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.)

Chromebook School: Math

This is a Chromebook School post, about a few math-related web apps that we are using, hope to try, or just find intriguing.

  • MathSeeds, (AUD 60/yr, ages 3+), from the same company as Reading Eggs, has proven a great introduction to math. Our almost-five-year-old is well into the “first-grade” portion of the program, which has a nice progression and a variety of games and exercises. I recommend it. Downsides include the fact that it’s quite scripted rather than adaptive, and their early introduction of “number words” assumes some early-reading ability, an assumption that seems unnecessary and un-helpful.
  • XtraMath.org (free) is a completely-free site to help kids review and build fluency with math facts. It’s not flashy, but seems effective. It adapts to a child’s particular needs.
  • Reflex math (USD 35/yr, grades 3+) also works to build math-fact fluency, along with some helpful teaching methods. It involves a number of fun games, with extra “hazards” thrown in besides the solving of math problems. Our 4-year-old daughter, who has a high aversion to failure, found some of these challenges too challenging–and it also requires keyboard input, which was a barrier for her. For the intended grade-2+ market, I’m guessing it’s likely to be a hit. (The site uses Flash, though I believe they intend to transition away in the next year or so.)
  • Redbird Math (USD 80/quarter, K-12) at GiftedAndTalented.com looks amazing, though we haven’t yet tried it out. It’s an adaptive curriculum, based on Stanford University’s research into methods of educating gifted students–which they’ve found actually benefit students across the spectrum. It weaves in a lot of STEM video content, connections with real-life, digital manipulatives, digital projects, coding-related content…wow. As noted, we haven’t tried it yet…but I suspect it will be hard to resist the pull.
  • DragonBox Math (USD 5-8 for several apps, Android/iOS) looks like a lot of fun. I discovered it through 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.)

For future reference

I’ve come across a few sites that I’m guessing will be useful a few years from now. No experience with them yet, except for the wonderful Khan Academy.

  • ExploreLearning Gizmos covers grade 3 to college, with online math and physics simulations.
  • Uzinggo.com looks interesting for math and science from grades 5-12.
  • Maths-Whizz (K-8? GBP 99/yr) looks interesting, an adaptive curriculum.
  • Khan Academy (free), of course, has a collection of good video explanations–along with practice problems, a content map, and a brilliant spaced-repetition system to review at just the right time.
  • Beast Academy takes an interesting comics-based approach to math in their print version, and promises an online version in 2018.

Offline

I can’t resist tossing in a few offline options:

  • We plan to use Math Mammoth. (We’re now in the very earliest stages.) Inexpensive, conceptual, mastery-oriented but with good review. Purchasable as PDF.
  • Judging RightStart Math by a video I just saw from someone associated with it, I’m intrigued!
  • We’re dabbling in Miquon Math, which uses Cuisenaire rods and a fairly discovery-oriented approach.  (Available in PDF from CurrClick.)
  • We’re planning to try out MathTacular–haven’t done so yet, but it looks like an intriguing supplement.
  • …and finally, I love the idea of “literature-based math” that drives Life of Fred. Some people love it. I’m not completely sure, based on samples, about whether I–or, more importantly, my daughters–will love it as well.

Do you have other great resources to share? Add them in comments.

Chromebook School

I studied at home through 12th grade, and we’re planning to teach our daughters at home as well. I loved the experience (including the memory of getting up at 6 AM to do math with my dad), and love the idea of helping our daughters wake up to the world of knowledge. That will involve a lot of hands-on teaching, and a lot of learning woven into real life. I’m also realizing that it’s likely, unexpectedly, to include a fair amount of “screen time”. This is partly because we live where it’s hard to ship paper curriculum, partly because of schedules…but partly because the selection of digital resources is so rich! We’re getting the kids Chromebooks (for educational apps, reading, music, and audiobooks) soon. Some of the Web apps they’ve been using on Mom’s and Dad’s computers will migrate over, and a world of new ones will become options as well. I’ll share a few of the online resources I’ve found in various posts, and try to index those posts here.

Bear in mind that I do see “Chromebook school” as a fairly impoverished approach, if that’s all one’s doing. I don’t, however, have any intention of this being all we do with the kids. I expect the future to hold lots of lovely books, free and creative play, table games for the sake of play or with an academic goal, household science experiments, Lego robotics, art, music, emotional/social intelligence, fun exposure to languages and cultures…and, yes, math worksheets, writing assignments, and all the other “3R-y” parts of school. Activities involving wandering through the woods or tossing a ball also seem like lovely ideas, but living in a flat in a megacity may limit some of these possibilities. (Though I’m sure we could come up with some great nature studies re. particulate matter concentrations in the air, or of the behavior of crows!) As part of a holistic approach to school, though, I’m ecstatic to have online curricula and educational resources available!

Note that there’s a bit of irony in this series: as I’ve researched the various apps available, it’s become apparent that while many apps are available both in Android and iOS flavors, a number of interesting apps are iOS-only. And so…while I still prefer the ethos of Android, a Chromebook or Android tablet may actually not be the best device if you’re looking for kids’ educational apps.

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