SMMUSD HDQTRS — A 4-year-old boy is picking up purple puff balls and slamming them down on his paper. He shifts them around in a way that seems completely erratic. Then he draws circles around them and counts all five.

There’s madness to his method but — when this method is guided by teachers rather than squashed — he’s able to solve problems.

The boy — featured in a clip shown at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education meeting Thursday — is one of many pre-schoolers excelling through a process called cognitively guided instruction, UCLA professor and Santa Monica resident Dr. Megan Franke said.

Students at the end of kindergarten and first grade can actually solve fewer problems than when they started the year, she said.

“[C]hildren actually have an amazing set of intuitive notions about how to solve problems,” Franke said. “When they come to school they learn really quickly that there‚Äôs only one way to solve problems.”

The kids end up abandoning their innate and informal strategies and trying to memorize everything, she said. It leads to good memorization at the expense of connected understanding.

“Our goal is to help teachers identify their children‚Äôs thinking and then build on that so they can memorize in ways that are connected to a lot of other mathematical ideas,” Franke said.

Take this problem: Carla has $7. How many more dollars does she need to earn have $11, enough to buy a puppy?

What would previously have been taught as a subtraction problem in second and third grade can be solved innately by some pre-schoolers in an approach that involves some basic algebra.

“If you let students solve this problem in a way that makes sense to them, they put out seven counters and keep adding to that seven until they make it to 11 and then they count how many they had left,” she said. “So kids are actually unbelievably capable of solving problems.”

Memorization only takes students in math so far, Franke said. By third grade, she said, most girls have already decided that they aren’t good at math and by middle school the boys follow suit.

The technique is not meant to replace a curriculum but to guide teachers as students become capable of more traditional learning methods.

Cognitively guided instruction aligns nicely with the incoming federally-determined academic standards called the Common Core, Franke said.

The pre-schoolers are asked to explain their thinking and make arguments with each other, she said.

“I‚Äôve been in classrooms in your district where 4-year-olds are stopping another 4-year-old and saying ‚Äòwait, I don‚Äôt know how you did that,‚Äô and getting the 4-year-old to explain what they just did.” Franke said.

This process is made easier by the fact that teachers tend to recognize its value and make it their own, she said.

Some cognitively guided instruction experts have already done demonstration lessons with teachers in the district.

The district will offer teachers and coaches information sessions from experts about the technique.

“When you teach in four walls all day, you use all the ideas you have and you need to go out and exchange with other folks, look at student work from a different perspective,” Superintendent Sandra Lyon.

Thus far, Lyon said, the response has been positive.

She‚Äôs confident that all of the district‚Äôs programing will “push people to get into, ‚Äòwhat are we going to do when they struggle‚Äô and not doing the same thing we‚Äôve been doing.”

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