kitchen table math, the sequel: "Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World"

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World"

Catherine has encouraged me to post an announcement of my book's release:




Here (edited slightly) is what I wrote to Catherine yesterday:

Though it's not the general critique of education that I initially intended to write, I'm hoping its focus on the special needs of a specific kind of child ("left-brainers," in the vernacular sense of the term) will help it bypass some of the political polarization out there and reach a broader spectrum of educators. And allow me, ultimately, to publish my general critique.

I am happy that one of the chapter titles (chosen by my editor) is "Hindered by Reform Math and Other Trends in K-12 education," and I do make a more general case against those trends in the penultimate chapter.

I'm concerned that some of what I write may suggest that I subscribe to "learning styles" theory--about which I'm generally skeptical (but I'm still trying to find out whether there's any empirical research on differences in "cognitive bandwidth"--i.e., individual differences in "linear"/one-thing-at-a-time thinking and learning vs. "big picture"/holistic thinking and learning).

My main thesis, however, is based not on learning styles theory but on all the testimonials I've collected, and it is that:
Children who are the least socially skilled and most analytically inclined are among the most shortchanged by the current system--both in terms of the quality of their classroom experiences, and in terms of the grades they earn.
These children include, of course, many on the autistic spectrum.

KTM has been a wonderful resource for my book. I quote Catherine (anonymously) in a couple of places (on choosing "Hogwarts"; on whether writers collaborate in groups); I also quote Allison on how American-educated vs. foreign educated fare at MIT.

27 comments:

TerriW said...

Fwiw -- I pre-ordered this from Amazon and though I'm only one chapter in so far, I want to offer a recommendation. Like Joanne Jacobs' "Our School," I was pleasantly surprised and delighted how smoothly readable the book is. It's a pleasure to read. More later as I get more read.

Anonymous said...

Katherine,

It looks like a great book. I wish it were around a few years ago.

SusanS

Ben Calvin said...

Congratulations!

SteveH said...

I'll get a copy.


"My main thesis, however, is based not on learning styles theory ..."

"least socially skilled and most analytically inclined"

I could argue that these reflect a style of learning. In any case, if you are not comfortable learning in groups, you're screwed, no matter what they call it. If you are more analytical, you are not likely to verbally explore your thoughts in an "active learning" situation. You are more apt to figure it out and then tell everyone else in your group. Then again, you will probably be right, but not willing to argue your position. Since your process of learning is not visible or verbal, teachers will not give you much credit.

My son is very analytical, but he is also very social. He is the one telling the rest of the group the answer before they have any chance of exploring or discovering. He is the one directly teaching the material to the other kids. It's easy to see that schools are not really interested in discovery. They are interested in this warm, bubbly, active learning environment. Nobody has ever told my son to stop and let the others figure it out. However, he gets great class participation grades. It seems that many teachers get caught up in the appearance of learning and discount (have no way of knowing) what's going on in kids' heads.

I would say that it's more of a social issue than a left brain issue. Many educators now define learning in social terms. That doesn't mean that the left-brain issue is minor. With my son, I have to fight their hangup with content, skills, and memorization, things that come easily to left-brain kids. Apparently, it's much more impressive to educators to see active, social learning than individual analytical thought.

My son's first grade teacher called his knowledge of geography "superficial", but his second grade teacher was thrilled when he recited "Jaberwocky" from memory in front of the class. It's interesting to realize that memorization with art work is much more highly regarded than memorization without art.

I would say that my son suffers one half of the problem. His school experience is great and the teachers love him because he is so social and willing to participate in class. The other half is my problem, and it's mostly done at home. I would say that overall, I have the easier half to fix.


I also have to say that it does not need to be a "socially awkward" attribute. I'm not antisocial, but I CAN'T STAND group situations where a facilitator tries to (I don't know quite what to call it) manipulate the learning process with REALLY STUPID team building sorts of activities. "OK, let's start by telling everyone a little bit about yourself and what you expect to get out of the course." Aaaarrrrrggggghhhh! I'll clam up and not say a word.

It's not that these kids are socially awkward. It's that those in charge are socially manipulative or clueless. Even my son can tell you about the socially manipulative things that teachers use for class control.

ElizabethB said...

Congrats!

I love the use of the word penultimate, I think that's the first time I've seen it in a blog post!!

I am going to start teaching my 7 year old Latin soon, I'm studying it myself first. In fact, an older librarian asked me when I picked up all my resources, "Are you taking a Latin class?" I said, "Well, I'm trying to learn it so I can give my daughter a Latin class." She had taken Latin in school and said it was very helpful for her grammar.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that penultimate obfuscates :) the intended meaning of the sentence. Why announce that the chapter is second to last? Would one write, "In my third to last chapter."? Why not simply say that a chapter deals with whatever the topic is?

Mostly teasing, but I find the same thing in my students' writing. They want points for using the big words even when they detract or do not add meaning to their writing.

It was a long day.

-J

Beth said...

OK, quick Latin lesson: "penultimate" means "next to the last". The "pen" part is from a Latin word meaning "almost".

So if "pen" is "almost", and "insula" is "island", what does a "peninsula" look like?

LynnG said...

Katherine -- I have to agree with your statement wholeheartedly -- the least socially skilled and most analytically inclined are absolutely the most short-changed.

Steve makes such good points, I'm a little intimidated to even try to add to the discussion. I have two extremely analytical, socially awkward children, one of which is probably on the aspergers end of the autism spectrum.

The problem is not JUST that they get bad grades for lack of participation, and are generally working invisibly, and don't explain well how they reached a solution. That is all true.

But they are also seriously short-changed by the pacing of the class. Long after they have mastered content and are ready to move on, they are still waiting for the class to catch up. They learn a fraction of what they are capable of and then are blamed for their lack of motivation and not meeting their potential.

Thanks for writing the book. It sounds interesting.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the comments about socially awkward students being short-changed in school.

That was definitely me, teacher's pet, because there were teachers who actually appreciated a student happy to learn.

However, now I am an adult, 20 years out of school. I'm still the same socially awkward kid who is trying to fit in with the 'slow' kids from school.

And they are my co-workers and managers. Are there careers for people like me? I'm now in my 40's and still entry-level. I try a new career every decade and I'd like to find somewhere to fit in.

Will this be the fate of my daughter? She's in 1st grade, don't know if she's entirely awkward.

Sherri

Anonymous said...

"I'm still the same socially awkward kid who is trying to fit in with the 'slow' kids from school.

And they are my co-workers and managers. Are there careers for people like me?
"

Engineering works well for people like this. Getting the correct answer quickly is often a prized virtue in an engineering environment.

[Of course good social skills are a plus in any career ...]

-Mark Roulo

Allison said...

The book Leading Geeks is a great book about how a manager should try to lead engineering organizations when they are dependent on the brains of people who couldn't care less what the customer wants, what the business development folks are saying, what HR plans for the company picnic, let alone Management by Objective or Six Sigma. Perhaps if you read it, you will hear yourself resonating as one of the geeks. If so, then there may be promising careers in engineering/science for you, or at least in those organizations.

SteveH said...

Even in engineering, there are technical paths (less social) versus the managerial paths (more social), but you will have to deal with things like technical "pointy-haired" bosses who still think they have a clue. Any way you look at it, you have to work at your social skills. Things happen in the workplace, and you better be proactive, rather than reactive.

It's perhaps too bad, but the opportunities (spoils) go to the more social (assertive) people. I hate networking, but it works and it doesn't have to be done in an overt way. If my son was not overly social, I would make that a big priority.

This is an interesting area that is perhaps addressed in the book.

linda seebach said...

My son, a techie from his cradle, wrote a FAQ for managers on "how to manage your hacker" ( http://www.seebs.net/faqs/hacker.html
)
He also works for a company that has separate promotion tracks for technical and managerial types so that people don't have to switch into a kind of work they're not temperamentally suited for (think teachers into school district administrators) in order to advance in their careers. Apparently that's not uncommon in techie companies; schools might take note.

PhysicistDave said...

SteveH wrote:
>In any case, if you are not comfortable learning in groups, you're screwed, no matter what they call it.
[snip]
>Many educators now define learning in social terms.

Hmmm… “group learning” strikes me as an oxymoron, very much like “public intimacy.”

SteveH also wrote:
> I'm not antisocial, but I CAN'T STAND group situations where a facilitator tries to (I don't know quite what to call it) manipulate the learning process with REALLY STUPID team building sorts of activities. "OK, let's start by telling everyone a little bit about yourself and what you expect to get out of the course." Aaaarrrrrggggghhhh! I'll clam up and not say a word.

Ever tried actually speaking up directly and telling the manipulators that they are being manipulative, boring into people’s personal feelings that are none of their business, etc.? Of course, it is only prudent to do this when they do not have the power to cause you any harm! But when such occasions do come by, I assure you that it can be a great deal of fun (for you, not the jerks).

All the best,

Dave

PhysicistDave said...

SteveH wrote:
>My son's first grade teacher called his knowledge of geography "superficial"…

Can you (or anyone) suggest some good resources to get some of that “superficial” knowledge – stuff such as that the Garonne is in France, the Ebro in Spain, that sort of thing

I don’t want to try to force my kids to absorb the whole atlas, and I am having trouble finding a geography book that emphasizes important geographic features in various countries and continents.

I take it such books used to be common from grade-school through college level. I haven’t been able to find any serious books of this sort currently available (by “serious,” I mean not just Alps/Himalayas/Rockies, seven continents, etc. but serious descriptions of the geographic features of different countries).

Our kids read at a high-school level, so reading level is not an issue. (Of course, maps would be nice.)

And, tell your kid I admire his early acquisition of “superficial” knowledge. If our political leaders all had such “superficial” knowledge, maybe they would have avoided a few foreign-policy disasters.

Dave

SteveH said...

"his knowledge of geography "superficial"…

The rest of the story is that later in the year, my son had to show the student teacher where Kuwait was on the map during a thematic unit on sands from around the world. How useful is thematic learning when you don't have enough background facts to put the pieces together?

My son discovered that after he learns a new word or fact, he starts to see it all over the place. The latest one was the word "hiatus". He thought it was odd that after he learned the word, he saw or heard it many times. I told him that he probably saw or heard it many times already, but it just didn't register. If you don't have any facts or knowledge framework, then you can't look it up. It's invisible to you.


My son does the Geography Bee (His school has relented and is now participating in the contest.) and they have many good resources. However, like math competitions, there are a certain amount of peculiar questions. When my son went to the state contest, he missed a question on whether swamps are dominated by trees or grasses. He said grasses. After a certain point, contests like this seem to have more to do with how well you prepare for that specific contest.

However, The Geography Bee has lots of good resources, including things like blank maps that kids have to fill in. Many of the questions aren't simply about memorization, but if you have memorized lots of facts, then you will do much better. Imagine, facts form the foundation for understanding!

It's not that schools don't like facts, they like to see them dressed up in a particular way. It's OK if my son learns a bunch of science or vocabulary words using art, but it wouldn't be OK for him to just memorize them. Another blow for analytical kids. The teachers don't understand them, and they devalue their abilities. I get the feeling that some teachers just don't like smart kids. As with the "superficial" comment, I have gotten other comments that have tried to diminish his abilities.

However, I think it makes all of the difference in the world that he is a happy, outgoing, social child. Katharine is correct. You have to play their game.

Katharine Beals said...

It's perhaps too bad, but the opportunities (spoils) go to the more social (assertive) people. I hate networking, but it works and it doesn't have to be done in an overt way. If my son was not overly social, I would make that a big priority.

This is an interesting area that is perhaps addressed in the book.


Yes, absolutely. Learning social skills is a big priority for those to whom such skills don't come naturally. Perversely, educators have used this premise to justify forcing all children--even the least social ones--to work in groups. As I point out in my book, this allows schoolyard dynamics to creep into the classroom (b/c teachers can't supervise all groups at once), further lowering the confidence of the more socially anxious kids (and worsening their school day). Plus there seems to be no evidence that working in classroom groups causes unsocial children to become more social.

Many unsocial kids, baffled by group dynamics, require much more structured group environments--like social skills groups--in order to develop social skills.

In my book, I discuss a number of other resources that model appropriate (and inappropriate) social and conversational behavior--certain novels, movies, and TV shows, and also books on "conversational pragmatics". These are books written for students studying English as a second language, whose native cultures often follow very different conversational rules from our own, and are easily adaptable for older American children who likewise haven't picked up these rules in incidental fashion that their American classmates have.

Ari said...

Every child's artistic and social skills should be developed. I was one of those 'left brain' kids who sat out and read science books during gym. I hated team sports but don't think for a moment I would be happy if you just threw another science book at me. I could read any time I wanted. I really did want to play effectively. But they didn't teach me how to play, step by step. They just threw me in the middle of everything.

Same was true for art. We had art every week in my school. But we never actually learned how to draw. It was something you were expected to just pick up.

Don't assume lefties aren't interested in artistic and social skills. They are because they are *important* but they aren't taught effectively by our educational system.

ari-freedom

Doug Sundseth said...

I completely agree with Ari about the way that PE and art are (not) taught.

PE classes provide useful instruction only for the kids on sports teams (who are the only kids the gym teachers/coaches actually care about.

And throughout school, I thought that the ability to draw was an innate thing. You either had it or you didn't, and teaching was not useful. Imagine the revelation when I read Betty Edwards's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Most of art is craft, and the craft is eminently teachable. That this was/is not done by those hired to teach art is unconscionable.

On geography: For map knowledge, I strongly recommend this web site:

http://www.sheppardsoftware.com/Geography.htm

The games are graduated in difficulty and interesting enough to hold my interest, at least.

Ari said...

I'd suggest Draw Squad by Mark Kistler for elem school art. And on p65 he wrote: "The old idea of a few decades ago was that as soon as a student made his first 5,000 mistakes in picture sketches, he knew how to draw. This meant that anyone with the desire to draw had to learn everything on his own. The process would often take years and discouraged almost everyone who really wanted to learn..."

TerriW said...

(Re: Elementary art ed -- I just picked up Mona Brooks' _Drawing with Kids_ after some strong recommendation and so far it has been good. It is, admittedly, not a book that you can hand to your kid and have them work through -- it's a book to teach you how to teach drawing.)

Allison said...

Direct, explicit instruction is needed in ANY subject for the people who are not "naturals". The naturals are those who can decode the system given "noisy" signals in instruction. The rest of us just make errors in the learning process, and miss out on mastering the early building blocks that make complex elements possible later. This is true for social skills like how to introduce yourself or how to act like a friend; it's true for drawing in art; it's true for playing soccer; it's true for reading and arithmetic.


Ari's example show that constructivism isn't new at all. And whenever you use it to "teach" kids, then nearly everyone is discouraged. What's new seems to be the extension of constuctivism to everything social, and the revamping of everything to be social. Or maybe it's that even the naturals can't figure it all out anymore because the underlying curriculum is becoming so poor.

Etiquette used to be taught explicitly. It didn't mean only things like which fork to use. It meant how to properly introduce yourself, how to gracefully enter and exit a conversation, how to get rid of someone being annoying to you, how to ask someone for a date, how to turn it down, and how to make someone comfortable.

I don't believe "left brainers" and "right brainers" exist anyway, but you could rephrase it to mean "those who can intuit the rules for the process for some concept X, and those who can't or would prefer not to". Explicit instruction supports both sets of folks nicely. Constructivism cripples the latter no matter what the concept.

Ari said...

Draw Squad is the kind of book you can give a kid and have him work through. You start with simple pictures and work your way up while learning about foreshortening, shading, etc
There's more info here
http://www.drawsquad.com

CassyT said...

Congratulations Katherine!
My order arrives Thursday from Amazon. Can't wait!

Anonymous said...

Lots of kids on sports teams would prefer to be almost anywhere BUT PE class. All of my kids, like their single-sport elite-athlete peers were outstandingly fit and very heavily scheduled (my kids took all honors and AP classes) and they had no interest in wasting energy or time on PE. Requiring an athlete who is training 3-5 hours a day, with his/her club team/coach to take PE is ridiculous and only those who see PE as a jobs program for teachers would defend it.

lgm said...

>>Requiring an athlete who is training 3-5 hours a day, with his/her club team/coach to take PE is ridiculous and only those who see PE as a jobs program for teachers would defend it.

It has always seemed to me that P.E. is there only to keep students from graduating early. Many could graduate a year early, were it not for that last year of P.E., which can't be taken in summer school or transferred in from the Community College. Just more red tape for no purpose other than money for the district.

concernedCTparent said...

Most students who are training that many hours a week can "legally" skip PE; schools just don't come out and tell you that. Usually a letter that outlines the training regimen, qualifications of the coach/program, etc. will serve to satisfy (nay, exceed) P.E. requirements. You can usually arrange a study-hall during what would have been P.E. or an early release to have time to get homework done before practice/training, etc.

... My daughter is a student in a very rigorous ballet program and some of her friends who train 8-10 hours per week in ballet have made similar arrangements with their school. Now, if I could only convince the school that regular afterschooling and supplementing should allow children to have study hall (or early release) in lieu of Everyday Math. Now that would be something.