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Big Learning News 8-23-06

Big Learning News
Karen Cole's Guide to Real-World Learning with Kids
Issue 4:27 August 23, 2006

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Table of Contents
Math Moment: What people earn
Activity: Choose a Pet
Book Reviews: Animal references
Current events for kids : Back to school around the world
Education news: Should you pay kids for good grades?
Web sites: The Hobby Shop

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Math Moment


Ages 8-12


Here at Big Learning, we're not above cheap tricks. This week, we're going to co-opt kids' general fascination with large numbers and large amounts of money to help them practice place value and develop number sense.

Play the "What People Earn Salary Showdown" game from Parade Magazine with your kids. Given a pair of people labeled with their occupation, you guess which earns more. Then you get to see the salaries of both. For young kids, help them read the salary numbers out loud for each earner.

Point out the commas between the hundreds and thousands place in each number to help them differentiate between 85,000 and 850,000. In the higher salary ranges, ask your child to write the numbers like 21 million out fully (21,000,000). In the bonus round, there are some great large numbers to read - the salaries of four pro football players, exact to the one-dollar place.

For older kids, this is a chance to discuss the value of various occupations and how they get to be so well- or poorly paid. For example, discuss the role of education and highly-skilled work, and the amount of money in various industries (there's only so much money available to pay wildlife vets, no matter how skilled. The pool of money available to pay movie and sports stars is higher.)

This math moment might open a little Pandora's box of personal economic questions. Your child might want to know how much you make, for example. Just in case, here's some advice for answering those questions, along with more good real-world math activities.


More Fun Math for Kids

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Choose a pet for classroom or home



Pets in the classroom offer so many Big Learning opportunities - science, math, language, vocabulary - plus helping kids develop nurturing, caring behaviors. If you're a teacher, here are some resources you can use to choose a pet for your classroom. These are great resources for parents who want to choose a pet for home, too.

Here are some articles on BigLearning.org about pets and learning:

Math Moment: Pet care time
How to train a goldfish
Chemistry for fish
How to photograph a pet


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Book Review

National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia (National Geographic Children's Books, 2000)

Ages 6-10

Extreme Nature by Mark Carwardine ( HarperResource , 2005)

Ages 9 and up

Ostriches, elephants - they're so 20th century. Today's kids want something different, and these books deliver. Whether you've got a budding zoologist or a kid who needs an animal for a research project, these are great books to have around the house.

With over 1,000 animals, National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia excels in sheer quantity. Animals are organized by category - for example, "Pigs, Peccaries, and Hippopotamuses" includes the warthog, the wild boar, collared peccary, pygmy hippopotamus, hippopotamus, and bearded pig. The encyclopedia covers all the major animal groups - fish, insects, birds, etc. Each entry has a drawing of the animal, a one-paragraph description of habitat, habits, and food, plus a vital statistics box with size, range, and scientific name. You can't do a report from this book, but you can get good ideas and learn about an amazing diversity of species.

Older kids will find Extreme Nature endlessly fascinating. Each entry is an award-winning species, with awards made up by the author. For example, "Strangest Shape Shifter" goes to the cellular slime mold, a single-celled microbe that, in times of stress, unites with others of its kind to form a slug. Each species gets a full-page color photograph and a full-page description. The writing is enthusiastic and vivid without being cheesy - the author shows genuine, contagious amazement and respect for nature's adaptations. This is a beautiful book kids will come back to again and again.

Buying Information for National Geographic Animal Encyclopedia

Buying Information for Extreme Nature

More Nature Books for Kids

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Current events to share with kids

Back to school around the world


This article has interviews with kids going back to school in Russia, Kenya, the U.S., and other countries. It also includes interesting kid-friendly facts about each country's school system.

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Education News for Adults

Should you pay kids for good grades?


For a Big Learning advocate, I'm not as much of a purist against external rewards as you would expect. I think we all need them now and then to get through a long learning task.

Say your kids need to learn their math facts. It's not that they exactly object to knowing their math facts. They just don't have a strong enough personal goal to get them through the unappealing practice.

This is an example of a situation your child will face throughout life: the goal is reasonably appealing (it feels good to know your math and be mathematically competent in the world) but the means of getting there requires discipline and rote work. So to keep going, you give yourself little interim external rewards.

Faced with helping kids learn math facts, you tell them, "I'll help you get started. Let's think of a reward for learning the first table of facts. Once you get through the first one, the facts won't seem so hard anymore and you'll know how to work on learning them." In this way, you're portraying an external reward as a strategy a child can use on their own to reach a similar goal next time.

But paying for grades - I think that's bad news, all around. For one thing, the time span is too long, especially for young children. I just can't see extracting a lot of motivation out of a reward that's nine weeks in the future.

Even if your child can stay motivated over nine weeks, paying for grades doesn't teach anything. Much better to use external rewards to teach kids how to organize their work or monitor their progress. Then you've actually taught them something worth knowing. And, if all that organizing and monitoring results in a higher grade, the grade reinforces the value of the hard work instead of immediately diverting attention to the external reward: "See, you did all that work and look how good your grade is!" rather than "You got an A, here's your new X-Box."

Worst of all, paying for grades (and grades, by themselves) can kill whatever internal motivation to learn your child already has. Read this cautionary article - it retells the 1973 experiment in which preschoolers were given markers to play with. Afterwards, half the groups got "Good Player Awards" at the end of the activity. The kids in the groups who got awards didn't want to play with the markers next time they were offered. The kids who were never offered a reward did play with them. The reward made kids feel controlled into doing a behavior they would have otherwise found appealing in its own right, so they fought the behavior.

Alfie Kohn takes a hard line against any kind of reward or praise (see "Five Reasons to Stop Saying 'Good Job!'") and his writing is interesting even though I don't always find it practical or even desirable in real life - what fun is parenting if you can't cheer for your child?

Recent Education News Commentaries

The Nature-or-Nurture IQ debate
Learning 24/7?

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Web Site

The Hobby Shop

Ages 6 and up with help, 10 and up independently


This online science lab has a microscope activity plus activities in chemistry, a catapult activity, and a rocket. The microscope is the best part though. You can move a "slide" around and see different parts of your specimen, adjust the the focus, and more. Specimens include a fly and onion cells.

If this inspires your child to ask for a real microscope, you might be interested in our review of a great low-cost microscope that connects to your computer.

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Big Learning News (c) 2006 Karen Cole

Content meant for adults and provided for informational purposes only - readers are responsible for previewing all materials and activities for suitability and safety before sharing them with children.
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