Friday, May 21, 2010

Teaching Social Ethics

Last week, Paulina worked on a civil rights project. Her topic was Ruby Bridges and the integration of the public school system. We went on YouTube so she could watch Ruby Bridges, The Movie. The following dialogue ensued ten minutes after she finished watching.


What did you think about the Ruby Bridges movie? Did you like it?


I don’t know. Why do you ask me so many questions?


Well, I really care about what you think. I like talking to you, and you were glued to the computer watching the movie. Seems to me that you liked it.


It made me mad. I don’t like the way people treated her. It wasn't fair.


What wasn’t fair? Why wasn’t it fair? What made you mad?


It is unfair that some people could not get a good education because it is very hard to get ahead without a good education.

Paulina left the room and came back ten minutes later. Our ensuing exchange is below. Bear in mind while reading that Paulina is an interracial child. She is 50% Spanish and 50% Filipino, with 50% of her Spanish background from Puertorican descendants of Spanish settlers. So, she is fairly light skinned but darker than Anglo-Saxon kids.


Papa, is my skin dark or light?


Your skin is perfect. You look like papa and mama. Your skin is beautiful. What are you worried about?


Well, would I have had problems in Ruby’s time?


I don’t think you would have had problems because of the color of your skin. My dad looked a lot like I do, and he went to college in Ole Miss in the 1950s. He was never asked to ride in the colored section. However, the fact that you mom and I come from different racial groups may have cause some problems. Back then, it was not common to see mixed couples, but we don’t have to worry about it because things are different today. Society still discriminates, but we are all a lot more tolerant today than we were 50 years ago.

This series of conversations took me by surprise. Race has never been an issue in my household. Traci and I are a mixed couple, and we have lived since we met in big, multi-cultural cities like Los Angeles, New York, and London. We have many friends from all over the world with whom we interact on a regular basis. Paulina knows other interracial kids. So, I was a bit surprised by her preoccupation.

I think I handled the situation well. First, I did not appear flustered or worried. Second, I brought up something people could have used to discriminate against her. Third, we talked about how discrimination is used as a tool to gain power. I explained that some people will use anything you can imagine to single out a group of people and be unfair to them. Finally, I explained to her why it is important to speak out against discrimination.

I am certain that I will have more conversations like this one soon. I am glad this one went well, and I hope I handle the next one similarly.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Emotions and Teaching: Mastery Goals vs. Performance Goals-Based Teaching

What is the best way to teach highly gifted children? Some people advocate home schooling. Others posit that regular schools combined with grade and/or subject-specific acceleration is sufficient. However, I firmly believe that arguing for one approach over any other clearly misses what is almost certainly the single biggest determinant of long-term success: emotions. It is wrong in my opinion to argue that a one-size-fits-all approach is the best for gifted children. Yes, I believe that my daughter will flourish at home. However, what works for my child may not for others regardless of intellectual capacity. I just finished reading Science Education for Gifted Learners. The chapter titled The Emotional Lives of Fledgling Geniuses tackles the issue of matching educational approach and emotional personality. The key thesis is that the choice of educational approach should be dictated largely by the emotional characteristics of the student. My wife and I have chosen to home school Pauline next year. After objectively reading The Emotional Lives of Fledgling Geniuses, I feel comfortable with our decision to home school because it best matches our daughter’s personality, emotions, and approach to learning.

There are many ways to categorize teaching styles. The Emotional Lives of Fledgling Geniuses argues that one may view teaching as split into two camps:

  • performance goals-based
  • mastery goals-based
Real-world teaching may mix the two approaches, but it is instructive to think about the implications of these two and how they relate to emotions. Performance goals-based teaching focuses on the tangible and measurable like grades and test scores. Mastery goals-based puts the emphasis on learning and understanding, brushing aside grades as unnecessary and possibly outdated. Mastering arithmetic or learning enough to be able to understand a research paper or solve an opened problem are examples of mastery goals-based learning. Some kids flourish under performance goals-based teaching because they are very competitive and/or because they need a structured environment. Other kids prefer abstract, long-term goals and to study what they care about. Finally, there are kids who enjoy both types of teaching. Hence, it is important to understand your children and try to structure the teaching style around their personality. I am not arguing here for one philosophy over the other. I believe that both are important, but a curriculum could be structured with a bias towards the philosophy that benefits your children the most. This is the key message of this blog post. Get to know the emotional personality of your child and then structure his or her learning environment to optimize the learning potential.

Let’s use my daughter as an example. Paulina does well in exams. I did too when I was a kid, but she is one of those people who seems to do well in tests without even trying. She is extremely competitive, and she has started attending contests. For instance, she participated in the Math Kangaroo this year and came out very excited, asking to do it again next year. She always wants to get the highest score in every test she takes and practices incessantly whenever she has a performance. On the other hand, she already has long-term goals. A good example is her passion for black holes. I don’t remember how this started, but she became fascinated with black holes when she was five. She would ask me to read her everything we could find on black holes. She now reads by herself everything she can find on the subject, and she has been speeding through the math curriculum as fast as possible since I explained that it is a key to understanding black holes. In the process, she has discovered probability, graph theory, and other subjects that interest her, but her goal remains to learn math because it will allow her to understand black holes and other astronomical phenomena.

The point of the above example is that my daughter needs both performance goals and mastery goals-based teaching. In a way, I think the former appeals to her competitive nature and the latter to her interest in particular subjects and her search for depth of knowledge. The exact reason is irrelevant to me as a father and teacher. What I must do is keep in mind is her need for both types of teaching and how to use them appropriately. I have met highly gifted kids who are happy in performance goals-based environments. I have met others with personalities to thrive in a mastery goals-based setting. Finally, some like my daughter prefer a mixed environment. The thing to remember is to understand your child well enough to foster the right teaching environment.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

On the Importance of Making Math Fun

“Dad, I hate math! I hate boring math. Once I know something, why do I have to do a ton of homework on it?” This is the beginning of my conversation with Paulina a few days ago when I asked her to do her school homework. This was a worrisome warning sign in my opinion. If I continue subjecting my daughter to traditional classroom instruction, I will kill her interest in math, and squander any chance she may have of developing her considerable talents.

It is sometimes hard to understand what gifted children have to endure in a regular classroom. Let us do a thought experiment together to try to see the problem. Consider the following scenario. You sit through a one hour lecture on arithmetic. You then spend a whole afternoon doing repetitious drills on problems that are clearly too easy and don’t teach you anything. Now, repeat this every week for an entire school year. Then, do this year after year until graduating from high school. Sounds fun. Doesn’t it? Take a minute or two to imagine how you would feel. Now, do you agree with me?

It am convinced that the best way to kill a child’s interest in math is to teach him or her in the traditional way. I advocate a different approach based on the concept behind math circles because they are particularly well suited for gifted kids. Yes, arithmetic is important because it is core knowledge. However, gifted kids can go through it very quickly and benefit most from creative problems sets introducing advanced material. The rest of this article describes the material covered at UCLA’s junior math circle over the past four weeks. I hope you agree with me when you are done that the math-circle approach is far more educational and fun than the way our kids are been tortured today.

What do you think of when you read the following topics?
  • Graphs (not to be confused with the X-and-Y variety)
  • Trees
  • Degree of a vertex
  • Isomorphic graphs
  • Circuits in graphs
  • Euler circuits
  • Planar graphs
  • Restating problems involving maps using graphs
  • The Four Color Problem
You may have never heard or know what any of the above terms mean. You may know a few, but, unless you have studied theoretical computer science or discrete mathematics, you probably don’t know much about them. Would you be surprised to learn that this is what my daughter and a group of other like-minded kids have been learning in the UCLA math circle? All of these topics are generally considered advanced based on the grade level when they are typically taught. However, they can be introduced early on because the terminology is intuitive and simple. This does not mean that graph theoretic problems are easy. In fact, some of these seemingly simple problems are at the cutting edge of research, and this is the beauty of graph theory. It can introduce young minds to cutting-edge research and concepts without spending countless years getting up to speed. This can make math fun and interesting, and I believe this approach should be adopted simultaneously with the teaching of the so-called fundamental concepts.

I am implementing a learning program for Paulina based on the ideas I discuss here. I am done with traditional classrooms. It is time to let her mind fly where it wants to go.