Three-Minute Thought: Diverse Practice

To build skill of action or thought, don’t focus exclusively on the skill. Explore variations and intersections with other skills.

I just started on David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. He starts out with a comparison of Roger Federer (early “generalist”, non-driven approach to sports) with Tiger Woods (prodigy, parentally driven).

It reminded me of an idea I read in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (nice summary here, interesting-looking podcast episode here) several years ago. That is: if you want to build skill, mix up your practice. To get really good at one particular thing, practice a lot of variations around it, let it marinate in your mind, do other things “further afield” to distract your conscious mind. The book gives an example of a study in which kids practiced throwing bean bags into baskets at various distances. Some practiced with a single target distance, while others practiced at other distances, but not at the target distance. Ultimately, the “varied practicers” were more skilled at the “target distance”, and presumably at other distances as well.

“Learn all the skills, but learn them slant.”

Three-Minute Thought: On Facts and Understanding

It strikes me that to “know” something without a rich set of context is, at best, a weak and impoverished knowledge. It’s not a binary thing; all of us are imperfect “knowers”. But the more we rely on what we “know that we know” to order the world, the higher the barriers we erect to our own learning, and the further behind our potential we will fall. Books that come to mind:

  • Changing On the Job, by Jennifer Garvey Berger, on “forms of mind”.
  • The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis, a speculation on life and afterlife as fulfillment of one’s desires. Offers a rich analogy with the “mundane” domain of knowledge.
  • Questions Are the Answer, by Hal Gregersen, a book I highly recommend that argues for the importance of seeking out “unknown unknowns” and that offers some tools to do so.

Book: The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way

I just finished a wonderful book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley–a book on education with endorsements from both Michelle Rhee and Randi Weingarten! Ripley tells a good story both fun to read and meaningful, pursuing a question: why do kids in some education systems rock in international academic comparisons, while others (such as the USA)…well…don’t? In chasing her answer, she follows several American exchange students to Finland, Korea, and Poland, exploring the people and environments (schools, friends, teachers, education leaders) surrounding them both in their exchange countries and in the US.

Ripley offers some thoughts, extrapolating from this anecdotal exploration, that resonate. The common thread in top-achieving countries is high expectations for students, a.k.a. “rigor”. Several of the ideas Ripley explores, especially in fleshing out what “rigor” means in practice:

  • A high-school graduation test that really means something for a person’s future.
  • Uniform expectations of student performance, at least up to a certain level. Especially in the Finnish system, language or family weaknesses or learning difficulties are generally met with extra support in meeting the universal expectations, rather than with lower expectations–a substantial contrast with the U.S. system.
  • High expectations of teachers, with high autonomy, respect, and effectiveness as a consequence. Finland sets a really high standard for who gets to become a teacher, and they’re quite effective. The country’s system went through a fairly painful transition to emphasizing rigor in education and selection of teachers, with a lot of stipulations about how to teach. As the value of rigor became entrenched for both students and the educational system, though, policy moved toward giving a lot of autonomy, though with accountability for outcomes. Interestingly, there’s also a fair amount of autonomy given to kids (esp. high-school kids, in this book) for figuring out how to use their time responsibly. The basic academic expectations make a difference.
  • South Korea offers a different example as described in her book, of students who study at sub-par schools from 8 AM to till late evening, and then go to private tuition until 10 for “real” study. The market forces a fairly high level of effectiveness and customer service on the private teachers–but in a way that’s both inefficient and inequitable for society overall.
  • Letting kids fail early, in school where the stakes are low, is a lot kinder than letting them fail later, when they can’t get a manufacturing job because it requires substantial thinking and communication skills that they haven’t learned.
  • Most of the kinds of ways American parents get involved with schools don’t improve educational outcomes. The ways parents can make a difference at school? Read to your young kids, “coach” your kids with warmth and firmness. (See also Brain Rules for Baby for more on the “warm and firm/strict” parenting style, the most “successful” among styles.)
  • And, surely this isn’t news–but tying sports with schools harms education. It’s not that sports are bad, and physical activity is certainly good. It’s just that sports programs add a priority to schools that’s completely unrelated to academics, divert energy and finances, and make it more unlikely that a school system will excel in preparing its kids for life.
  • Common Core is one effort to limit the “system loss” in kids’ learning as kids move from place to place or from teacher to teacher–e.g., if you know every kid in your class has learned fractions, there’s no need to cover them again for those who haven’t, boring and wasting the time of the many kids who’ve covered them several times already! Multiply this by many times for many subjects, and you have a substantial contributor to the weakness of American schools.

As a homeschooled kid who had a great experience*, I’d encourage my friends to consider homeschooling their own kids, especially if they value education. In fact, it seems as though intentional homeschooling can offer one, particularly intensive, way for parents to be “involved in education” in the very ways that Ripley identifies as beneficial. But on a national level, I’m quite aware of the importance of a thriving public (or otherwise broadly accessible) school system, both for national competitiveness and for social equity. I would be thrilled to see both the country of my birth and the country of my residence learn from successful systems around the world–a movement that does involve changes at the top, but also involves a lot of awareness at the grassroots.

Read the book. It’s an engaging, “human” read, and thought-provoking. The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way, by Amanda Ripley.

* Re. “a great experience”, it wasn’t just that it was nice. It was. I have great memories of reading book upon book upon book for pleasure, of opening the hydrant out back and digging out “river systems”, of various other encounters with “real life” when other kids were sitting in school. But from quite early on, I can’t ever recall testing below the 99th percentile in standardized tests. That had its own cost in inviting a fixed mindset, but I don’t think I have any reason to be embarrassed by the academic excellence of my education at home through elementary and high school.

Chromebook School: Learning to Code

I believe my kids’ lives will be better if they learn at least the basics of computer programming. They’ll learn a logical way of thinking, learn patterns of analysis and synthesis, and gain an ability that adds value in a wide variety of careers. I’m not alone in this belief.

Fortunately, a lot of budget-friendly, kid-friendly options are available for learning to code. Here, I’m listing just a few, most of them available for a “Chromebook School” environment:

  • One fun offline option: ThinkFun’s Robot Turtles board game, an introduction to basic programming concepts, where kids tell the adults what to do. 🙂
  • codeSpark Academy with The Foos (USD 8/mo, ages 4-9). Apparently based on the Scratch visual programming language. It looks like a very “cute”, fun approach to learning basic coding concepts.
  • LightBot Jr (ages 4-8, USD 3) and Lightbot (ages 9+) use visual tiles to “program” an on-screen robot to turn on various lights, learning programming concepts along the way.
  • Scratch Jr (free, ages 5-7) is a free, visual programming-language environment for young kids to play in; Scratch is its fun, but more textual, big brother. This has been the inspiration for a number of other apps.
  • Khan Academy (free, ages 8+) includes quite a number of courses. Their “hour of code” projects are listed here.
  • CodeCombat (free/USD 10 depending on options) is, I think, oriented more toward older kids, and those with a competitive streak–but looks intriguing as well.
  • For kids who’ve “caught the bug” of programming, check out the post The Coding Game (Dewdney’s book, long out of print, should still be awesome!), or Project Euler for a simple, no-frills series of exercises. Or check out CodeWars for a environment with some “pizzazz” that offers coding exercises as “katas”,  or HackerRank for yet another community and set of pre-made challenges.
  • Check out other resources at Code.org. Or here. Or here.
  • I haven’t even started to talk about “real-world” robotics. For now, Google it.

Chromebook School: Reading

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul.

by Emily Dickinson

I learned to read when I was 3. I’m pretty sure that, in those ancient days of the 1980s, digital apps didn’t play a significant role in that adventure. As with a lot of things, digital tools aren’t essential; they may even sometimes be detrimental. But they can also be quite helpful–I’ve spent the last few days in a state of amazement at the power that’s available, just waiting to be unlocked, in digital tools. As with some of the other “Chromebook School” subject-specific posts, this one will evolve.

Starting to Read

  • First, an offline resource: the book Doodling Dragons (introducing single-letter phonemes), from Logic of English, has been a read-aloud from early in our family’s life. I think this made a big difference, especially for our eldest daughter, in reading readiness.
  • Our eldest daughter learned to read primarily through Reading Eggs (AUD 80/yr), associated with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. She’s currently on lesson 100 of the 120-lesson core, but already spends hours a day with her nose buried in a book. She enjoyed trying Reading Eggs on occasion, but at about age 3 and a half was when she first enjoyed the program and “got it”. We haven’t pushed her, but she quickly progressed from there. Reading Eggs includes a library of digital (and some print, if you want to buy them) “books” for kids to read, printable worksheets, if desired, and offers spelling and a more advanced reading program as well. They recently introduced “Reading Eggs Junior”, intended to teach pre-reading skills to younger children. It needs some parental supervision, especially in the first number of lessons–but offers a lot of interest. One downside: it seems to lean fairly far in the direction of “scripted” vs. adaptive. If a child forgets a certain element, you’ll just need to go back and repeat the relevant lesson or forge ahead.
  • Our youngest daughter just began with Teach Your Monster to Read. Though she’s always enjoyed doing Reading Eggs, it often seemed the learning didn’t “stick”. TYMTR seems, thus far, to be doing much better at adapting and helping her review.

Reading Practice

  • LeVar Burton Kids Skybrary  (USD 40/yr, ages 2-9) includes a lot of children’s books (all with read-aloud option) and mini-“field trip” videos.
  • GetEpic.com (USD 8/mo, ages 0-12) offers a wonderful-looking selection of books and audiobooks.
  • Newsela (free at basic level) is a terrific site that re-writes news articles each at a number of different reading levels for grades 2-6, then quizzes for comprehension and adjusts the default presentation level appropriately. Kids can browse, or (parent-)teachers can assign articles.
  • ReadWorks.org (free) provides student-targeted articles as well for K-12, leveled and with a lot of scaffolding to support reading and learning.
  • News-O-Matic (USD 4/mo) is an app (also available on iOS) I came across while looking for general child-oriented articles to read aloud at the supper table. I think it will be useful for that, but also for the kids to directly read and explore as they get a little older.
  • Readorium (USD 120/year, grades 3-8) looks like a brilliant idea. It’s a library of science books, with content written at multiple levels (like Newsela), lots of support to support comprehension and develop both reading skills and scientific knowledge.
  • The various Ranger Rick magazines are available digitally (USD??) and in print–I have fond memories of them as a kid.

To be continued…

This list will continue to evolve. In the meantime, what do you use to support your kids’ reading? (Besides, of course, the obvious–shelves stuffed with lovely, wonderful paper books, and reading to your kids!)

 

Chromebook School: Dragonbox Math

I’m already adding to the Chromebook School: Math post–this time, with a great discovery via The Homeschool Scientist, who recommends their app–which purports to teach algebra to kids from age 5 on. In addition to “Algebra 5+”, they have a number of other apps for building number sense, or learning geometry and going to higher-level algebra. (Later, after having my daughter play the first few levels: great mechanics, horrid aesthetics! Use at your own preference.)