Kids get Smarter Faster when they Make a Difference

Learning Mathematics in Real Life

How to behave in public is something the students at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in Oakland, California, practice daily on their two-block walk to the park for lunch, recess and physical education. Continue reading

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Building Strong Brains: The Real Reason Schools Need Environmental Education

One day second grader Miranda said: “I was in the garden looking at the tomatoes with Patrice and Josh, and we saw a wasp tackling a fly.  Then it tore the fly’s head off and flew away with the body.  An ant found the head and started eating it and the fly’s eyes separated from its head.”

The teacher asked, “What did you think about when you were watching this happen?”

She replied, “I thought, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I wouldn’t want to be that fly.”

Later that same afternoon Sasha and Kate joined in the insect hunt and Kate said, “The garden seems to be so calm when you first look at it but when you look closer it’s very alive.”

On another day first graders found the front half of a dead snake and immediately started generating hypotheses as to what happened: Continue reading

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Treat Children As the Scientists They Are and Skip the Terrible Two’s

My one-year-old grandson, Musa, is fast. No, I mean very fast. He can be safe on the sofa and in the time it takes me to get up and take a book off the shelf, he can be waving a poker from the fireplace in all directions.

One can easily foresee the onset of the “terrible two’s,” where all his relationships are defined by a continual string of “No’s” and a battle of wills. But on my last visit with Musa before I returned to the Midwest, I got a clear picture of how it doesn’t have to be that way. Continue reading

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The Natural Resilience of Children

Dominique, age 8, sat in front of a computer screen doing addition problems—level one on Khan Academy.

When 9 + 3 = ? appeared on the screen, “That’s easy,” she said, and started hunting for 1 on the keyboard. She was new to the computer, and it was slower than she was. Nonetheless her approach was determined and persistent. She found the 1, hit it with her forefinger, found 2 next to it, hit that, moved the curser to the green “Check answer” button and clicked. For her efforts she got a smiley face. A bright bar of royal blue appeared in the success bar just above the answer box, and Dominique smiled. Continue reading

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Management-Speak Disguises a Short-Sighted Vision of School

In decades of trying to improve schools, things aren’t working out. Maybe, we should apply a lesson of life to our approach to elementary school: Do the present right, and the future will take care of itself.

On the surface much of the lingo of school improvement seems full of confident commitment to excellence and success for all. Language like accountability for measurable outcomes, high standards, data driven decision-making, racing to the top, leaving no children behind, and so on is seductive. Hearing this language in a school system one imagines thousands of children working hard to produce results that will someday make thousands of adults proud of their collective commitment to success. Continue reading

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Summer Fun: 12 Ways Parents Can Build a Mathematics Brain in Children

The most important thing we can do to ensure that our children speak mathematics when they are older is to make sure that mathematics is part of their world during their first 10 years of life. Continue reading

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Mathematics, Creativity, Play and the Essence of Good Teaching

Last week Madeleine, one of my virtual friends who writes limericks, asked me if I would be celebrating Tau Day, June 28th. After watching this video, I think you will all agree that Tau Day is worth celebrating if only as a reminder that creativity is an essential element of education. Perhaps creativity is the essential element of education, (Would Sir Ken Robinson agree?), and play is at the heart of creativity.

Sure Pi=3.14159…, and it is useful to know how to calculate the circumference of a circle, but kids learn anything better when they experience it in the context of something real to them. You don’t really know it until you can turn it upside down, reverse it, negate it, and see what happens.

This is what is going on when we play with something. It seems frivolous because it doesn’t seem goal directed, but it is goal directed. The goal is brain development. Continue reading

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Why Mathematics is a Foreign Language in America and What to Do about It.

Today, when (and if) the sun comes out, take a child outside and measure the shadow of something, and say, “Today, June 21st, is the longest day of the year. Let’s see how long the shadow is. Let’s pick something and mark the end of the shadow so that we can watch the shadow get longer as the summer goes on.”

All sorts of questions could come up depending upon the age of the child and the interests of the participants, for example:

What could we use to measure?

Could we use one of Daddy’s shoes? My shoe, Baby’s foot,

How could we use a tape measure?

What is the relationship of Daddy’s shoes to my shoes?

What is the ratio?

Do we need to pick a fixed time?”

…and so on and so on.

It is common for parents to ritualize story time every day. This is a good thing. To read to your children before he or she goes to bed is the most important thing parents can do to ensure that their children will grow up to be readers. It not only models something that you value, it builds your relationship, and gives you a time to be with your child in loving, fun, calm, quiet, spiritually enriching ways. Stories are the staff of mental life and relationships.

What if we had a curiosity ritual? This week we play around with sinking and floating; next week we notice the flight of balloons, or the creation of bubbles. What if parents were ritualistic about doing a cooking project with their kids every weekend?

Why do Americans do so badly in mathematics? Because mathematics is a foreign language in America. The vast majority of children grow up in a number-poor environment. We’ve forgotten that the language of mathematics is founded in curiosity.  We too often think of mathematics as rules rather than as questions.  This is like thinking of stories as grammar.  Being curious together can be a really special part of the relationship in families. Continue reading

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