trust. When those are in place, then the steps of cohesive collaboration can be learned and taught. Without all that, though, the benefit is a lot less obvious.

What’s been your experience with group projects?

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Math Olympiad and math education

Every year, various nations gather to compete in the International Math Olympiad. This summer, the US team won for the first time in 21 years. It was certainly cause for celebration, though the headline on the Christian Science Monitor story caught my eye: "US wins Math Olympiad for the first time in 21 years. Is math education improving?"

Well, maybe. Broad measures still put the US pretty much in the middle of the pack as far as international math comparisons go. What may be happening is that the US does what it does very well in many other international competitions (like the athletic summer Olympics). When the country does want to win something, it has a pretty amazing ability to pull together resources, including the best people and practices from around the world, and make it happen. It's wonderful that the U.S. might be treating its young mathematicians with the same nurturing focus that young athletes have long enjoyed.

This is Gifted Exchange, and I'm glad that there are great opportunities for the most extremely talented young mathematicians. That is somewhat a different matter, though, from how mathematics is approached in your average school, where a 1-2 year acceleration is the most a gifted student can hope for. There's some evidence that elementary school teachers are often ill-prepared to teach math to their students, and their biases against it can drive promising people (particularly girls; all members of the winning US team were male) out of it.

Being good at the top and being good all around need not be pitted against each other. But they do require slightly different things. Better math education more broadly requires teachers who know and love math, particularly in the early grades as children figure out what is exciting to study and what is not. People who know and love math, though, often have different and more well-paying options than teaching elementary school. It's a tough problem to solve.