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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Learning in fourth grade — on Saturdays

For about half of the Saturdays each year, I teach in a wonderful program called The Saturday Course. This is an enrichment program for gifted and talented public-school and parochial-school students in grades four through six. Small classes, dedicated faculty, motivated kids — what’s not to love? They come for five or six consecutive Saturdays, taking two courses that meet for approximately 75 minutes each. So each kid gets at most seven and a half hours of math, or computers, or drama, or art, or whatever. You wouldn’t think that would be enough time to get much done, would you? But it definitely is.

Today was the last Saturday of the current session. My Extreme Math class finished up with an investigation of the Tower of Hanoi, having earlier explored permutations, Fibonacci numbers, Pascal’s Triangle, and the Chaos Game. Of course these kids don’t know algebra yet, but when you compare their inquiries into discrete math with the inquiries of 10th- and 11th-graders, it’s remarkable how the similarities outweigh the differences.

Favorite interchange from today’s math class:
“My mother taught this to me, but I don’t understand it,” explained one student who claimed (correctly) that there must be eight odd numbers in the 100th row of Pascal’s Triangle.

“If you don’t understand it, your mother didn’t really teach it to you,” said the classmate in the next seat.

In my other course, Power Programming, kids use Microworlds EX to design and build their own computer games. Seven and a half hours isn’t enough time to learn the fundamentals of Logo, get comfortable with the Microworlds environment, design a game, and create the game — it can’t be done in seven and a half hours, even if you’re in fourth grade — but most kids accomplish an amazing amount even if they need to take their work-in-progress home to complete it. At the end of each Saturday’s program, five or six classes share their work with the entire ensemble of 160 kids and their parents and teachers. Power Programming was one of the classes that shared today. Unfortunately, three of my students had to leave before sharing. But their games came up on the big screen anyway (projected from one of those wonderful ceiling projectors), and who was going to explain them? Amazingly, and totally without prompting or rehearsing, in each case a different classmate stepped forward to volunteer to explain the game. This was especially heartening because students so often view computer programming as a solitary activity and have no idea what their classmates are doing.

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