Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reverse Engineering a Smart Kid

When an 8 or 9 year old shows some aptitude and inclination for sports, an adult who spots this may know himself what sort of activities - the things to practice and how much time to put into that practice, movies of star performers to view who might serve as role models, coaches to seek out for more specific advice and possibly private training - will help the kid advance further and sustain interest at the same time.  Alternatively, suppose the kid shows neither interest nor inclination but the adult would like to jump start the kid as an athletic performer.  Can that be done?  What activities would be involved here if it were possible?  How would he know these things stand a chance of working?

Perhaps something similar might be said/asked about musical performance, dance, comedy, drama, art, and any other activity where an audience can see and/or hear what is going on with the kid.  That rules out activities where the kid uses her mind, reading being the quintessential example but watching a challenging show on TV should also count, as would playing on the computer.  These activities of the mind are largely invisible to the adult.  A parent, teacher, or librarian might see a kid absorbed reading a book, that much of what the kid does is viewable by others.  But what the kid is thinking while the kid reads is anyone's guess.  Similarly, when kids are at school (and at pre-school too) their behavior in ensemble activity can be observed to some extent.  The teacher can recognize who is following the discussion and who appears distracted and some performance variables can be garnered in this setting.  It is much harder to get at anything interesting about the kid's thinking when she is engaged in solitary activity. 

Perhaps the best that can be done here is for the kid to perform some after the fact reflection, record that either in writing or speech, and then have those reflections shared.  On this point let's borrow from Weight Watcher's who argue that tracking all you eat by writing it down makes you more mindful of what you are putting into your mouth and helps you stick to your diet, without having lots of little cheats that most dieters are prone to indulge in.  While too much of this might make a kid anal retentive, a bit of it each day could give the kid focus.  When I was a kid we did something like this with individualized reading.  You kept a notebook where you'd write down each book you read, title and author, perhaps when you started and finished it, and a sentence or two about what you got out of the book.  Then, once a week, you'd have a conference with your teacher, after the teacher had a chance to read through your notebook.  Something similar could be done now.  Those student-teacher conferences could be recorded as well.

Further, those reflections and student-teacher conferences, when considered in aggregate, especially in conjunction with more ordinary school performance information, would be an incredibly interesting object of study.  Would the reflections of a really good student be qualitatively different from the more typical student?  If so, how?  Can kids who seem to be slow starters catch up with their classmates with the right sort of encouragement from the teacher?  What does that encouragement look like?

I have two interrelated core beliefs about how smart kids learn and the type of habits we'd like to see established in all kids so they can be smart.  Both of these are based on Ericsson et. al. and their notion of deliberate practice, as the way expertise gets developed.  The smart kid is one who gets lots of the right sort of practice in learning.  Other kids get less practice, or none at all  The first belief is about learning as play/entertainment.  Kids will persist at play.  It's what they want to do for its own sake.  The smart kid has discovered how to make learning a playful activity.  It would work wonders if all kids could discover that.  The second belief is that when kids encounter areas where they are less proficient than their peers they immediately need to get friendly coaching to let them slowly improve their performance in this area.  With the coaching and the steady practice that accompanies it, they learn to overcome their shortcomings and not let those harden into phobias.  They develop confidence that they can transcend their own limitations.  In contrast, once the phobia has formed it becomes incredibly difficult to undo it.  Learning may be permanently blocked in this case. 

I'm not sure at what level in school kids become concerned with their grades, but I suspect it is much earlier than is desirable.  A friend who goes back to elementary school with me recalled one of those experiences that really set her back.  She got a bad score on a math test in third grade that became known to the class as a whole because she protested it with the teacher and the teacher responded none too kindly.  This was third grade!   In my college teaching now I see many students who are math phobic.  I suspect that this can be tied to such early experiences that had no associated remedy to get the kid over the hurdle.  We need to understand this phenomenon much better than we currently do.  The people who argue for accountability need to understand the inadvertent blocking of learning it engenders.  The way to show this is to get evidence of the sort I'm talking about here - students reflecting on their current experience.  It is possible to do this and it is how the learning agenda can be fundamentally altered. 

Whether my beliefs about smart kids are spot on or not, an ethnographic approach to the kids reflections would help us understand these ideas and related matters.  It also would help teachers be able to individualize their instruction in a way so that all students can make improvement from where they currently are.  We are now overly concerned with snapshot performance measures of entire classes and entire schools.  We should be much more focused on whether kids are improving - moving down their own learning curve.  This approach would get the kids to think that way as well.

There is a related issue that needs to be considered seriously about workload for the teachers.  If teachers have to grade homework and exams, how will they have the time to carefully consider student reflections as well?  The answer to this, I believe, is that two quite different things need to happen.  First, there must be much greater automation of homework, while at the same time making the assignments more meaningful and not mindless drill.   I observed mindless drill in much of what my kids did for the math homework when they were in high school.  Automation is especially possible with math but is also do-able in some science and social science subjects.  It is a shame we haven't made more progress here.

The other part is to make teaching more labor intensive.  People will ask how this is affordable, given that many states are in fiscal trouble and if anything have been laying off some of their teachers.  Consider this possible solution.  National service, for both young adults and able bodied senior citizens, should be on the radar for those arguing that college should be free.  It is a natural to tie national service to free college, just as has been done for military service for years and years.  It is also clear the our labor market will be soft for years and years to come, so arguments against national service because they rob the labor market of talent are not compelling now.  There is then the further thought that good students are not going into teaching at present.  But if they experienced life as a teacher via national service and enjoyed the activity, some would make it a career. 

Let me make one more point and close.  Even Diane Ravitch errs by asserting that our schooling is pretty good in wealthier school districts, so assumes the entire problem with K-12 education is in schools in low income districts.  But many kids from the wealthier districts don't learn up to their potential, though they mask the non-learning better.  Instead of real learning these kids play the credential game.   In my view they do this because they have been stigmatized in various ways - "I'm not good at x."  Maybe in some instances they really aren't.  But in many cases they simply haven't allowed for deliberate practice over a sufficient duration to let them really learn.  The above arguments that I am making should probably be tried in wealthier school districts first, to see if they matter there.

Maybe well to do parents don't want to admit that their daughter hasn't been learning to the fullest, but it does seem to me that some persuasion on this point, based on the sort of evidence I see when teaching some of these kids as juniors or seniors in college, is more apt to convince parents, thus enabling piloting of these ideas.  And the wealthier school districts almost certainly have ways to get around apparent resource constraints.  So I'd start there.  But I mean these suggestions to ultimately find their way for all kids in school if they seemed to work well when tried in pilot mode.  For those who are not pleased with current reforms, doesn't this sound like something worth trying? 

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