Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

Unification

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So we’ve been a bit busy, as you can probably tell from the Gap That Was April. In that month, we had one out-of-town wedding, prep for another, taxes for home and business, two kid sports starting up, and the abrupt death of our faithful dishwasher. Forgiveness? Thanks. We’ll do better over the summer.

And speaking of, we looked up to find three weeks left on our homeschooling calendar. Just a double-dozen days of fitting everything in and we’ll be into the lazy – and welcome – days of summer. As I turned the calendar over, I started looking for a theme to the year – an overarching sense of mission, or purpose, or accomplishment, that I could find anchorage in. Was there something that tied it all together?

There was. But it was different for each of them.

For A, our five-intensity flathead V-8 made flesh, it was de-institutionalization. He’s had a workshirt and a nametag on for far too long, compared to the girls, and it was starting to show in a hundred little ways. But the most heartbreaking of them was his tendency to lean back, to wait for knowledge to be inserted or dispensed or otherwise given. He’s never been a taker of knowledge, and that changed this year. Slowly. Almost imperceptibly. But it changed. He’s looking now – for information, for inspiration, for meaning. He’s leaning forward, willing to participate, willing to work for his outcomes, rather than waiting for them to be served up – and it’s been wonderful to watch. I can’t wait to see how this plays out next year.

For H, our 2E emotional-intensive, it was comfort. For the entirety of her educational life, I’ve wished H a year to learn when she wasn’t concerned about hiding her disability, or worrying where it was going to surface next. I’ve wished her peace and unconditional support and the time and space to find what she is truly passionate about. This year provided all of that, and more, and it was a thing of absolute beauty to watch her learn to love history, to grow to want to improve her writing meaningfully, and – perhaps most importantly – to find a place to sit with math in comfortable silence, if not friendship. H needs space to find herself, to build something up from beneath her that will provide a platform for her to grow atop. She was never going to find that in a traditional school setting. It’s warmed my heart to see her find it here with us.

For E, our host child from the Crab Nebula, it was focus. E’s been guesting in the local GT program for the past two years, leading a split existence: two hours a day with me, on intensive writing and math and passion-project work, and then over to our local GT center school for some time being nine and ten, respectively. I wouldn’t begrudge her that time, looking back on it, but she’s grown more serious about having the time to pursue her passions, free of recess lineups and heat-lamp tater tots. This year was her opportunity to stretch out, to read everything she wanted to (even if – ahem – it was under the covers by flashlight), to stargaze the Perseids and sleep in the next day and work in her robe until noon. It was the year to show us the fire. She showed it to us, and its flame is beyond comprehension.

For me, it was spacing. Hockey coaches preach it like a mantra: motion, dispersed, active, aware. I learned to read them much better this year, to understand what it was they needed at any given moment. Sometimes, that was routine – the secure safety of the knowledge that tomorrow would parallel today, that what was asked of them on Tuesday would be asked of them on Thursday, too. Sometimes, though, it was disruption: that precisely the opposite was true.

So what do we do next year? Find a new theme. New focus. New energy. New tasks and architectures and ways of working. We build on what we found, keeping the best, discarding the rest. We move forward with a sense of passion and purpose.

But first, it’s time for a break. Because passion derives from the spaces between things – and it’s time for some between.

Why Words Matter: Intellectual Diversity

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We spent some time last night reading the flurry of blog posts and comments following another recent article describing how “all children are gifted.” It seems like this is an annual Internet discussion – something we all feel the need to talk about, with many of the same pro and con points made, year after year. Interestingly, we didn’t have the same visceral response this time that many of the parents did, on both sides of the argument, in large part because we don’t have to care anymore – we homeschool, and “gifted” is really a word we associate with traditional school.  We did, however, relate to the frustration felt by many about the ignorance regarding the diversity of intelligence. Based on reading the material, we’re wondering if we don’t need to have a different conversation entirely. At the core of that conversation is a definition. What does it mean to be smart, and who defines it?

When we were growing up (and granted, we’re pretty old), being smart was considered a positive attribute. It was understood that some kids were smarter than others, and that was OK. Everyone had different strengths, and for a small percentage of kids, that strength was being smart. Sometimes, the smart kids did well in school. Other times, they did not. Just like sometimes kids made the soccer team, and sometimes, they did not. It didn’t mean those kids weren’t good at soccer, it just meant they didn’t make the team. Everyone moved on, and learned from disappointment.

Ironically, “gifted” likely came to define smart kids because it was felt to carry less emotional baggage than the word “smart.” It might have been easier to hear from the mom down the street that little Susie was “gifted and talented,” rather than the plain fact that Susie was smart. That way, when you told that same mom how your little Johnny made the Little League team, it felt more fair. In the interim, though, the word “gifted” has become just as – if not more so – emotionally charged.

Currently, if your children are attending school, the definition of smart is “gifted.” The words have become synonymous, to our collective detriment. Many parents spend hours working with the school and advocating on their children’s behalf to get appropriate instruction arranged. For these parents, the “gifted” program is just a starting point, because many of their children need much, much more then they are given. Unfortunately, there are other parents who feel that getting their child into the “gifted” program at school is a ticket their child’s success. In the minds of these parents, the “gifted” program will lead directly to honors classes, AP classes, top-tier colleges, and top-tier graduate schools, ultimately culminating in the parent being able to tell everyone their child is a ______ (insert name of brag-worthy profession here.) These parents, as far as we can tell, don’t seem to care if their kids are smart. They just want their kids to have a chance at what the kids in the gifted program “get.”

So that’s one issue, and we’ve seen it in practice. But there’s a second issue that’s more problematic: some parents also don’t want any one child being smarter than any other child. For them, being smart has become a negative attribute, an elitist and imaginary point of differentiation among equals. Smart kids are expected to hide the depth of their intelligence, because it might make other kids feel bad about themselves. Realistically, though, some individuals are just smarter than others, just like some individuals are more athletic/artistic/musical/creative/expressionistic than others.  We think it’s best to let these parents live in their imagined world of equality. Sooner or later, despite their parent’s insistence, their kids will figure out the truth of life – that there is always someone smarter than you.

And thank goodness for that.

Kathy notes that as an internal medicine physician, she works in a world of generally smart people. Physicians and other health professionals generally have a higher IQ than the average population. As a subset, specialist physicians have the highest IQ of all those groups. When she refers a patient for a specialist consultation, she is counting on the specialist physician being smarter and more experienced with the condition than she is. This is true of many other professions as well. When we cross a bridge in our car, we are counting on the fact that the engineer who designed the bridge was smarter than us, and knew a great deal more about bridge-building. We feel the same when we get into an airplane – we trust that the pilot is smarter than us when it comes to flying a plane. Sunday evenings, we are all thankful that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is vastly more intelligent about the Cosmos, so he can teach it to us. Frankly, we love the fact that there are many individuals in this world who are smarter than ourselves.

So we exist on a continuum of intelligence. Great. Where does that leave us? We’ve discussed that “gifted” really applies to school services, not necessarily being smart. And, we’ve discussed that there are times in life where we are all going to need people more intelligent than ourselves. So back to the original question – what does it mean to be smart, and who defines it?

The fact is, all parents think their kids are smart, and this is a wonderful part about parenting. We wouldn’t want any child growing up with a parent telling them they are not smart. As long as a parent values a child for who they are, it doesn’t matter what society says; they will feel loved, valued and smart. However, telling your child they are as smart as every other child in the world doesn’t let them accept the reality of the diversity of intelligence. Does that mean you need to tell your child their IQ? Not if you don’t want to, or if you think that information would not be helpful to them. What we tell our children are three things: we know they are smart, there are lots of people out there who are smarter than them, and we encourage them to seek out individuals who are their same level of intelligence and share their same interests, so they can feel someone understands them, and feel that they belong.

Who defines smart? Mensa, a society for people with high IQs, has one definition of smart. According to their website, to qualify for Mensa, you must have scored in the top 2% of the general population on a standardized intelligence test. They state that members come from all walks of life, and they share one trait – high intelligence.  If we use the Mensa definition, then 2% of the child population has high intelligence, and 2% of the adult population has high intelligence. If we use an alternate definition, for instance individuals who scored in the top 0.1% of the general population on a standardized intelligence test, then the definition changes. How do we know? Because we’re using an established population statistic; we’re measuring against societal norms.

By our definition above, we are both highly intelligent people, and we have highly intelligent kids. That high intelligence, however, comes with a basket of intensities that makes life with us hard and incredibly interesting. Our kids do not conform to much of what has become the societal vision of “gifted” children – quiet, studious, industrious, well-behaved children who are all “plus” and no “minus” from a human behavioral perspective. Because we homeschool, we don’t have to worry about how society, or school, labels our kids. We don’t hide the fact that we have high intelligence, and we don’t expect our kids to hide it, either. In our world, being smart is a positive attribute, and finding others at our own intelligence level – and higher! – is a wonderful part of life.

“Gifted,” as we’ve written about before, is a burned word. We’ll never unload the emotional freight from it; it’s simply become so electrified a third rail as to be unrecoverable in the conversation. We applaud the advocates who continue to help educate the public about the diversity of intelligence, and how it affects parents every day. Frankly, though, we’re not going to spend our time trying to define the word “gifted” to everyone who asks about our children.  When those moments occur, we’ll simply state the facts: that we have children with high intelligence. We figure if anyone stays around to ask us what that means, then we can start a meaningful conversation. Until then, we’ll be exploring our world, and anxiously awaiting the next installation of Cosmos.

The Next Frontier

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It gets a little closer every day. We’ve started checking the 529 balances will a little more diligence, shopping the programs and options with a little more attention to detail. It’s coming.

We are running out of high-school content runway for E.

What comes next? Not sure. She’ll probably be 13 when it’s time to go, and I can’t send a 13-year-old off to Kegstand U. There’s no shortage of good options – distance programs, hybrid programs, dual-enrollment programs – and I don’t really worry that we’ll find a setting that works for her. What I worry about more is the message I send to them regarding the future of higher education, and how they might best leverage that future to build a future of their own.

What lies ahead for college, as most of us knew it, is unclear. For-profits like Phoenix have hopelessly diluted the value of an undergraduate degree. Tuition costs have gone through the roof. The globalization of middle-class labor means that there will inevitably be fewer such jobs available for them, and more and greater differentiation of skillsets will be necessary to hold onto dependable earning power. MOOCs will change things; they’ll become proctored more closely, accredited more quickly, accepted more easily, in their lifetimes. There will be a growing difference among words like education, knowledge, wisdom and experience. 

I can’t see the future – and it’s changing fast. That makes it difficult to help them design an educational experience that’s going to work for their lives. I may not have all the right answers, but I have a pretty good feeling what I think is going to happen – and, based on that, here is what I would tell them in terms of designing the next frontier of education in their lives.

Your learning will be a lifelong process. Today, an average worker remains in a job for an average of 4.4 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But that’s a figure for all current workers; the newest members of the workforce average about half that. Do the math: that means that Millennials will have 15 to 20 jobs over the course of their working lives. Jobs are increasingly becoming gigs, and gigs are multiplying and diversifying quickly while traditional job growth remains stuck in neutral. You will be learning, unlearning, relearning your entire life – so don’t walk into this process with the expectation that a single undergraduate degree is going to take you everywhere you need to go. Keep your knees bent, from an educational perspective, and keep a MOOC account open at all times.

The system is gaming you. Game it back. Here’s the core of the game: college graduates earn more over the course of their lives than non-graduates, yet college tuition is growing faster than any other product or service inflation rate in the country. Did you see what I just did there? I created inelastic demand for something with one hand and introduced supernormal price growth with the other. If you have to have it – and you’re told every day in traditional school that you do – you’ll pay anything to get it. But wait – there’s more! For the first two years of that undergraduate experience, you’re going to be shunted off to adjuncts, TAs, grad students – anyone the university can enlist to lower the cost of delivering your education. Well, there’s a trick to countering that. Do two years at a community college (don’t tell anyone, but a CC adjunct is often just as good as, or even better than, a tenure-track adjunct), transfer your credits, cut your cost (nearly) in half, and graduate with the same degree – and, probably, equivalent or even better education. 

Learning is an investment – so buy low and sell high. The next trick is to learn a core discipline and begin differentiating your own experience by bringing in perspectives and capabilities you ‘bought’ on the cheap. I’m a finance guy by undergraduate training, a marketer by first graduate training, and an anthropologist by second. I’ve since then added some capabilities – R, Hadoop, Scrum, etc. – through layers of education bought at ever-decreasing cost (R was free). If I cost-averaged those layers of education, though, I need a higher wage to make good on my investment than someone else would with the same set of skills. So buy an unassailable core discipline, like business, engineering, law, science, or language. Then start building a diversified, extended framework of skills and abilities for nothing, and go secure a job no one else can do at a cost no one else can touch.

Learn. Make. Earn. Repeat. The era of ‘hire me, I have a degree’ is coming to an end. Tests like the CLA are only going to increase in importance over the next decade, and there’s going to be a watershed day when a major company evaluates two candidates with identical CLA scores – one straight out of Traditional U, the other off the non-traditional education track – and picks the latter. Businesses don’t want credentials; they want results. That’s going to tilt the competitive playing field in favor of makers – those that are doing what potential employers want right now – rather than test-takers. So here’s my final piece of advice: learn a new skill. Make something out of it – an app, a blog, a patent, a seminar. Anything. Leverage that to increase your earning power, either at your current employer or in a business of your own. Then do it again. And keep doing it.

Questioning the status quo led us to bring our kids home to learn with us in the first place – so I’m not surprised that we’ve begun to question other educational ‘sacred cows,’ like traditional college, too. We’re going to be encountering this particular bovine a little earlier than we thought we would, but we’re taking the same approach to sacred cow interaction we always have – namely, out here on the next frontier, the grill’s hot and the beer’s cold.

Adjusting the Plan

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I was flipping through channels on Sunday while the Super Bowl was on (being from Denver, it was unwatchable), and came across The Adjustment Bureau on the SyFy channel. Dave and I saw the movie while it was in theaters, and really liked it, so I watched it again to cure my Super Bowl blues.

For those of you who have not seen it, The Adjustment Bureau is not a revolutionary movie idea (it borrows from The Matrix and Dark City, among others), but it is a well-acted science fiction story about a New York couple, David and Elise (played by Matt Damon and Emily Blount) who feel they are meant to be together, but are secretly being kept apart by members of “The Adjustment Bureau” because it’s not part of “The Plan.” Early on in the movie, David inadvertently finds out about The Plan, and, as the movie unfolds, the Bureau members reveal to David the reason he is kept from Elise: apart, he will go onto become President of the United States, and she will go onto become a famous dancer and choreographer. Together, however, they will fill each other’s voids; David will not become President, and Elise will teach dance lessons to 6-year-olds. David has to make a choice about whether to leave Elise alone so she can fulfill her dreams (and he his), or be together with her, and have their dreams altered. Eventually, they decide to stay together, and The Plan is altered by the Bureau.

The first time I saw it, I was emotionally drawn to the scenes between David and Emily. It reminded me of how I felt when Dave and I met: we were instantly drawn to one another, as though we had found a soul mate. Later, I recognized this as both physical and intellectual attraction: gifted young adults, in our early 20s, who had never really met anyone like ourselves. That attraction has stayed strong 23+ years now, and it is still the basis of why we like to be around one another as much as possible. The choice the movie presented to David was never a choice in my mind: I would have chosen to be together, no matter the cost to careers or fame.

What interested me most, though, was my reaction the second time I saw the movie. During the movie, the Bureau members use doorways to move around the city; when they are wearing a special hat (I know, corny), they can open a doorway and move large distances within the city. At one point, David is wearing one of the special hats, grabs Elise, and they open a door from a random bathroom in an attempt to escape. The doorway opens into Yankee Stadium, with green grass and blue sky, and Elise is at once thrilled, terrified, and confused.

I was reflecting on our last 3 years, and how that one doorway opening is one of the few visual representations I’ve seen that accurately conveys the intellectual and emotional intensity of raising highly/profoundly gifted kids. Each doorway we open – sometimes looking for a way out – is a jarring awakening that we are not on a regular journey. We think the kids are headed off to school, but through the door is a full-time gifted program at a different school. We think the kids are continuing in the gifted program, but through the successive doors are grade-skips, part-time homeschooling, and full-time homeschooling. The rules (if indeed there are any) are altered, the outcomes unpredictable. It feels thrilling, terrifying, and confusing all at once. We’ve gotten more used to it now, opening doorways into uncertain places, and wandering around when we get there. But the visceral, emotional feeling when you think you’re headed into the grocery store, and instead you end up on top of a building, never goes away. It’s an endless cycle of sudden disorientation, finding our way, and heading forth.

The one thing that didn’t change when I watched to movie, however, was my feeling that no matter what, it’s all better when we’re together. We are drawn to each other, my family and I, as we walk through each door together; gasping in awe, laughing, and looking for the next one to open.

The Open Door

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The question seemed fairly innocuous, as Free Your Kids posted it on Facebook: if they wanted to, would you let your kids go back to public school?

Sure, I thought. Then, in quick succession no; of course; maybe; if they had a good reason…

It’s really a question with a question beneath it. Do you believe in what you’re doing, as homeschooling parents, so strongly that you’re willing to allow that strength to be tested? I’ve thought about this before, under a broad variety of circumstances and lines of reasoning. They’ll have their questions, and their reasons, at some point or another, and I should probably be ready for a desire to chew gum, pass notes, gawk at the opposite sex, and break out of campus for lunch. How will I react?

I suppose my overarching and unified response to any such requests has to be yes. To say no is to close the door, and closed doors are things that children gaze at longingly, lionizing what must lie on the other side. So yes, the door is open, and my answer is yes…but there are layers within that yes. The first such layer is that, fundamentally, we are all here by choice – because we believe, together, in doing things differently. Once you’ve lost that belief, even temporarily, perhaps you should go – if only to find out what you need to find out about the alternative. Go, I’d have to tell them; have your traditional-school rumspringa. Because you cannot know what a thing is without experiencing it.

Beyond that, though, there are other reasons, and chief among them is a simple one: these are their lives. I’m not going to tell them how they are to be lived. The compendium of experience in our lives is an encyclopedia of opportunities taken, both rightly and wrongly. We generally learn as much from what we do wrong as right, although sometimes the lessons learned are painful ones. I’m living an entirely different life right now had I accepted job offers earlier in my career in Anaheim, or in Houston, or in Exton, Pennsylvania. I have entirely different children and an entirely different house, and I might not even be writing this blog entry. Am I ‘right’ to be where I am now? Were those situations ‘wrong’ in the absolute, or just at the time and place I occupied when I decided against them? Did I consider doors to be open at the time I made those decisions, or closed?

The point being, it’s not possible to live all the lives we might like to lead. I can’t, at the same time, give them a highly traditional, baseball-and-apple-pie trip through junior high and high school, memorizing locker combinations and hoping not to get picked last for kickball, while at the same time trying to provide them with an unstructured environment for student-directed learning. Give them one, and I implicitly remove the other.  Like all such alternate-universe lines of thinking, there’s a version of my kids that I envision being bored to death in public school, taught to hide and blunt their intensities to conform and fit in, flames of curiosity guttering in the winds of assembly-line Common Core learning. I know a bit of that universe, because they spent some time in it, but I don’t know for certain that it continues along those lines through their entire educational experience. Is my love of mathematics innate, for example?  Or was it fired by having the amazing Mr. Neff at just the right eighth-grade juncture in my learning? Or, conversely, did the drizzly rain of half-hearted high school mathematics teachers crush that love down to the point that I did not end up choosing mathematics as a career? I’m the bread of a dozen bakers, some wanting more salt in the dough, others less, some kneading with gusto and others merely executing a chore, and as a result, I can’t be sure of the exact mix of positive and negative public-school learning that made me who I am.

Moreover, I can’t definitively tell them, at any given point, that one is ‘better’ than the other. I have my belief system that, by and large, a more supportive, individualized and empowered learning environment is the way to go.But there were certainly years I was very resistant to traditional learning – seventh grade springs to mind – and in that resistance I often found something else: perhaps it was the company of a similarly-disaffected friend, or the love of an author, or a game, or an activity. Would I have otherwise found those experiences? Perhaps; and perhaps I would have found them in line with another, different learning environment. But I can’t tell you definitively that I would have gotten the same value from ‘directed’ or ’empowered’ learning as I did from ‘resistant’ learning.

Underlying most of homeschooling, then, are two basic question. The first is does homeschooling provide a greater proportion of ‘positive’ learning to ‘negative’ learning? The second – is the value of what is learned positively more important than what is learned negatively? – is a bit more subjective. I believe the answer to both is yes, for any given moment, or in any given area of life. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. But it’s also not mine to own the definition of ‘value,’ and it’s not mine to define for them what is monolithically right. Those answers are theirs to find for themselves, and while I believe I have built an environment conducive to finding them in our home, the world is a big place – and the door is always open.

Walking on the Moon

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For a first time in a long time – probably since before preschool – they are happy. They are intensely, exuberantly, singing-at-the-top-of-their-lungs happy.

I don’t know when I first noticed it, but this “school year” is different. Sure, I’m not dragging them out of bed every morning, dropping them off (sullen) at school, then picking them up (even more sullen) to come home, coercing them through homework, and forcing them get to bed and repeat it all over again. No, this ” school year” has been full of discovery, pajamas, projects, plays, singing, strife, emotions, intensity, and happiness. And that just covers the first two hours.

I couldn’t have predicted the complete change in their behavior at this point in the year. We had been part-time homeschooling both girls for the last two years, so I figured we had seen both the benefits and drawbacks of homeschooling gifted kids. I assumed we would see more of the same – content, less-stressed kids with a general love of learning.

What I got, however, was happy.

They are playing in the playroom downstairs, engaged in intricate play between the three of them that involves something along the lines of singing a favorite song, while one of them plays the accompanying keyboard. For H, this means a Police song – she asked for a DVD of a Police concert for Christmas – and she’s singing her rendition of “Walking on the Moon” with the piano. Their music teacher would be proud (and thank goodness she is OK with them doing pop songs for their music lessons.) It’s the type of thing I would have heard them doing at age 3 or 4, but that slowly melted away as they went to school. Once they moved beyond preschool, the monotony of school ground the playfulness out of them, and they came out the other end, as a Pink Floyd face. It happened so slowly, so insidiously, that I barely noticed.

This happiness in my house has made me question everything that I thought I knew. I used to think I understood, without a doubt, the benefits of education, acquiring knowledge, and training for a profession. I knew the right way to study, the right classes to take, the right way to get into school. But thinking about happiness, and what that means to a human life, has made me realize that I have much to learn. How do I guide my kids through an environment that I never knew existed, one so vastly different from my own experiences as a child? How do I focus on their happiness as an end point, not as an unexpected side effect?

How do I teach them to walk on the moon?

Or maybe – and probably – they should teach me. The good news is, I’m never too old to learn, especially from my kids.

I’m heading downstairs to start singing.

The Chair Is Not In the Plan

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There’s a fantastic scene in the movie Contact – a surefire crowd-pleaser in any gifted/intense home, by the way – in which the protagonists are assembling an intergalactic travel portal from plans sent out by a much more advanced species. The device is simple, elegant, and beautiful to the eye – but when Jodie Foster comes to examine it, she finds that the design team has added a chair for the traveler’s comfort. Said chair is not, of course, in the plan, and it’s not surprising that when they do fire up the device, it shakes and smokes and shudders…until she pulls out the bolt, and the chair is removed, at which point it works beautifully; it turns out that seating was not really necessary anyway.

I started to feel, somewhere along the line this year, that structured math was the chair we had added to our otherwise beautiful homeschooling equation. Where every other subject we teach – from foreign language to coding to critical reading to world history to science – feels like an environment for exploration and mastery-based learning, structured math is off vibrating in the corner, stuffed with worksheets and Common Core lunacy. So we’re pulling out the bolt, and hoping for a more blissful ride to come.

The reality, we’ve come to realize, is that most structured math curricula have two core faults. First, they assign equal weight to everything, forcing a month of multiplying mixed numbers on us (because THAT’S a crucial math skill to have) while short-changing more important topics like problem-solving strategy development and statistical analysis and data interpretation. Everything’s granted the same stature, and there’s no way to hurry up the check-box skills and stretch out the more critical tasks, because assignments need completing on time. We clearly communicate to our children, through equal-weighting mathematical ‘units,’ that learning to convert tons to ounces or resolving improper fractions is just as important as algebraic problem-solving. It’s not.

Second, math is still focused on computation, in an era when computation is not a skill that is differentiated in the labor market. I’m not receiving any resumes that talk about an applicant’s skill in computation. What I am receiving are resumes that focus on the applicant’s skill in creative mathematical problem solving – a skill I’ve yet to see emphasized in a traditional math program.  All of this goes against what Conrad Wolfram said in his most recent TED Talk, too – the idea that we are falling further and further behind the standard of mathematical capability, simply because computation is easy to teach and easy to grade. Anything beyond computation – teaching actual mathematics – has historically been deemed too time-intensive and personal to be effectively performed in a traditional school setting. Maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t, but once again, we’re in danger of becoming the infamous drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight – not because his keys might be there, but because the light is better for looking. Is there another way we could pursue a math curriculum designed to emphasize creativity and problem solving while Wolfram’s vision matures?

“What if,” Kathy said to me, “we filtered down the topics to get rid of the computation focus, and then just moved along at the pace of their mastery?”

What if, indeed. Much of math, from grades three through seven, is just churning the same topics over and over again, tacking on a single decimal place to multiplication or adding in the area of one more shape as we go along. It’s not as if there’s an enormous gulf between one grade and the next; I’ve watched H and A tackle the exact same unit, at the exact same time, for the past few years. But we’re rushed from one topic to the next by the demands of the traditional academic calendar, and there’s no room whatsoever for taking a topic that interests them and allowing for a few extra days on it. Nor is there any freedom to dispense with blatantly goofy Common Core effluvia like this and this and this; my kids’ progression through nonsensical bullshit must be documented, worksheet page by worksheet page.

Not any more. While we’re on our way to a computer-based math (CBM) curriculum, we’re going with a combination of Thinkwell and Khan Academy, both of which encourage topic exploration and mastery-based learning rather than traditional-math rubrics handed down from Cold War educational philosophies. We’re going to work with them to sift grade-appropriate topics for meaningful mathematical work and let them work those subjects until they feel comfortable with them – learning driven by the student, not the calendar.

And, hopefully, what we’ll find is that the beauty of mathematics is there for grade-school students to find, too – just as long as we don’t go installing upholstery that doesn’t belong there.