Tuesday, May 21, 2013
I give a fair number of speeches these days. But even though I have given the same speech many, many times, I always practice beforehand. I've realized that part of being a polished public speaker is knowing your material so well that you can use your extra brain power to read the audience, riff off things they say, move faster through material if you see their attention lagging, etc. This makes getting up in front of a big group of people a fairly easy thing to do. And that makes speaking a lot more fun. I also know that practicing is a discipline I've come to somewhat later in life. I played the piano for years, but I never really wanted to devote large amounts of time to practice. I run, but I'm still not into doing the drills I know would make me faster. I do writing drills of sorts -- kind of what I consider my other blog -- and I can see my first drafts getting faster over time. So I know it works. I also know it's hard to embrace. And so I've been trying to figure out how to convey this idea to my son (who just turned 6 last week). We aren't doing any sports or music right now that would require a practice schedule. But his kindergarten class is putting on a play. He has a few lines and a song he sings by himself. He seems to like some of the other songs in the play much better. And so he'll practice the other songs a lot. But not the one he personally has to sing. I dislike nagging, or going all Tiger Mother on the concept of practice, so I've tried to just matter-of-factly say "Ok, we're going to run through your song once now and then once more after dinner." But he's resistant. Yesterday, I tried to explain exactly why we practice something like this. He may not like the song, but in two days, he'll be up on a stage and he'll need to sing it. And he'll feel much better being up there if he knows the words well enough that he can have a little fun. Things feel different on stage. Even if you vaguely know something in a practice situation, you have to really know it to not have being on stage affect you. Or, then again, maybe this will just be a good learning experience about why practicing matters. Do your kids practice music, sports, or other such things? Do they want to? If so, how do you go about encouraging this?
Monday, May 13, 2013
The Davidson Institute sends me a list of gifted-related headlines each week. This past week, a short article from Davis, CA announced that the school board had voted to change the name of the gifted program from "Gifted and Talented Education" (GATE -- a common acronym) to an "Alternative Instruction Model." When I hear such news, I'm struck by two things, which point in different directions. On one hand, I generally suspect that few school boards are excited about the concept of gifted education. Indeed (if I'm reading the story right), the Davis board seems to be moving away from self-contained gifted classes, and to in-class enrichment. This is a problem. It basically means watering down gifted education and depriving gifted children of the opportunity to be challenged with their intellectual peers. On the other hand, I don't dislike the idea of calling gifted education something else. The "gifted" label can become a bit of a lightning rod, which is one reason that school boards like getting rid of gifted education. It seems to satisfy some false egalitarian urge, as opposed to being what it really is (choosing to under-invest in part of their student population). An "alternative instruction model" is, in reality, what gifted education is. Some children's needs cannot be met in a regular classroom. They need alternative instruction, just as children with other special needs do. Calling gifted education something more neutral could turn the whole discussion from something political to something more practical. Here's what we do to help some children learn best. Here's what we do to help other children learn best. What do you think of alternative names for gifted education?
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
The Washington Post picks up on a new report challenging various assumptions about Advanced Placement courses -- college-level courses taught in high schools. The College Board holds national AP exams that young people can take to show they've mastered this material (and potentially place into more advanced courses in college). The report claims that while students who take AP classes are more likely to go to and do well in college, this may be a correlation vs. causation issue. Obviously, the kinds of kids who are interested in earning college credit, and taking challenging classes, likely have their sights set on higher education anyway. That's worth keeping in mind, since expanding AP offerings is often suggested as a way to increase the proportion of college-ready students graduating from high school. The report also frets that since AP classes are smaller, and tend to be taught by top teachers, they siphon resources away from the rest of the school. I certainly don't think AP classes are perfect. I took a great number of them in high school. My take away, as with so much of education, is that the teacher matters. I am the same person, with the same study habits, and while I got 5s (the top score) in BC calculus, chemistry, and biology, I got a 2 in physics. I am not holding myself blameless, of course. A more motivated student might have studied hard enough to do well regardless of how the class was taught. But I do feel the others did a better job of presenting the material and checking for understanding. My problem with this analysis, though, questioning the efficacy of AP classes, is that this is one of the few nationally benchmarked ways we have of aiming for high standards and challenging classes in high school. If a certain teacher produces mostly 2s on an AP exam, and another produces lots of 4s and 5s, you have a pretty good indication of which is covering the subject better (you can argue that the AP exams don't really show knowledge, but given how many colleges do accept the scores, I think there's something to what they show). There is little accountability in much of education, and the AP exam at least creates that. Passing such a class -- perhaps early in high school -- might also give a gifted young person a credential for taking college classes. Early college is another good way that kids can be challenged. As for siphoning off resources, well, this is the same argument that gets hashed out about gifted education in general. Some educators really do not think that high achieving kids should be a priority. As it is, in the NCLB era, gifted kids have become much less a priority than those who, with a push, might achieve grade level standards. AP classes are at least something of a bone tossed to high achievers in high school. It would be a shame to take them away too. In other news: President Obama recently hosted the third annual White House science fair. You can read about some of the projects here. And in personal news, my 5-year-old just won first prize in a local poetry contest for younger students. I am so proud! He's telling me he wants to be an author and an illustrator.
Tuesday, April 23, 2013
Fast Company's Anya Kamenetz interviewed Bill Gates for the most recent issue of the magazine. In it, Gates touches on ideas for boosting teacher skills, MOOCs, and the like. But I thought Gifted Exchange readers might find this part most interesting. Kamenetz posed this question: "You've said that when you were in high school, you followed your own interests, taking on independent study, working on computer programming day and night. Is there room for that kind of student-driven learning in a highly rigorous, metrics-based environment?" Gates answered that "People who are as curious as I am will be fine in any system. For the self-motivated student, these are the golden days. I wish I was growing up now. I envy my son. If he and I are talking about something that we don't understand, we just watch videos and click on articles, and that feeds our discussion. Unfortunately, the highly curious student is a small percentage of the kids." What do you think of this? Will the brilliant and curious do well under any system? Are these the golden days for self-motivated students? On one hand, there certainly are a lot of resources now, available online for anyone. If you're interested in learning advanced math, nothing is stopping you from watching Khan Academy for hours. My 5-year-old son is really into maps right now, and he's been studying Google maps, sometimes announcing how many miles it is between two random destinations, and exactly how long that will take by car, mass transit, or foot. But I'm not sure that schooling is in a golden age for the curious. As Gates points out, the campaign to measure what kids are learning is not a bad thing. But some schools, obsessed with pass rates on grade level standardized tests, have decided that kids who easily meet the bar don't deserve any attention. One way to close the achievement gap is to lower the ceiling, rather than raise the floor. What do you think? Are these the golden days for self-motivated, curious students?
Thursday, April 11, 2013
A few weeks ago, the Brown Center released its report on education called "How well are American students learning?" This report looks in particular at the practice of ability grouping in 4th grade, and the acceleration of students into advanced math in 8th grade. The campaign to "detrack" schools -- vocal, if nothing else -- pushed the decreased use of grouping in early grades, and the idea that as many students as possible should take algebra in 8th grade. Some previous writings have labeled algebra as a "gatekeeper" course, and the idea is that if kids took the course in 8th grade, they'd then be able to fit all of college prep math into high school. Kids who didn't take algebra in 8th grade risked forever being left behind. While grouping became something of a dirty word in educational circles, it never disappeared. According to the report, in 1998, 28% of fourth grade teachers were grouping students by ability for reading. Some 33% used some other grouping (like "interest") and 29% did not do grouping. Now, it seems, ability grouping is experiencing a resurgence. In 2009, 71% of fourth grade teachers reported grouping for reading by ability, with 21% reporting some other kind of grouping and only 8% not grouping. It's interesting to ponder why that might be. Between 1998 and 2009 there was increased emphasis on reading test scores. There have been small increases in reading scores in benchmarked assessments over this time. Certainly, teachers asked a few years ago about teaching mixed ability classes were quite likely to report that classes were so heterogeneous that they couldn't teach effectively. Grouping -- whether it is treated as an educational no-no or not -- may be done simply as a practicality. Theory is nice, but how do you actually help kids learn? You give them material matched to their level of preparation. How do you do that? You group by ability. As for 8th grade algebra, the Brown Center reports that states with widespread acceleration into 8th grade do not do better on the NAEP than states that don't push as many 8th graders as possible into algebra. Earlier claims that algebra was a gatekeeper course suffered a bit from the correlation/causation problem. Stronger math students selected into 8th grade algebra, and these students were more likely to take and succeed in college prep math in high school. Students who wouldn't have selected into algebra in the past did not magically become stronger students by taking it. It's an interesting report in general. What it reminds the reader is that moving the needle on education -- an undertaking that involves millions of students with very different backgrounds -- is hard. Various simple solutions (get rid of grouping! put kids in algebra in 8th grade!) can not, by themselves, change much. Why do you think ability grouping is back?
Friday, April 05, 2013
We spent spring break in DisneyWorld. We did this last year and had so much fun that we went again (thanks to my very generous mother-in-law). One of the few "big" rides that we didn't do in 2012 was Toy Story in Disney's Hollywood Studios. When we showed up in 2012, the line was 2 hours long and the FastPasses (Disney's way you can commit to a specific time and skip the line) were gone for the day. So this year I vowed to do it. We showed up at the park early, and got our FastPasses (which were already for mid-afternoon!) The line was already 90 minutes and would soon stretch to 180. Of course, when I saw that, I was definitely intrigued. What is it that makes this ride so fun? The answer is that it's a combination of carnival games (think shooting at things that pop up) and video games. You spin in a little cart to the front of a screen, and start aiming your little toy gun at the bullseyes and such. You get points, which you can see on your cart, plus your accuracy rating and (good for competitive sorts) what your family members in the same cart are scoring. This instant feedback is not only helpful in improving skill -- I realized that by slowing down and aiming I could do better on points and get a 58% accuracy rating -- it's kind of addictive. It's fun. That's why kids love to play video games. You know instantly how you're doing, and that instant feedback becomes a game. You're challenged and developing skills. I've been thinking about that topic a lot lately as the Philanthropy Roundtable just released my short book called Blended Learning. While primarily aimed at philanthropists and people who work at foundations, the book gives an overview of the topic for general audiences, too. Blended learning might also be called "tech assisted teaching." The idea -- at least in the perfect form of it -- is that computers can gamify the rote learning of skills that is part of education. While part of education is about deep, critical thinking, you need to develop competence at certain skills in order to have space for higher-order thoughts. If you can read with ease, you can ask deep questions about the text. To learn to read with ease, you need to practice, and figure out what you're getting right and wrong. A computer can help with that. Likewise, math involves all sorts of skills that can be practiced (the reason teachers have long assigned problem sets). Why not have adaptive games that make this more fun? The hope is that this frees up teacher time to tutor children, and the adaptive software challenges children to the extent of their abilities. There are few places doing this today, but the technology is getting better, and some places (which I write about in the book) are trying. Anyway, the book is a free download if you're interested in checking it out. I've discovered that the more I blog, which has some instant feedback aspects associated with it, the more clear the logical order of an essay appears to me in drafts. That cuts down on the number of drafts I need to do. Do your kids like educational software games?
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Slate magazine ran a story recently by Sarah Garland on who should be in gifted programs. Garland attended a magnet school in Louisville, KY, shortly after desegregation. Southern school districts (as mine did, in Raleigh NC) discovered that by putting a gifted magnet program at a school in a predominantly lower-income neighborhood, you could keep middle-class kids in your district. Indeed, you wouldn't just keep them in your district, you'd keep some of them in what might otherwise become the most stressed and under-funded schools. Garland seems to have a problem with this. She notes that her gifted program had fewer African American students than her school at large (though certainly not zero; the numbers she cites are 11% vs. 20-40% in the school district). "The problem was that gifted programs tended to foster racial separation inside schools, undermining the very goal they were supposed to support." Maybe. In my school, the gifted classes were only for a few hours a day, and everything else -- including art, music, PE, lunch, recess, etc. -- was a non-tracked undertaking. All parents would be in the same PTA; the parents of more privileged students who wound up in these schools would still be advocating for better staffing, would be volunteering in the schools, would be noticing maintenance problems, etc. Since I tend to think that was a smart move by these districts, I have to say, I did not have high hopes for Garland's article. But after she got the usual complaints about gifted programs out of the way, she raised a rather interesting question: what if parents and kids can simply self-select into them? The upside is that this would remove all possible questions about testing bias -- about whether intelligence tests measure intelligence or are measuring other things. One could also imagine that open-enrollment gifted programs would have more political support. It's not a lifeboat strategy, really, if anyone who wants can get on the lifeboat. The downside, though, is that the point of gifted education is to challenge and meet the needs of children whose needs can't be met in traditional classrooms. Teachers naturally instruct toward the middle of their classes. Good teachers are constantly assessing how many children have figured things out and how many have not, and if most are confused, the teacher will stay on the matter at hand until she or he gets a satisfactory percentage of students over the hump. The challenge would be to make sure that the rigor of such classes remained as high as they should be. Garland discusses some pilot programs in Washington DC that take such an approach. There are two realizations that the pilot programs have involved: first, they have to be well-staffed, so if kids are struggling, something is done about that. Second, there also needs to be a lot of outreach and some explanation of what a gifted program is. Not all parents are familiar with the concept, and whether that would be something for their kids to try. I'd also add a few other thoughts. First, such gifted programs should not be the only "good" programs at a school. You want parents and kids to opt into gifted classes because they think they need them, not because it's the only way to get a class with few discipline problems. Second, there also needs to be a seamless and non-judgmental way to transition out of them. Frankly, all gifted programs suffer from this problem. In districts that do have gifted programs, if you're identified once in an early grade, sometimes you're in for good, even if it turns out that wasn't the right placement. There should be some good way to move in and out of programs, evaluating every year what is the right fit. What do you think of the concept of open-enrollment gifted programs?