Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why Johnny can’t do math

A reader of this blog and of Left Brain Child recently shared with me this exchange she had with her school principal about her son Johnny (names changed to protect identity), who is going into 5th grade and already knows most of the 5th grade math curriculum:

Principal to mother:

We want Johnny to learn more about how to function in a group of students working in mathematics, where he has a profound understanding to share. He still has more to learn about how to effectively work in a group. Having a small repertoire of active listening strategies is going to get in his way in high school and in the rest of his education, since this case-study approach is likely to prevail for a while. I figure if he can learn how to share his understanding and how to listen to other perspectives, it’s going to make the rest of his education so much easier. Right now, he prefers going off on his own and working independently. Or he makes off-putting remarks at the beginning of a group exercise in order to get away from the group process. He is truly a smart kid, and his life will be easier if that intelligence is flexible enough to recognize the social impact as well as the intellectual impact. He doesn’t yet see the value of bringing others around to his point of view.
Mother to principal:
School starts in a couple of weeks and I know that the teachers are back, so I think it is time to address the things you brought up in your email. Specifically, I think we need some direction about how you see Johnny achieving the goals you have set for him below and how he will be judged in respect to these goals. Here are some questions.

How will the teacher teach Johnny more about how to function in a group of students working in mathematics? How will she teach him to share his profound understanding of math? What methodologies will he be taught to carry out this sharing? What supervision will be provided while he is practicing these methodologies? What, specifically, will the teacher do to broaden his repertoire of active listening strategies? How many active listening strategies are there? What are they? How do you decide which active listening strategy is appropriate for Johnny to use in a given classroom situation and how will this be taught to Johnny?

How many different perspectives is it reasonable to accommodate in math class? For instance, if a student insists that there is no such number as pi, is that reasonable? If the group construct is that the only definition of pi is as a dessert to be eaten with ice cream, does that become the group reality that everyone must except, or is it reasonable at that point to work independently? Is accepting such a construct in order to fit in with a group and prioritize for social impact necessary to demonstrate that one's intellect is flexible? When involved in a group with such a construct, how will Johnny be expected to bring others around to his point of view? Is he allowed to use direct instruction? Will Johnny be judged based on his ability to accept the group construct and prioritize for social impact, or for his ability bring others around to his point of view? How will this be assessed? Who will do the assessing? How will the teacher teach Johnny the skills necessary to share his original insights with his peers in math class? Where does learning some math fit in to this?

In short, what is it that you actually expect Johnny to do in math class?
Emailing me separately, Johnny’s mother writes:
By the way, the thing with pi actually happened last year in math class. The kids were drawing circles when Johnny told his group about the number pi and how you could use it to calculate the circumference of a circle. One of the girls in the group laughed at him and asked if there was also a number called "cake" and a number called "cookie" and all the kids in his group had a good chortle at his expense. He was quite upset. Of course there was no teacher around. The teacher introduced the math concept about two months later. No one said anything about it to Johnny. Constructivism brings playground group-think and bullying into the classroom.
Well said. I talk about this phenomenon a bit in chapter one of my book, and also in my critiques here on this blog of people who think that classroom groups can help reduce bullying.

Equally important is when will Johnny be allowed to do math. If the mother receives an answer from the principal, I'm hoping she will share it with us.

21 comments:

kcab said...

I'd recommend to the mother that she have Johnny's achievement assessed by a psychologist not associated with the school and bring the results to the attention of the teacher and principal. They may continue to obstruct his learning, but I have found that outside assessment can open doors. (Though, in my experience the student will still have to take end of year placement tests, but that's a start.) If they refuse to place him appropriately in math, I'd start moving toward requesting independent study.

Of course, she may already have done all that. Some school personnel are more difficult to deal with than others and I may just have been fortunate in who I've come across.

Auntie Ann said...

kcab: Yes, we've been there, done that. (I'm "Johnny's" aunt, thus "Auntie Ann.")

We had him tested long ago at the school's insistence; the school completely ignored the report, and refused to listen. (It was in our favor.) This is not a school that cares for any outside opinion--even one from an expert they themselves have picked.

Our current solution is the one we started with long ago. Johnny's last day of 4-year preschool (just days after he turned 5) was the first day he sat down at the dining room table with me for "Home work." I began with Hooked on Phonics and went on to readers, and an online dot-to-dot generator to teach him to count (the site allowed you to upload a picture and make it into a dot-to-dot. I used pictures of Ugly Dolls and Ben 10 characters.) I was successful, and he ended up getting to Grade 2 with his original peer group.

In 2nd his spelling was so bad, I started using All About Spelling, and found that it worked even better as a phonics course (though his spelling improved dramatically too.) His reading and writing both accelerated quickly at that point--though he still suffered from essentially missing a year of school curriculum.

Last year, I used the online math website Aleks to fill in gaps in his math knowledge, and have since moved on to Singapore. We got through pretty much all of Singapore Primary (SE) 5A this summer--and most of that in a month.

Essentially, we're not waiting for the school to get around to teaching him, since their philosophy is that he should wait for everyone else to catch up.

As for our original complaints about their preschool/K decision, we fought hard and didn't stop. We used Google Scholar to print off literally 40+ journal articles on the issue of redshirting and delayed K entrance. All of them agreeing with our points.

Last year, the school announced a change in the way they made that breakdown. Now pretty much all 5 year olds will go on to K. It took an enormous amount of pushing, but we were actually able to change the school. It didn't help Johnny, but hopefully, other kids won't be in the same situation.

Amy P said...

Aren't there other classes available for this kid to engage in group learning/socialization? Of all the subjects, math seems like an unusually bad choice as a vehicle for teaching social skills. For one thing, when a mathy child or adult is doing math, are they really operating verbally at all? A verbal subject where the child didn't have to translate back and forth would be a better choice. Also, the further he is ahead of the group, the harder it's going to be to communicate his math knowledge to them.

This school environment seems very anti-math and anti-learning. If the school finishes up with 6th grade, I think I'd just keep going until then, but if it runs to 8th grade, run, run, run away!

This kid needs peers, as soon as possible.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Even as an adult, I sometimes want to tear my hair out when I've tried everything I can think of to explain a concept in simplest terms, only to have the other person stare back at me, obviously not getting it in the least. How much harder would such a situation be for a fifth grader! I really wish these teachers would take responsibility for teaching their charges math (or whatever subject), instead of playing "guide on the side" and dumping most of the responsibility for teaching the peers on the smart kids.

So glad I got through the public school system before nonsense like this became widespread, and so glad I have the opportunity to homeschool my own offspring.

Auntie Ann said...

His sister finished 6th last year (which was, if anything, worse!), and will soon be starting at a great 7-12 school. She's thrilled to be at a school that values achievement and will help her excel, instead of holding her back. Hopefully, he will follow her in 2 years.

AmyP said...

"His sister finished 6th last year (which was, if anything, worse!), and will soon be starting at a great 7-12 school. She's thrilled to be at a school that values achievement and will help her excel, instead of holding her back. Hopefully, he will follow her in 2 years."

Very good.

"I really wish these teachers would take responsibility for teaching their charges math (or whatever subject), instead of playing "guide on the side" and dumping most of the responsibility for teaching the peers on the smart kids."

Amen. If the kid is going to be used as a math tutor, he deserves a prorated salary (which should offset the cost of getting his math elsewhere).

Also--kids tend to hate know-it-all smart kids, and being a quasi-teacher will make it very difficult for this child to be treated as a peer by his classmates. What a social death warrant this plan is! Do these people know nothing about tween social dynamics?

AmyP said...

Oh, and this is supposed to improve his social skills.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Anonymous said...

This is my kid. I have asked for years for some research data that this kind of group activity promotes social skills development and the school has never provided it. I eventually did the lit search myself and found out that there really isn't any, although there is some anecdotal information about these kinds of small group activities without teacher supervision promotes bullying. When you try to talk about it with school administration what you get back is a combination of ethereal edutheory, wishful thinking and happy talk.

cranberry said...

Amy P, I don't think the principal really believes what he/she states. It's just the politically acceptable line. "Yes, your kid is smart, but working with others will develop his social skills. Working in groups with others teaches valuable communication skills and social understanding."

Blech. What it really teaches?

1) The teachers don't care. They might care, but they don't act on it, which in a child's honest estimation is the same thing.

2) The teachers set you up for social bullying, then walk away.

3) Any complaint will label you a "whiner" in the teacher's eyes, and a "tattletale" in the other group members' eyes. I suppose that's "social skills," but cynicism and a distrust of others and the entire system is too high a price to pay, IMHO.

My eldest child had to deal with groups which spent much of the class period debating whether they should put their names on the top of the paper. In middle school.

One of my kids has a wonderful time in group discussion of math. It's called Math Club, or Math Team. His advanced math class also had a wonderful time making up challenging problems for each other. Here's the rub: the ability range and range of interest in math were much narrower than permitted in a heterogeneous, mainstreamed, classroom.





Amy P said...

"Amy P, I don't think the principal really believes what he/she states. It's just the politically acceptable line."

Yep.

"One of my kids has a wonderful time in group discussion of math. It's called Math Club, or Math Team."

Yep.

Considering the damaging consequences cranberry lists, I wonder if maybe it wouldn't be a good idea to try to spring Johnny from math class this year? I'm not sure how you'd do it, though--a free reading period, a study hall for doing other homework, an extra PE class, etc?

Ideally, of course, he would be working forward in math in school. There's a Kumon Grade 6 Fractions book and I really like the Kumon Geometry and Measurement series (it goes up to 6th grade and has very interesting, tough material). There's the Complete Book of Algebra and Geometry Grades 5-6 (haven't used it much, but it looks good), and Kumon now has an entire workbook called "Focus on Speed, Proportion & Ratio." I haven't used the last workbook, but it looks interesting and it's intended for kids 10 and up. How much work could it possibly be for the school to just let him sit in the back of the room and do a certain number of pages every day?

Cal said...

Another way to look at it is this: Johnny was showing off, trying to prove himself in a group in the misguided belief that being smarter would somehow help him. I very much doubt the concept of 'pi' came up organically. It's not outside the realm of possibility that he was trying to put the other kids down for *not* knowing pi. The other kids showed Johnny how utterly useless "smarts" is in many social situations. I doubt the lesson was learned, because Johnny doesn't appear to have parents who value socialization.

I hate group work. But the real issue here isn't group work, but Johnny's inability to function with his social peers.

Leigh Lieberman said...

When it became clear that the school was more interested in using my mathematically hot kids to compensate for the lack of mathematically qualified elementary school teachers and/or ability grouped classes, I settled for
“How much work could it possibly be for the school to just let him sit in the back of the room and do a certain number of pages every day?”
It is important to insist on a well-written book with serious math at the correct level for the child. While this is not a panacea and these youngsters deserve much better, it is far superior to accepting the status quo. 1 year of this as a stop gap can be made to work as these kids can understand quality material at least as well, if not better than most elementary school teachers, as long as there is someone available to help them if necessary. My kids needed little if any help. This approach buys you time to come up with a good solution for the following year which you will surely need as people in schools like these are hopelessly ignorant and/or callous due to years of brainwashing by the University Institutional Complex which has corrupted education, perhaps unwittingly.
Regarding Johnny's behavior: The real issue here is how ridiculously idiotic it is to waste math lesson time prioritizing social skill development over math progress. It is categorically not Johnny's responsibility and could never arise if his mathematical needs were being met in the first place. He would be too busy discovering his increasing mathematical power to even consider getting into trouble. Math Teams are a superb way to improve Johnny's inability to function with his social peers.
I saw how my kids worked with others who were competing and I have never been prouder.

FedUpMom said...

Cal said:
***
Johnny was showing off, trying to prove himself in a group in the misguided belief that being smarter would somehow help him.
***

Cal, what do you suggest for a smart kid at school? Should he learn to stifle his smartness in order to fit in with the other kids? How is this helpful to anyone?

AmyP said...

There's a fantastic place available to learn social skills. It's called a "social skills class."

One of the many ironies of Johnny's situation is that his math teacher probably isn't qualified to lead a social skills group.

ChemProf said...

FedUp Mom - it is helpful to the teacher. Then she doesn't have to worry about teaching Johnny (since he already knows the year's material) and can just leave him in the group to stew.

Cal tends to firm up my commitment to homeschooling whenever she comments.

Catherine said...

Amen, ChemProf.

The existence of teachers like her (disrespectful of parents, arrogant, dismissive of students' varying needs) seems like a bogeyman until one actually comes up against a real-life example...if she is real....

Anonymous said...

What does a smart kid do at school? Keep his head down or learn to fight.

The vogue of constructivist math and group work has made it much worse than it used to be for smart kids under the desk squadron - memorization regime of old. And it was bad enough then. The gap between the kids who (against all odds) actually learn math and the rest of them is greater, and the opportunities for bullying and ridicule are enhanced by having the bullies lead the class. It's enough to make one wistful for the dunce cap.

I like to read your blogs because it makes me so happy to homeschool. My eight year old is in the dining room happily grooving his way through AoPS pre-algebra, without anybody resenting him or making fun of him for liking and learning math.

Barry Garelick said...

Memorization regime? Really?

Anonymous said...

"desk squadron - memorization regime." Yup. Regime def 2 = "A system or planned way of doing things, esp. one imposed from above."

Maybe you're a lot younger than I am, but when I was a kid the desks were arranged in rows and the students' job was mostly to repeat and memorize the same things at the same time. There was a lot of chanting, a lot of taking turns reading or answering while everybody else was quiet, and a good bit of proving you knew something (or pretending you didn't).

This has largely been replaced with the cluster desks - group discussion regime, where the teacher sort of bumblebees around from cluster to cluster seeing what the loudest people in each group are saying.

Barry Garelick said...

I was educated in the 50's and 60's. The desks were in rows, but math did not require chanting as you describe it.

Anonymous said...

You're lucky, Barry. Or not. I cannot consider math without remembering a chorus of "SIX TIMES EIGHT IS FORTY-EIGHT." It didn't end there for us, either. There was a lot of reading in unison too.