Tag Archives: skatekids

Mathematical Thinking at Play (5 year olds are amazing thinkers)

A few years ago I filmed a couple of the Fletcher gang playing  a game I love called “Set”.  Set shows us that challenging means fun.  The game that requires some pretty sophisticated thinking.   Initially, I didn’t know if  my 5 year-old could handle a full game of set, but I thought I would try it anyway.  And… she surprised me.  Even though she just turned 5 a week, earlier, she was capable of so much.  Now,  I’m not saying that she is a genius.  Rather, I make the point that average intelligence is still one of the most powerful forces the universe has ever produced.  We would do well to accept it.  When it comes to intelligence, however one defines it, average means powerful.

Check out the video to see how I worked with the Doo Dah.  The toy company markets Set as “the game of visual perception” but there is a lot more to it.  I use it primarily to encourage a) Planning/Executive Functioning  b) Simultaneous/holistic processing c) control of attention d) fun.  In the video you will notice that I use very little direct instruction.  Instead, I ask questions and encourage the Doo Dah to think for herself.  I could have given her the answer at one point, but that would have stopped her from thinking.  Instead, I  gave her just enough information to allow her to solve the problem for herself.  Watch this video with an eye for the process.  Maybe you do some of this yourself.  What you will see is: 1) I encourage the Doo Dah to survey the task/tell me her plan 2) I prompt her by asking questions/guiding her attention 3) I model for her by talking about my thinking 4) I ask her to summarize her own thinking.

Can Intelligence Be Taught?

How we think is very much a product of our culture and our relationships.  Play often leads to meaningful interactions,  creativity in learning, and new thinking strategies.  Even attention is developmental and  therefore trainable.  If you like, you could try meditation sometime.  You may find that the beginning  sitting practice is tough.  In fact, Buddhists say we have  “monkey mind” because our thoughts and attention bounce around like a monkey.  With practice, however, one learns to sit for longer periods.  One learns to select the breath as the object of attention.  Meditation is the art of resisting distracting thoughts, at least that is what I have learned.

On another note,  I can’t for the life of me understand how “experts” continue to ignore the important role that emotions play in learning.  Any reform that doesn’t place emotions at the center is likely to fail or have limited effects.  In response, several years ago I decided that I would develop video games as learning tools.  Few would disagree that it  is the child’s nature to play.  I go further.  I believe it is the adult’s nature to play, as well.  You might be aware that the average age of the most frequent video game customer is 40 http://bit.ly/brmQA .  If we care to bring the emotions into learning, we would do well to pay attention to video games.  I include play in learning precisely because play brings emotional experiences.  When a person feels intense feelings, he/she often performs better.  Boredom, conversely,  interferes with learning.  Anxiety interferes with learning.  Play, on the other hand, reduces harmful stress.  Video games are play. Video games can teach.

In a short while, my team and I will release what I think will be a very important iPad app.  I hope you will stay tuned so that you might try it.  I will give updates as the release date draws nearer.

For more on the role of emotions in learning, see http://bit.ly/bVRYul , http://bit.ly/aEQeFi and http://bit.ly/b8BYmE .

Can children learn the entire elementary school math curriculum in 30 hours?  For evidence that we might be underestimating what kids can do, see http://bit.ly/c7QETj

I recommend Todd Kashden’s excellent work on curiosity.  Please check it out:  http://www.toddkashdan.com/

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Do Not Fight Your Nature

“Accept everything about yourself — I mean everything. You are you and that is the beginning and the end — no apologies, no regrets.” –Clark Moustakas

First of all, I owe my teachers nearly everything good about what I know.   Mr. Smith, for example, is a teacher who touched my life in 3rd grade and I will never forget him.   I’m using it to illustrate a point.  I was in 6th grade when this happened.  Mr. H was my  English teacher and this is one of the few things I remember about him.  I got a paper back and I had misspelled a word and got marked down for it.  I sincerely asked, “Why does the spelling matter?”  His response was an indignant, “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.”

I guess I remember it because it reminds me that some of the simple, “stupid” questions are actually pretty good questions.  There is a good answer to that question.  Not so long ago people had no agreed upon spelling.  It is a good story.  Look it up and find out how we got our first Dictionary.   If a question is sincere it is probably a good question.  Stay curious.  Your questions are good.  Be on a good path.  Accept everything about yourself.  Then you can take the next important step.  You will be able to accept others as they are.

 

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Learning What You Have No Interest In

How about you and I start studying geology today?  Let’s spend from 1 to 3 hours a few days per week on it.  Sounds fun, eh?  If you happen to love geology, replace it with something you have absolutely no interest in learning.

Now, let’s turn it around.  Let’s say you finally get to take that dream vacation to Russia.  You have 6 months to learn as much of the language as you can.  Let’s go further, let’s say you even love the sound of spoken Russian.  You imagine having conversations with the people you will meet. It would be a lot easier to learn, no doubt.

I don’t think that this is a bland statement.  Ask a child to describe school using one word.  I do this often and hear the same word: boring!  When I hear something different, it usually involves having a teacher that “makes it fun.”  I do hear that, but not nearly enough.

If I have learned one thing in my professional career it is this:  Most people can learn what they need to know when they need to know it with no penalty.  This especially holds true if the learner really wants to know about something.  Then, it seems impossible to stop them.   So, why not let the kids lead a bit more?

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How Do Kids Want To Learn? My Doctoral Research Pt. 2

Part one of this story focused on boredom and humiliation/fear of humiliation as obstacles to learning.   My experience of boredom and fear of humiliation in my K-12 education was a driver for me to start looking closely at learning.  Here, I present the findings from my doctoral research.  As a student, I never understood why nobody seemed to care about how we felt about the teaching.  Seems that nobody thought to ask us.  Respect goes a long way with kids.  In fact, I have found that expressing my genuine curiosity about how and what a child thinks usually  promotes learning.  When I do it, I’m showing them respect.  I found an excellent essay on this topic here http://bit.ly/cvqBwy .

What's with my hair in this photo?

For those interested in the methodology of the study, I’m happy to answer questions at dr.martinfletcher@gmail.com.

I interviewed 12 co-researchers who went through a 30 session treatment with me.  All of them had struggled in school.  All made significant progress shown by a range of measures including pre/post testing.  I’ll use quotes from the interviews when possible  so the learners can speak for themselves.  From our interviews, I discovered 3 major themes:

1. Self-Enhancement Through Play.

This was by far the most common theme.  It was common to hear the word “fun” paired with a statement about valuable learning.  From an 11-year-old girl with reading problems:  “I felt like I wasn’t smart.  I wasn’t reading high-level books.  I was reading lower level books….[Here] I’m learning while I move, like I’ doing hands on moving around and touching things.  Just more fun and active.”

The learner was solving problems in those sessions.  The problems encouraged  a specific type of thinking.  Learners experienced the sessions as play, and play is fun.  In the book, “A Theory of Fun”, Raph Koster tells us what is fun is “exercising our brains” and that all games are edutainment.  http://www.theoryoffun.com/ What do you think about that definition?

2. Experiencing Freedom

In the program I used, tasks allowed the learner to think and solve problems in his/her own way.  We set out to create habits of thought.  “A lot of time you get to do your own thing.  You don’t have to follow rules.”  “I got to find my own way of finding out and remembering…[I]t wasn’t like you have to follow this pattern.”  One little girl said, “You didn’t teach me anything, really…everything else [i.e., the games] taught me.”  What was really happening was that she was experimenting with her thinking.  Another teen said, “[Y]ou didn’t teach me anything.  I want to say you helped me but you didn’t teach me anything.”  What an excellent compliment!

3. Enhanced Sense of Self-Competence

A 16-year-old boy whom I will never forget illustrates this theme.  Initially, his expectations for himself were low.  “I didn’t think I could be taught very well–my mind was like, when I walked in I was like, well, I don’t see how this is gonna help.”  By the end of our sessions, a shift occurred and Steven’s potential became realized.  “I experience[d] how to put that [thinking] into my schoolwork.  I didn’t realize my learning capability.”  I kept in touch with Steven for a few years after.  He continued to do fine work in school.

Some of my co-researchers had ADD/ADHD, LD, or dyslexia diagnoses. It’s important to say that not all learners at my clinic improved.  But, certainly most did.  For my research,  I selected the learners who showed improvement on a range of measures.  After years of doing this work, it became clear that this was about more than learning.  Learning isn’t just about school  It is about life.  We use our brains in all the things we love.  Many children improved in athletics.  Steve, for example:  “I’d have to say –I’m playing lacrosse right now–if you put me back to December or any of those, I wasn’t half as good.  I didn’t pay attention period to the game.  Now its like I’m so into it, my reaction time is a lot better.  I’m a lot quicker.  Some improved in music.  Loren:  “I play cello a lot better now.”  One adult no longer got lost and can now read a map.  One girl, after improving her reading, went from “worst to first” playing the recorder.

I began to think about how we could make these experiences available to everyone.  I eventually began developing video games.  I noticed that game developers–the good ones, think like psychologists.  Lately, there is an interest in play, video games, and learning.  You can check out this article for a good discussion http://bit.ly/buy6oE .  I like to focus on making games that are really fun and that target the types of thinking that helps kids become confident, happy, and free to think creatively.  Freedom and creative/playful thinking leave little room for boredom and humiliation.

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How Do Kids Want To Learn? My Doctoral Research Pt. 1

I want to share with you the findings of my doctoral research published in 2003.  I studied a program created by my mentor, J.P. Das of University of Alberta.  This program, called PREP, helps train cognitive (thinking) processes.  I wanted to know not only the effects on learning, but “What was the learner’s experience” of the program.  How did they feel and think about what they were doing in our treatment sessions?  What I found surprised me.

Kathy was pregnant. I have to tell you that so she doesn't kill me.

First, let’s talk a bit about school.  I’m not here to school bash.  We have politicized education so badly that it is difficult to say anything about it without raising defenses.  There are a lot of stakeholders including parents, publishing companies, school staff, politicians, etc.  The most important stakeholder is the child.  If this is true, then we should always re-evaluate and re-examine our practices.  We should listen to one another.  That approach may lead to progress.

I know that school shaped me.  No doubt about it.  How could it not?  The things I loved about school were the social things. Friendships and sports were great.  I had some teachers I will never forget.  Three of them, in fact.  For some reason, though, I just can’t forget how boring it was.  The two major negative forces I met were 1) Boredom and 2) Humiliation. Let’s take them one at a time.

Boredom: When adults schedule a speaker they look for informative and entertaining people.  This seems true for all the adult groups I know of, e.g., business presentations, PTA/PTO, etc.  It only makes sense.  A knowledgeable bore  doesn’t get a lot of invitations to return.  Having suffered many a boring class, it has always been common sense, in my opinion, that we shouldn’t ask children to do what we are unwilling to do ourselves.  In fact, children have even more difficulty than adults withstanding boredom (they are developing attention), so developmentally appropriate practices hold us to an even higher standard for stimulation.  Also, adults have many more years in the world.  They have a better frame of reference than do children.  For example, I can connect with a history lesson on Ronald Reagan because I lived during his presidency.  A child brings little relevant experience to the lesson.

I just got a reminder of how boring my 11 year old child finds school.  Tonight was Griffin’s open house.  The students wrote letters to their parents and taped them on their desks.  Clearly, the theme of Griffin’s letter was boredom.  He went down the list: Math is O.K., Social Studies is really boring.  Media Studies is the worst.  How can that be?  Social Studies?  Are children not curious about the world around them?  Media Studies?  Please.  My kid has his nose in media all day long.  He is absolutely curious about media.  He isn’t buying what they are selling at school.  I’m disappointed.  I want him to love these subjects.

Here is a thought.  What if we allow kids to work on real projects?  (Notice I said, “allow”.  The adult is still guiding the experience).  By “project”, I don’t mean doing a collage or writing a research paper on an unselected topic. I mean let learners solve “real” problems  and have “real” debates.  And by real,  I mean problems that matter to kids.  Let’s make the  content, at least initially, relevant to the child. In Griffin’s case, we could start with examining the media that are relevant to kids.  Couldn’t we consider the iPod Touch to look at the history of technology, social meaning, psychology (effects of the technology), applications, etc.?  Author Marjie Knudsen (http://summertimepress.com/) sent me this today: http://bit.ly/cZEMwy.  Take a look at it.

Did you check it out?  Children built those devices!  But what did they learn?  Think it through.  Ask yoursef, “What did it take for them to go from concept to delivery?  What did the child do creatively?  What problems did the learner solve?  What prior knowledge, e.g., mathematics, literacy skills, etc., did the learner apply?  In order to even begin walking this new path, we would have to look at the fundamental attitudes we have about children.

Recently, Thomas Friedman http://nyti.ms/cUyIMO wrote a piece stating that the problem lies in parents and that we should demand more out of our children.  I have a lot to say about this, but I’m running over my limit.  For now, I’ll say that I couldn’t disagree more.  I wouldn’t even know how to approach it.  Do I demand that he not be bored?  Do I demand that he fake curiosity about the content?  Would adults respond to this as a management style?  For example, how would you like to find out that your heart surgeon was completely uninterested in his studies and is practicing medicine because his superiors demanded he do it?  Do we really want that?  What is the underlying attitude here?

Here is the worst of it.  Children who do not respond to lecture/textbook education sometimes feel that they are not smart.  What a shame.  School isn’t too hard for them.  They could learn the material.  It is just boring.  Now the learner can’t get better because he/she feels disenfranchised.

Humiliation and Fear of Humiliation

Imagine that you were a poor reader.  Now imagine that you are waiting your turn to read aloud.  I remember this happening and I even remember the words that this poor girl missed.  I was in 3rd or 4th grade.  It was science.  The words were “digest” and “saliva”.  She said “dig-its” and “slava”.  We roared with laughter.   She laughed along nervously.  Students joked about it after school.  If I remember it, I wonder if she remembers it.

People tend to behave according to our expectations.  If we give kids the message that they are threats or potential problems, they are more likely to behave in a problematic way.  I behaved best for the teachers who showed me respect.  I wonder how much of the bad behavior we hear about in school is a defense against humiliation.  Getting yelled at is humiliating.  Being corrected for mistakes publicly is humiliating.   Posted grades are humiliating  for the low scorers.  Being bullied by peers is humiliating.  Being rejected by peers is humiliating. The year I published my dissertation, the Dallas Morning News published this:  http://www.nospank.net/n-k42.htm

In Part 2 of this post, I will share the findings from the research.  The children in this study were my co-researchers.  They tell us how they want to learn and how we can get there. Hint:  boredom or humiliation have nothing to do with it.  See you next time.


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There Is No Such Thing As “Free Play”

If you ever get a chance, I hope you will read the work of Clark Moustakas.  He was one of my greatest teachers.  He wasn’t the energetic self-promoter like other pioneers , but his wisdom and clarity of thought seems obvious.  He is a pioneer in play therapy a founder of Humanistic Psychology.  He is also one of the kindest, most gentle and humble human beings I have known.  He is wise.  I studied play (sounds weird to “study” play) under him and other great teachers.  Because I spent so much time with the topic, I’m very alarmed that it is disappearing in the lives of children.  I am especially concerned that play is becoming limited in many of our schools. As my twins enter the first grade next week, I know that they will be playing less.

What is Play?

Early on, I struggled to find a satisfactory model or theory about why play therapy worked.  Play had transformational properties.  I knew it because I saw it. I saw some amazing things happen through play, but I still found it mysterious.  I’ve learned  a bit since then and I want to share it with you.  First, I will confess that Lev Vygotsky and his followers and fans, e.g., J.P. Das, Laura Berk, A.R. Luria, etc., have had a great influence on my understanding of play.  While Vygotsky wrote very little on play, he elevated it to the highest status in child development. Had he lived longer, he likely would  have further documented his thinking.   I’ll tell you some of what he said and maybe this will help you and the children you care about.  Who cares about Vygotsky?  Me and a growing number of others.  He was almost universally thought a genius by his peers.  Anyway, here are some insights I will offer from Vygotsky, my experience,  and some very smart people.

Insight #1: Playing is NOT goofing off.  It may look like it, but it is not.  In the photo above, it may seem that my children are playing in our toy box.  Wrong!  Actually, they built  a high-powered rocket ship replete with high-powered, state of the art rocket propulsion.  I’m  kidding.  It’s a toy box.  What I’m  concerned with is what is happening in their little minds. (It was a sailboat anyway).  They are learning, for example, how to separate a) thought from actions and objects and b) inhibiting impulsive actions in favor of self-regulation.  That toy box contained the quality and essence of “boat”.  Pick up Laura Berks and Adam Winsler’s excellent book “Scaffolding Children’s Learning” for a detailed discussion on this phenomenon.  I’d add that they are learning to make a mess, but they pretty much have that down.  I passed that gene on to them.

Insight #2: Children always behave beyond his/her average age and above his/her daily behavior.  This is important.  The fantasy play that emerges at the end of toddlerhood becomes a “leading factor in development” (cited in Berk, I’ll give you another reference below b/c, as I mentioned,  I love her work).  Important:  Vygotsky is talking about cognitive development, you know, “thinking.  But why?  I’m worried that this post is becoming too academic for some, so can I just say again that it involves learning to think abstractly, separating thought from the external world?  Here, we are observing that the child is exploring a world in a way that is ahead of his/her development.  Imagination and abstract thinking are the very things that good students do in school!

Insight #3: Imaginative play helps children learn to control themselves.  Say what?  That doesn’t sound right, does it? How can that be?  Shouldn’t children be practicing sitting still, like the school I remember, if they want to get good at it?  Vygotsky noted that children continually act against immediate impulses during play.

Finally, Insight #4. There is no such thing as free play.  I’ve hinted at this above.  All play is rule based!  How about when playing cops and robbers?  The robber doesn’t make the arrest.  I could go on.  I can remember arguing with friends things like, “Hey!  Batman can’t fly!  You can’t do that!” when playing superheroes, for example.  Even that game had rules.

When we factor in the use of language, the physical exercise, the warm feelings between friends, the arguing/resolution, and the fact that other creatures in the animal kingdom (I’ll admit that my kids are animals), I’m very worried that we would accept rote academic experiences as somehow more vital to our youngsters.  Some adults even take away play as a method of punishment.

Still not persuaded?

Childhood play is crucial for social, emotional and cognitive ­development.  Imaginative and rambunctious “free play,” as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type.  I know.  I just said there is no such thing as free play.  Let’s call it imaginative play.  Free play just seems too trivial a term for these times.

Finally, Insight #5– Kids that do not play when they are young may grow into anxious, socially maladjusted adults. In her book entitled “Einstein Never Used Flashcards”, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek  is unable to find any convincing evidence that academic acceleration offers any salutary effects by the time the child reaches 1st grade.  A 2007 report from the Amer­i­can Acad­emy of Pedi­atrics doc­u­ments that play pro­motes not only behav­ioral devel­op­ment but brain growth as well. The Uni­ver­sity of North Carolina’s Abecedar­ian Early Child Inter­ven­tion pro­gram found that chil­dren who received an enriched, play-oriented par­ent­ing and early child­hood pro­gram had sig­nif­i­cantly higher IQ’s at age five than did a com­pa­ra­ble group of chil­dren who were not in the pro­gram (105 vs. 85 points).  Again, any advantages that the academic group had disappeared by first grade.  Further, the children from the academic environments were more anxious and less creative than the children in the other group.  http://bit.ly/609N8p

This isn’t just about raising healthy happy kids. On second thought, yes it is!

*** I recommend Laura Berk’s “Awakening Children’s Minds” for teachers and parents alike.  It is one of the 10 or so books I read several times a year when   I  need to find my center.

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Does Drill Really Kill?

“It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts; it’s what you put into the practice.”
Eric Lindros (Canadian professional ice hockey legend)

“I know a lot of people think it’s monotonous, down the black lines over and over, but it’s not if   you’re enjoying what you’re doing. I love to swim and I love to train.”
Author: Tracy Caulkins

It is possible to get repetition without simple drill and skill exercises.

First, I want to say a few words about repetition.  Repetition is good.  Because we now know what happens in the minds of good readers, it is the final purpose to create these automatic habits of thought, e.g., decoding automatically.  Drilling is another matter.  Drilling usually refers to repeated practice that is decontextualized.  Did anyone see the Karate Kid?  I’m talking about the remake.  In the film, the Karate master instructed the student to hang up his coat on a rack over and over again. The protagonist was getting very frustrated.  He didn’t understand the value in the practice.    True, he was building an important set of skills that would later become  defense moves in combat.  The student became frustrated because it made no sense to him.  Hanging a coat isn’t exactly a laugh riot.  Because decontextualized tasks often lack purpose and meaning, token rewards or punishments are usually used as reinforcement.  In the learning I imagine, we do understand that sub skills are important.  We also know that kids don’t want to engage in what amounts to repeatedly hanging up a jacket.  So, we build relevant sub skills in a gaming environments.  We keep learning fun, playful, meaningful and inspiring.

Psychologists and many wise adults now know that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation.  To put it simply, if a child really wants to practice something, it will be hard to stop her.  I have used the example of wind sprints.  Anyone who has done them knows that it is probably the least liked part of most athletic practices.  An intense basketball game could easily produce the same time on task and perhaps a higher quality of effort.  Repetition embedded in a game, conversely,  ensures motivation, high quality attention, and positive emotions and enthusiasm.  This is important.  The scientific community now knows that positive affect leads to better learning outcomes. Fun is a tremendous motivator!  Curiosity is so powerful that I believe it on one occasion killed a cat.

Another important point is that too much drill  is not always better when practicing skills.  The scientific literature has shown that distributed practice is often superior to singular drilling when promoting transfer of learning to other tasks.  In other words, it is better to take periodic breaks when learning a new skill.  A skill practiced too frequently in one domain without sufficient time for reflection can lead to problems.  The learner may not be able to apply the new skill to novel situations.   Carefully designed games that are  guided by clinical experience and research on how children best learn can lead to thoughtful, self-directed learners.  Children need to learn in a developmentally appropriate manner.   Play is intense and even play may require variety and frequent breaks.

Music is a great example of contextualized learning.  Songs offer an entertaining context for repetition.  The song is a vessel that has scales, intervals, and foundational technique within it.  If we love a song and want to master it, we want to play it over and over again.  As an adult, I love the meditative state of mind produced by simply playing scales.  As a youngster, however, I just wanted to rock.  The child’s nature is to play.   We see it in puppies, kittens, and all over the animal kingdom.  It seems hardwired into us.  Why not make this awareness a centerpiece in educating children?  They will thank us for it.

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