When life presents opportunity

At certain times in your life there are people you meet, or events that happen that change your life forever. Our visit to Pakistan in November 2015 was one where my two adult children, Nathan and Kirsti, and I attended a spectacular wedding. Not only was it breathtaking with the dresses, the food, the music, the dancing, but also the focus on people and excellence. We quickly realized that we were in a land with many very bright people with immense global experience and a perspective of the world that embraces an outstanding understanding of the West and the East. It became clear very quickly that as foreigners we stood out; because of the one-sided reporting of the country, it is a country that is understood very little by the west, and therefore, almost ignored by international tourists and business. Yet, despite this, the passion and drive of the Pakistanis is creating a massive change. It was this passion for progression and excellence that intrigued me, and has resulted in Spirit of Math launching classes in three locations in Lahore, Pakistan this past August.

During our visits over the past year and a half, we have met significant changemakers, participated in a national debate, spoke at several conferences, provided workshops for parents, and trained teachers in mathematics education. One of the highlights of one of my trips was a visit to Ala-u-Din Academy, a girls school in a very poor area of the city. The building was a family home, transformed to classrooms and administrative offices. The family donated the building, and several generations later, the females of the family still run the school. The picture on the front of this NewsMagazine shows the girls and boys in the courtyard of the school. It costs approximately $60 US dollars a year to attend this school, and yet a scholarship fund had to be created because some of these students’ parents are not able to pay for this. The boys who attend are brothers or cousins in the same home, and can only do so up to Grade 5. I spoke to a room packed with girls in Grade 10 about being a female CEO, and how believing in their inner-genius and working hard to strengthen their skills and knowledge, can change their world. It was clear that they were ready to take on the world; they have already overcome extreme hurdles just to go to school, imagine what they will be able to do in their future. This is just one example of the many incredible well executed initiatives that one family has taken.

We are excited to announce that Spirit of Math is now in Pakistan! Classes are running with the same program as in Canada and in the USA. With after-school classes in three different schools in Lahore: City School Alpha Phase VI, SICAS Kids Kampus Gulberg and Kids Kampus Johar Town. My daughter, Kirsti Langen, has taken the role of Academic Director, and Zorain Masood from Lahore, is the Operations Manager. This is just the beginning of our adventure there. The requests for Spirit of Math’s classes and teacher training is immense, the support is incredible, and the opportunities to make significant changes at all levels is exciting and enormous.

Giving back in little ways, can leave a big impact

In June, as another school year came to a close I found myself watching again with pride, as our latest group of Spirit of Math graduates and assistant teachers stepped forward during our graduation to face the next phase of their lives. Like so many SoM alumni before them, they continue to demonstrate incredible enthusiasm, eager to show the world what they can do. It is inspiring to hear what our graduates have already done in their lives, and encouraging to know that they are going to be our future leaders.

With such big aspirations, and with the huge potential of our alumni, we often expect huge successes, and those huge successes are often the only ones recognized. But, as I said during the recent graduation, it is not the huge successes, and the big rewards that make lasting effects: it is the little things along the way that make the most impact. When you add up one little successful impact after another, you will have made a big impact, and that will change the world.

This reminded me of a personal story of a small gesture made by a very old man that influenced my life in a significant way. This happened in my childhood and although it was very small, it left a lifelong effect. When I was just six-years-old, I was with my father in a small village in Uganda; as my father walked ahead to meet with the village leaders, I saw an elderly man sitting in the middle of a mud hut leaning over a small fire, cooking his meal. He gestured for me to join him, so I did. He was cooking a modest meal to feed his family. The food he was cooking would have been all his family would eat that day, nevertheless, with a smile on his face, and joy in his eyes, he gestured for me to join him and offered the food to me. We could not communicate verbally, but his face said it all: he was as proud as he could be to offer all he had to a little girl. I was a stranger, and this man happily offered me what little he had…because it was the right thing to do. This small gesture taught me the importance of giving from within oneself, no matter how little you have to offer.

Graduates, I would like you to remember that you have a huge amount to give but don’t just focus on the huge successes: it’s the little things that will add up and make a big difference. As individuals you will change the lives of others, and as a group you will change this world.

I wish all of our students and their parents, a very safe and happy summer 2017!

 

Getting into the Brightest of Brains

How do you “get into” the brains of those students who are thinking at a higher level? Once you know, how do you then transfer these thinking patterns to other students so that they can also think the same way?

 

When developing the initial Spirit of Math program, Charles wished to expose the students to as many different problems as possible. He then proceeded to provide answers according to his background and his adult understanding. This is when he realized that the students did not think like he did and did not have the knowledge base to access so that they could use his solutions. Having recognized that this was a rare opportunity to look at how very bright and successful students think, Charles closely watched and listened to those students who were solving questions with ease. He documented their methods, and with Fraser Simpson developed the Problem of the Day book. The solutions to any of the problem-solving assignments have since been developed by watching, listening and questioning bright students, using approaches that encourage their thinking processes. The material in the primary grades has also been developed in the same manner, so that younger students will know how reason mathematically when they get older.

 

When trying to develop new material, better thinking processes and a strong skill set, we have found that listening to kids as they talk and explain their thoughts in a peer-to-peer group setting is the best way to come up with effective material. Students will often think of looking at a problem in a very unique way. Often their explanations will be more efficient than our “adult” methods. Rather than interpreting problems through our mature eyes, we often will find the “jewels” when looking at the problems through the students’ eyes.

 

As parents and teachers, we often think that we have the best way to solve a problem. However, students often relate best to others their own age because their understanding is at the same level. A very effective way to change the way students will approach problems, therefore, is to listen to the brighter students, and to teach others to solve problems in the same way. All students can learn how to think differently; how to think like the brightest.

 

When developing our program it was essential that we paid attention to the brightest students, rather than thinking that we knew all the answers. As a parent, make sure that you take time to listen to your child. Listen to their talk. Listen to their explanations. Look at the pictures they are drawing to explain themselves. Work with these and try to understand them rather than insisting that they first listen to you.

Do you know what is available for your child?

Searching for the right educational program for your child can be the most complicated decision you will make with some of the most far-reaching consequences. These consequences can be extremely positive if your decision is the right one for your child.

Understanding how your child learns, solves problems and makes decisions is your responsibility and an educator’s job. It is also a parent’s job to ensure that their child is provided with proper education that will train a brain to work efficiently and effectively. You want your child to learn the skills needed to open doors to their future. A parent is thus responsible for finding the right program and effective educators. A strong marriage of the two – a solid program with good teaching, will give the greatest benefit to your son or daughter.

Let’s first examine the teaching. This starts with the teachers. One of the key ingredients to a good teacher is their expectations of students. If they expect students to do well, the teacher’s perceptions of the students’ abilities rises and the children’s own self-image is enhanced. You want to find a teacher or set of teachers who work together to build a positive environment that does not limit a child’s intellectual growth. Perceptions influence the way a brain works. If a child is told that he/she is very smart and can learn easily then the child will more likely respond appropriately. If a person has a negative perception of themselves then they will also act it out. Look for a teaching environment where students are encouraged to perform at peak efficiency, and expect positive results.

Content and how it encourages different ways of learning is a key to a good program. In Spirit of Math the content was chosen to expose students to different ways of learning. Charles Ledger (2004) stated this as follows: “… content must exemplify ways of learning, for these are more important than knowledge about any particular subject of investigation. Knowledge of methods makes it possible for a person to continue learning, and to undertake inquiries on their own. Every discipline has its own methods that allow for the simplification of learning. A key element in the Spirit of Math approach is the emphasis on group, or team, work – developing an ability to work with others, an understanding of the great advantages available through a team effort, building up respect for others’ ability and a realistic understanding of one’s own strengths and weaknesses.”

Finally, materials must help a teacher impart a sense of the extraordinary and surprising so that learning becomes a continuous adventure. An imaginative use of materials generates habits of thought that will enable a student to respond to changes in knowledge and belief with zest instead of dismay. Many young people have lost their fear of mathematics, and have found that they approach the learning of mathematics with excitement simply because they have mastered the drills! Students develop a sense of meaning and value simply from being challenged in appealing ways.

When looking for the best program for your son or daughter, do your research:

1. Listen to others.

2. Find out what other concerned parents are doing.

3. Look at the progress of those kids in the program. Watch the children who go to various programs. Are those kids succeeding? How do they conduct themselves around adults and around other children? How are they doing at school? Have their parents noticed differences in them since beginning the program? What types of differences? Is it that their child is getting better marks, or is the child both getting better marks and also able to apply their knowledge in other areas too? Do they have a better understanding? Are they self-confident, motivated, etc.?

4. Look at the kids in the program. Your child is going to be spending time with these children in the classroom and associating themselves with them. They learn not only the material taught in class, but how to act, what is important in life, and what values others hold.

5. Examine the people who will be working with your child. Do they exemplify a person who can be a good role model?

6. Don’t just get caught up with the “in thing” as it might not be right for your son or daughter.

7. Read educational columns and get to know those journalists who aren’t frightened of stating their fundamental beliefs.

8. Ask good educational authorities. Apparently someone at OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) has been recommending Spirit of Math. You might want to ask an educator there for further information regarding other programs.

Become knowledgeable about what educational programs are available and how they have been developed. Ask the following questions:

Do they have a proven record?

Who created it and how was it created?

Who is teaching it? What is the training required for the teachers?

Challenge is Not a Four Letter Word

“The harder your brain is obliged to work, the greater will be its capacity for work.” Lewis, D., Greene, J., Thinking Better

Explore how much of a challenge your child is able to accept. We all have the innate desire to be challenged and conquering a good challenge delights us.

Everyone likes to do something easy, but only for a short period of time. Think of the last time you had something challenging and you succeeded in conquering it. You probably felt a great sense of satisfaction. It may have been very frustrating going through the process, but once you did it, WOW! You likely felt good about yourself and realized that you could do something you didn’t think you could do. Your self-confidence skyrocketed, even if only for a short period of time. You felt that you were now armed and equipped to do more.

Why is it then that people believe that giving a child something easy to do is the key to improving the child’s self-confidence? An easy task may be a start, but the effects short-lived. This “easy” idea has permeated the education system so much so now, that educators are frightened to challenge students. Programs have been developed based on this premise, and in the US alone, billions of dollars have been spent focusing on the problems of the weakest kids, rather than on programs designed to challenge them.

I believe that as a society as a whole, we CANNOT be scared to challenge others. If it is our intention to help a person improve his intelligence, or to prepare him/her for their future challenges, then isn’t it our responsibility to challenge them when they are young?

How can you, as a parent, help your child meet a challenge with “zest”?

First, a child needs to learn how to approach a challenging situation or problem. They need to know how to mentally deal with something that they think cannot be done. By going through a difficult process and experiencing success, they will develop better self-esteem. They won’t be as frightened of a tough situation or problem the next time it comes to them. Teach them that there are always solutions to problems, even if the problem doesn’t look possible, or the challenge appears to be way beyond what they think is possible. This is when your attitude “kicks” in. If you as a parent approach your own challenges with a positive attitude, believing in yourself and believing that you can do it, then your kids will see this and react in the same way when they are in similar situations. They also need to see that you can’t always solve all your problems on your own, and that often others are needed to solve the problem too. Let them hear how you ask questions and work with others in a positive way.

Second:  a student needs to learn the basic “question solving” skills. First teach them to look for the right question(s) to ask. They need to learn techniques on how to approach a challenge and be armed with a set of skills they can refer back to, so that they can find the right question. Once the question is known then their other skills will help them. A strong skill set in this area is transferable to many types of situations. If kids are given opportunities to use their problem-solving skills in a variety of combinations, then they will learn how to approach any type of new challenge without fear. Another fact that becomes apparent to them very quickly is that they won’t be able to solve all their problems/questions on their own, and that is OK. They will learn that they will need to work with others, and that working with others, as a team member, is crucial to success. Learning to depend on others at times, and learning that others need to depend on you too is important. We are not alone in this world and it isn’t just about “me”.

Third:  the fear of a challenge. If the challenge seems too great, many of us will stop in our tracks and freeze, or turn around and go back; or worse, just ignore or avoid the situation. You need to set realistic expectations for your child, but make them tough enough that your child will be stretched just a bit. I believe that God gives us challenges in life so that we are the best person that we can be. In the classroom, and at home, it is important that we continue to challenge children.

Our main focus with math problems at Spirit of Math, is not just to improve math skills. We want kids to develop the skills necessary to deal with difficult situations. Using math as the means to do this is very effective. Learning how to get kids to work on their own and with their peers without telling them how to do everything is our teachers’ challenge.

Your expectations and your attitude are crucial. Challenging kids takes courage, self-confidence, and confidence in your kids’ abilities.

Competition – No, It’s Not Just for Sports Enthusiasts

Spirit of Math makes the case for healthy math competition.

“…and pencils down.”

The contest is over. Fidgeting legs and hands make an effort to wait patiently until all the contest papers have been collected.  Anxious parents are waiting outside the doors.

“Okay, now you can talk.”

The room erupts with excited chatter. “How did you do this one?” “I got 2 for question number 4, what did you get?” In the large hall, over 120 students from grades 3 to 12 have just completed writing one of the nation’s largest series of mathematics contests – one that tens of thousands of students write. These Spirit of Math students have opted to miss a morning of school just so that they could have the opportunity to compete in something they get excited about – math.

Yes, math. Even in North America, many students think of it as another sport – one in which they too can enjoy competitively. They love it because they know they’re good at it, and want to show what they can do.

There are great benefits to exposing students to contests, as long as the focus is on learning. So often teachers, parents and students get caught up in the testing frenzy, studying and teaching to the contest. There is so much more value to these contests, then just “teaching to the test,” and this value is often lost when the focus is exclusively on how to do the next question.

Many people can give past questions and show students how to answer the questions – the solutions are there. But how many people can actually look at all the problems, determine the skill sets that are needed, and teach those skill sets so that multitudes of mathematical ideas and questions can be tackled? This method is hard to come by, but it has been perfected  – over 25 years – in the Spirit of Math program. And the results of this method of teaching skill sets are outstanding. With over 700 placements on the national mathematics honour rolls this year – an outstanding feat – Spirit of Math makes a great case for not just teaching to the test. Spirit of Math students are excelling in mathematics because they have the skill sets needed to think mathematically.

With this focus, the educational value in doing the contests shifts from looking at how many questions are answered, to an opportunity to evaluate how well the math skill sets have been developed, and the concepts understood. In addition, students learn how to take a risk, and are pushed to do more than they thought they could.

Putting students into contests gives them an opportunity that many students don’t have. If you want your teenager to be able to compete against others for university math scholarships, they must achieve at least an honours standing on a contest.

Spirit of Math students have an impressive list of contest achievements to add to their resumes. For over 25 years now, students studying with the Spirit of Math program, have succeeded in many national mathematics contests. In fact, for a period of 13 years, when students had the opportunity to study this program in their day school, there were more students on the national honour roll from that one school, than all other Canadian schools combined. Did their teacher teach to the test? Absolutely not, but they did have an incredible program that not only developed extraordinary math skills, but many other interpersonal skills. These students developed minds able to think in ways that propelled them to the top in all areas of life.

From doctors to physicists to engineers, these Spirit of Math alumni are now leaders in their communities, changing the world.