Monday, July 19, 2010

# Driving in a Slow Lane

I don’t like labels, but I have to look at the facts. My daughter is 3 years 9 months today, and she is reading at the 4th grade level. That makes her… shall we say, unusual. When I was looking to try out Time4Learning.com, I was intrigued by the promises to address the needs of gifted children. Here lies the first problem – Anna’s spread in various subjects is probably 4 years or more. I chose to focus all my review time (1 month) on kindergarten math, since I don’t feel that we need any help in reading at this point and not quite ready for spelling or grammar yet. Maybe other courses are set up differently, but the scope of this review is exclusively kindergarten math at Time4Learning.com from the point of view of an academically advanced preschooler and her parent.
First experience of my child. I set Anna in front of my laptop and let her go over the tutorial. She does not have mouse skills (she is more used to my iPod than to my laptop), but after about 10 minutes and my instruction, she managed to manipulate the trackpad reasonably well and went through the tutorial. Then we started on the very first lesson in the math – matching “same” pictures.
• Anna (after a few screens): Mama, why do they keep asking me the same questions? It’s all the same.
• Me: Umm… That’s a mouse learning lesson. That’s for you to learn to control the program.
• In the end of this first activity I said that it’s enough for today in the hopes to look for something that would match her skills better. I asked Anna what she thought. She said, Well, it was a little long and a little boring, but I still want to play more.
My Follow up: I spent about an hour trying different portions of K program to find something that better matches my daughter’s level. Here comes my first request to Time4Learning.com folks – it’s great that you have a curriculum plan, it helps a lot. But I wish I could preview the activity without going through a long and boring “magic hand” introduction that cannot be skipped – just show me one sample question in parental login from this activity, so I can get an idea whether it’s going to work or not. Anyway, there were some activities in K curriculum that I really liked. They were mostly based on both sound and picture discrimination – something that a paper-based workbook definitely cannot do. So I picked one from “Sea Symphony” for our next try – it was about patterns.
Second experience of my child: It took Anna some time to figure out this activity. What annoyed both me and her is that “the magic hand” will show you a full answer if you make a mistake and then will ask you to redo the problem. I understand that essentially every activity is glorified drilling, but this is too much drilling for my taste. It would be good to be able to skip the repeat of the activity or to reintroduce it later. She also kept asking why “Bunny and her friends” don’t show up any longer. I am with her – the virtual world is not consistently designed. If you have four characters that represent this learning world, it would be nice to see them in every activity in some way. I think this kind of consistency is important to young learners, especially to ones like my daughter who likes predictability. The good news is that she still wants to play more as long as “Bunny and her friends” are present in the activity that I select next.
So do I feel so far that the K math program addresses the needs of the gifted student? Again positives first. It does to a degree through “acceleration”, because Time4learning.com allows access to 3 grades at the same time (I now have access to PreK, PreK2 and K and can change it by contacting customer support). I suppose I can bump her to the first grade and find through experimentation a combination of activities that would fill the gaps in her preK knowledge and move her further.
However, I’ve seen a lot of negatives, and some of them could be fixed relatively easily:
The delivery of the material is excruciatingly slow. I kept thinking, Is this what she is going to experience when she goes to K next year??? As I mention, one cannot skip an introduction to an activity, and sometimes it runs very slowly (not because the site is slow, because the voice speaks very slowly) for 2-3 minutes. I wish I could configure the option to skip introduction (to have a “go on” button enabled while the introduction is running).
Unnecessary Repetition. On every screen of the activity the voice says exactly the same thing explaining what needs to be done. I don’t see it needed at all after the first screen, since you have a button that a child can use if he or she needs to listen to instructions again. I wish the child could proceed directly to the task and the talking would only start after a certain period of inactivity on the page.
Not adaptive. This is obviously more difficult to fix. After spending now probably about 4 hours total on K math, I feel that every activity essentially is a translation of a workbook page into a multi-media world. Some are done very well, some are done so-so. In all of them one cannot skip one multiple-choice question without completing it, and they all seem to run in order of simple to more difficult. My ideal program for gifted student would start this kind of a drill with a question of medium difficulty and then adjust up or down based on the correctness of the answer.
The rest is completely unrelated to Time4Learning.com, but working with this curriculum made me wonder how Anna’s future school will meet her needs. I read that academically advanced preschoolers typically “even out” with average peers by the third grade. But maybe they even out because they are forced to sit in the classroom through the same curriculum as this K Math without being able to “skip” anything or to go deeper into any of the topics. Just a thought for the future, but I am still committed to public kindergarten.
Stay tuned for my vision of how an ideal math program would look like to me and how Time4Learning stacks up to this vision :)
Since I am reviewing a math program, I am linking this post to Math Links at Joyful Learner.

#### 22 comments:

Christy said...

I love how thorough your review is - thank you!

I have noticed that a lot of kids even out in the first few years of school. I tend to believe that the kids who even out may have done more academic learning with their parents at an early age, and those children are not necessarily gifted - they just got a head start. I have seen truly gifted children stay ahead of the pack. I have friends with children in both private school and a charter school who say the same thing.

MaryAnne said...

Thanks for this review. We need intelligent software that can adapt to meet the needs of the child - that's the sort of thing my husband would build if he weren't so busy with his current job. Hmm...

Pathfinder Mom said...

You know that I'm passionate about this one!

I have a friend who has a son who was playing chess at 4 years old. He went in K already reading, skip counting, etc. He has struggled greatly in K with finishing the work. The teacher tried to tell his mother that he was ADD (he is not hyper at all). The pediatrician told her that there's not a chance that he's ADD. The teacher put him on a "timer" to finish his work. He is forced to endure this kind of instruction and repetition. The kid is bored to tears, but the mother isn't at all assertive and so the problem continues. There is no gifted program here until later grades.

Have you asked for a copy of the curriculum at the school where Anna will go? We did that with a private school when TB was her age and we were shocked at how much of the K stuff he had already covered (pretty much everything except the writing) at her age. It's good to know what will be expected.

I totally believe that the "evening-out" is due to the focus of bringing the kids at the bottom to the middle ground while those who are at the top languish. Not universal, but very common.

Most research shows that an 'average' kid needs something on the order of 7-10 repetitions of a concept for it to sink in. Stuggling learners - 15+, a gifted learner 1-3 repetitions. How is a teacher going to be able to accommodate those variances? Some with get left behind, some will be bored. I know that it's controversial, but I really think that ability grouping makes so much more sense.

The girl who painted trees said...

We are finding the same thing with the K math with Bear. So much repetition. And I like how the instructions are slow and clear, but don't like how they are repeated all the time. I found myself wishing they could start with more challenging questions, or at least let you skip the easy ones. I agree - very much like a workbook. I can't justify Bear sitting in front of it to learn when we have all these other fun activities to do hands on. But my review will be coming later.
I do believe kids even out mostly because they don't continue to be challenged unless they have a very good teacher who addresses their needs by additional projects to challenge and stimulate their interests.
You might find after a year of public kindergarten that you have to find an alternative that works better for her. Or, because you continue to challenge her at home, she may be satisfied and thrive in the public school system.

Raising a Happy Child said...

@Christy: I agree with you - the only way I see to eliminate this "holding back" problem entirely is individualized instruction, i.e. homeschooling, and as you know, I am not in favor of this approach.

@Pathfinder: There is still hope for advanced classes in the future. I know that they start at K in NYC and generate a crazy zoo among certain "class" of parents who want their children to go to "gifted" school. Tutoring a preschooler to pass a gifted test - ouch! And there is still an overall quality of life to consider. I wouldn't mind my daughter to "even out" if she finds other interests to pursue and uses all her extra time to enjoy them. I went to school for gifted myself, and while it was great fun, I spent way too much time chasing the grades and trying to be the best in every subject. I wouldn't want the same for Anna.

An Almost Unschooling Mom said...

I have found most "homeschool" math curriculums to be cumbersome, and overly slow. That's why I like the www.aaamath.com, I told you about. The children can work on a skill until they get it, and move then move on. We print the work chart, so they can record what section they worked in each day, and their scores. Then, if they have a week section, I know what we need to work on more. But there's no glitz to the program, and I often have to work through the "teaching" section with them, to explain the concept in clearer terms. Now that my oldest has completed the k-8 sections, we're on our own for Algebra, and I'm really looking forward to beginning the "fun" math with him.

Debbie said...

I agree with your review. We had similar experiences here. I suppose that is why I will likely just use our curriculum and find activities to supplement. I find with Selena we need to just do what is necessary for the light bulb to go on then move on from there. I don't ever see us going clear through any curriculum book from front to back. Another reason for us homeschooling, so I can control her exposure time, and move with ease to the next concept.

Pathfinder Mom said...

As far as Time4Learning goes, it is more flexible than it first appears. You're not locked into their scope and sequence.

If a child does the "quiz" section first, it will automatically set all of the lessons to 'mastered' or 'completed' state if they pass the quiz. You can then decide if you want to go back and do the individual lessons.

Also, you can view the lesson plans for all of T4L kindergarten math here: http://www.time4learning.com/Scope-Sequence/Kindergarten-math.shtml - that will allow you to pick the individual topics that you would like Anna to work on in the program.

The "magic hand" lessons do go away later when the kids are comfortable with the interface. Intros to lessons in the 1st and 2nd grade sections tend to be more succinct, but still are a bit slow for clarity.

Raising a Happy Child said...

&An AlmostUnschooling: Thanks for the link, Leah. I did check it out, and think it might be something for higher grades. I don't like the big ads on the page. I could learn from the page that the cockroach can give me salmonella and how to call Terminix a lot faster than to learn to compare quantities. I also don't like that the quiz doesn't seem to ever end.

Raising a Happy Child said...

@PathFinder. I sure looked through scope and sequence, and it was helpful. As I said in my review, it didn't give me a hint how exactly this particular activity is laid out. I still like the program overall, but it needs major work!

Pathfinder Mom said...

Natalie - have you seen the "guides" section under parent administration? It is sort of an extended scope and sequence area and has more resources than the public document.

Each guide gives support for the online lesson. It tells how the lesson is laid out and then gives classroom activities and worksheets to support what the child is to learn in the online lesson.

It's under parent login/lesson plans/select grade & subject/then scroll down and look in the "guides" column. A lot of the lessons have a pdf support file. That may help.

Joyful Learner said...

Oh my! Early risers, aren't we all! I feel like the comments section has been very helpful!

I taught gifted kids and they do not even out. But since some are not good at everything, you can always help them with weaker areas. And then there are those who are advanced at everything. They might benefit from skipping grades if they have the maturity to match. My sister skipped a grade and she did fine.

I was always the teacher's helper in school and through graduate education programs. I tutored other children (part of school program) from junior high and high school. Other than being called teacher's pet, I enjoyed helping others. I think that is how I became a teacher in the first place. I loved school. My daughter, not so much. She'll put up with it if she had too but without the freedom she needs, she wouldn't be as happy. If I give her a workout, she tries to finish the whole thing in one sitting which is the reason I have to hide it. Lol. It would be torture for her to do one page at a time with the rest of the class.

You can always have Anna tested for gifted schools. There's a fabulous one near here that I've toured and even considered teaching at.

Raising a Happy Child said...

@Pathfinder: Thanks for your persistence. I think Time4Learning should give you a free month since you are a great advocate :) I did find the lesson guides now, and they are pretty good, especially, ironically, their worksheets. But this raises again a question of good user interface for me. I would expect parental login to give me the guides right away and link to the lesson plan where my child (or children) happened to stop at the moment. It's really not that hard to do. I surely hope that they will take some of my feedback and improve the experience.

Joyful Learner said...

Sorry for the typo. It's suppose to be workbook, not workout.

Joyful Learner said...

Thanks for the review! I don't think we'll be signing up for it any time soon!

Ticia said...

Wow! I must be the only person reading who is getting up later or something, I am so not a morning person, and there's this huge discussion going on!
I know at some point I need to find something my kids will like beyond Jump Start on the computer, but they don't seem to learn too much from the computer right now and see it more as a toy. Sigh, so much to do, so much to do.

Ozymandiaz said...

My son is so similar to Anna! He is almost 5, and started reading a little before 3 and is reading at unknown grade level - he just reads things, and sometimes he doesn't want to read at all, and its all good :)

Anyways, I have two comments. First - he really really loves Dreambox for math. He is working on second grade stuff now and enjoys it immensely. I love the way they focus on fundamental understanding of math - place value, addition tricks without too much rote. The software, I think, is truly adaptive - it moves fast when he "gets" the stuff and slows down or rewinds when he seems to have forgotten. We pay \$12.95 a month for it, and its totally worth is for the 30 mins of peace it buys me every day.

I share your concern about boredom in kindergarten (my son starts this year). We are in the Bay Area too and underwhelmed with the public school system. My son will go to a Spanish Immersion school this year for K. I think the challenge of learning and thinking in a new language (none of us speak a word of Spanish) will make up for any repetition he has to endure in math and reading. I hope this will tide us over till second grade or so, when the gifted programs start. And then I will start worrying about my December born 2.5 year old who can read BOB books already, but doesnt get to go to school for another THREE years :)

Raising a Happy Child said...

@Ozymandiaz - it's good to see someone local on my blog. I think immersion school is a good idea. Our main reason to try for a public school is to be part of a community and to be able to walk to school. It's also supposed to be one of the best schools in CA, so I am fairly optimistic. And thanks for the link to dreambox - I am very interested in checking it out.

Jamie said...

My daughter (just turned 4) has been doing Time4learning for a few months now. I initially placed her in kindergarten, and but mostly she's been doing the first grade stuff. I let her explore the site as she wishes, but not the "playground". She loves to learn -- for her, there's no distinction between learning and playing! Time4learning is good for basic presentation of material. There's not a lot of depth or critical thinking. At the same time, it gives a simple presentation of advanced topics, making the material accessible for my 4 year old. Thus, it has allowed her to learn about and explore some interesting topics. For example, she did the module about the "earth's crust" (grade 1 science) over and over again. This caused her to develop and interest in the topic which we persued by getting library books about it. I wish there was more science and social studies - however there are many interesting topics for her to explore in Language Arts extensions- weather, planets, etc.

As far as the math -- I think it's just okay. It gives a good presentation about basic math concepts. We're into the first grade stuff now which I think is presented better than the kindergarten material. We've used a variety of online math resources, including Dreambox, and my daughter has completed or tested out of all the kindergarten and is now almost finished with the first grade material on Dreambox. Dreambox has a very different approach - it includes problem solving and the program tailors itself exactly to the level of the child. One drawback of that is that you're not supposed to help the child or the program will give the child material that's too hard. I would definitely be interested in reading your opinion of Dreambox.

What amazes me most about my daughter most is not that she can do math, but that she LOVES it. She wakes up in the morning and writes math problems for herself,and then last week she asked me to teach her about "multiply-cation". :) Since she is also a fluent reader, I've decided that Montessori will be the only way to go for her next year for kindergarten. We have a Montessori charter school in town, but if we don't make the lottery, I think we'll go for a private Montessori school. In theory, a Montessori school will teach the child based on his/her interest and ability level, and not based on a standardized curriculum which is what the majority of children learn at a particular age. I don't really care if she evens out or stays ahead -- what I care about most of all is that she has opportunities to learn new concepts and ideas and that she's in a positive environment where she can maintain and explore her passion for learning.

Valerie @ Frugal Family Fun Blog said...

Very interesting -- thanks for posting such a helpful review. Is K the only level curriculum that is available?

Jackie said...

My kids are grown 29 & 25. I would say both were advanced. The public school experience was horrible for my son especially because he was very smart and was BORED to tears in school. I finally pulled him out in the 8th grade and finished his schooling at home. Even the homeschool materials (not nearly as many as they have now) were boring to him. He is a computer software engineer/developer now and can articulate as an adult why he had such a hard time in school. Basically he says it was the way things were taught. It was very dry and boring so he did just enough to pass. Really sad, and we live in an area that touts the school system as one of the best. My advice is to make your decision as you go, don't automatically dismiss homeschool. There are many advantages.

Alissa said...

That was a very detailled review. Good to read. Thanks
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