Richard Rusczyk, Founder and CEO at Art of Problem Solving (AoPS), talks about how the existing academic gap in our classrooms turned into a chasm after the pandemic and how Art of Problem Solving families are navigating this new reality.

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Classrooms have never been so filled with learning disparities. The pandemic has both underscored and exacerbated learning gaps between students with educational support at home and those without.

After two years of pandemic learning, a class of third graders might have students at a first-grade level sitting beside students at a fifth-grade level.

So how should families respond?

The State of“Back to School”

Many students didn’t make much progress during the pandemic. Although some families spent the last couple of years doing a lot of interesting math at home, many of their new classmates didn’t have those same opportunities.

Teachers returned to find increased disparity in students’ levels of interest and engagement. From a family perspective, students are coming home feeling frustrated that they’re being taught concepts they learned two years ago.

“We have to get more creative about how we are serving those students who were able to continue their education fruitfully throughout the pandemic,” Richard says. 

At a school system level, the range of what each student needs in a classroom has grown a whole lot wider. Schools also face the challenge of staffing teachers who are equipped to address that disparity.

If that sounds like too much for schools to handle, well, it probably is.

“A lot of this is going to get solved by families,” Richard says. 

Parents are the ones finding, or even creating new, opportunities for their advanced learners through methods such as:

  • Extracurricular education
  • Community groups (such as math circles)
  • Extra support and challenge at home

Finding Time for Excellence

With schools facing the near-impossible task of supporting students at a broad range of levels, a lot of responsibility has fallen to families. How can families keep students challenged, inspired, and motivated to learn? And how do they find the time? 

“They have to say no to something,” Richard says.

Younger students typically have fewer opportunities for extracurriculars, but high schoolers and even middle schoolers have entered the rat race to college admission.

Guiding students toward what they want to focus on means providing them early on with a breadth of options to explore and then later, helping them narrow that expertise.

“We want students to go very deep into something at some point,” Richard says. 

“One of the critical skills we want them to learn during middle school and high school is how to get very good at something.”

What students need to develop is a love for excelling in a discipline — whether that’s violin, coding, or theater. Expertise for its own sake is arguably the most valuable and transferable skill we can cultivate in students.

Adaptability and a Problem Solving Skill Set

Most of the tools, roles, and skills Richard has encountered in his professional career didn’t even exist when he was in high school, he says. Rather than train for something specific that would soon become obsolete, Richard was trained to be adaptable. 

“That starts with learning how to get very good at something. In order to get very good at something, you have to spend time on it. You have to say no to something else,” he says.

To grow your students’ expertise, create the space and the time for exploration so that when they find their passion, they can go deep into mastering it.

At AoPS, we train our students in the same way, providing them with the skills required to solve new and difficult problems. Students focus on deep subject mastery and a problem solving skill stack, including adaptability, creativity, critical thinking, and perseverance.

3 Ways to Keep Your Student Challenged

Want to keep your student motivated and inspired amidst today’s back-to-school challenges? Here are three ways you can help your student from home. 

1 - Ask About Assignments 

Grades will indicate whether your student’s class work is too easy. If they are getting perfect scores on everything, or if they’re finishing an hour assignment in 10 minutes, your student is not being challenged enough. This typically means your child is easily hitting or surpassing standards.

Conversely, if you’re getting reports of disruptive classroom behaviors from the teacher, this can also indicate your child is bored or checked out.

2 - Help Your Student Experiment

Guide your student to try different things until they find the two or three things they love to do. What do they gravitate toward for mental stimulation when they’re bored? This can often reveal a category of expertise to focus on.

Try different extracurricular activities until your child discovers their passion: robotics club, creative writing groups, math competitions, karate, etc. 

In the seventh grade, Richard had his first experience at a math competition. Not only did he meet other students who valued numbers as he did, but he also encountered adults who weren’t his parents or teachers who were excited he could do math.

“It's getting the child to see a whole culture of people who value this activity,” Richard says.

When your child begs to practice the cello on Saturdays for fun, that’s when you’ve won.

3 - Challenge Your Student with Problems to Solve

“Education is a human problem, and technology is not going to solve the human problem all by itself,” Richard says.

Families should not rely on technology to teach children to appreciate and embrace learning. Rather, they must continually challenge children with problems and situations they’ve never seen before.

When Richard was a fifth or sixth grader, his dad needed to cut down a tree in the front yard. “If the tree falls in this direction, will it hit those power lines?” his dad asked. That question challenged Richard to stretch his mind to consider similarity, scale, and estimation. 

Fast forward: They brought down the tree, and the power lines were safe.

“That's a real taste of problem solving,” Richard says. Get creative with the questions you ask and scenarios you present to your student. 

For more ways to support your advanced problem solver, check out our Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook, filled with resources and actionable strategies you can start using today. 

Resource Recommendations

Never run out of problems to solve! Here are some resources, recommended by Richard, to help your student stay challenged.  

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This episode was brought to you by Art of Problem Solving, where students train to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. 

To get weekly episode summaries right to your inbox, subscribe to the podcast at the bottom of this page, or anywhere you get podcasts. Ideas for the show? Reach us at podcast@aops.com.

Episode Transcript

Richard Rusczyk Q&A [2:02]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode, Richard Rusczyk, CEO at Art of Problem Solving, talks about how the existing academic gap in our classrooms turned into a chasm after a pandemic year and how AoPS families are navigating this new reality. Richard, what has ‘back to school’ after a pandemic looked like this past year? What are you hearing from Art of Problem Solving families?

Richard Rusczyk: What I'm hearing is a lot of students did not make a whole lot of progress during the pandemic. And a lot of our families are seeing their students go back to school, having spent a lot of the last couple years learning a lot of really interesting math whereas a lot of their classmates maybe didn't have those opportunities.

So the disparities that some of our families have seen in the classroom before the pandemic in terms of student preparation and student levels of interests, levels of student engagement, those disparities have gotten even much larger. So it's been a tremendous challenge for teachers. And then also a tremendous challenge for parents who have their kids coming home being like, "We're doing the same thing we did two years ago in that class."

We truly understand why the teachers are doing this, right? Necessity. They've got a half of their classroom maybe who have not had a full, deep, rich opportunity to be around other students and learn the way that they best learn for a year and a half or possibly two years. And they have to support those kids. But those kids who did have an opportunity to work with other kids, to work with us, to work with whatever groups they might have to keep up or even move at ahead of where they would've been within their regular schooling, those kids are now miles ahead of where the kids who didn't get that support during the pandemic are as they come back to school.

The existing academic gap in the classroom got a whole lot bigger… [3:49]

Eric Olsen: Yeah, I think you bring an interesting point here and a challenge. For a lot of kids, really tough school year. Some kids had a really good experience. They got to try some new things, they got to go deeper, explore supplements, they thrived. You said it - both sets of kids are now in the same classroom together. What do we do now that this already existing academic gap in the classroom just got a whole lot bigger?

Richard Rusczyk: I think we have to get more creative about how we are serving those students who are able to continue their math education fruitfully throughout the pandemic. So when you're a teacher walking into that room, now you've got students that are spread across two years. You're naturally going to have to help those students who really are trying to catch up after having lost a year, year and a half, maybe even two years.

So students on the upper end of the distribution in terms of their access during the pandemic that I know a lot more about, those are the students we work with, those are the students we serve, I think for those students, we have to get more creative about empowering them to pursue mathematics at their pace and at their level and not just have them step back two years and repeat those two years along with their classmates.

Now, some teachers will have that training and be able to execute that differentiation. Some schools will have to get creative about possibly separating these two groups, maybe even regrouping students around where they are mathematically instead of just by age.

So at a system level, I think we're going to have to think even more carefully about what each student needs. And that's always been true. That's always been true. It's always been a challenge in education, but now it may be even more important because what each student needs, the spread of that in any given classroom has just gotten a whole lot wider.

Unfortunately for schools, the challenge has just gotten a whole lot higher because they're dealing with staffing problems as well. So a lot of this is going to get solved by families. And that is the students who were able to race ahead during the pandemic or at the very least keep up in order to keep that momentum. A lot of that momentum was produced by investment from the families. They're going to have to continue that. And the students may already be continuing it themselves.

So some of this is going to come from the homes. It's going to come from parents, making new opportunities for their kids, finding possibly extracurricular groups. Obviously we run some of these things ourselves, but find community groups. There are math circles around the country that you might get your kid involved with if their thing is math, but whatever their thing is, they're going to have to continue that momentum quite possibly outside the school on their own.

Fitting challenge and engagement into your students’ day [6:27]

Eric Olsen: I like this twofold path you talk about in terms of what can we do in the classroom, but also this concept of what if my kid comes home and says, "I'm in fourth grade now, but I'm doing second grade all over again." And you mentioned this parent responsibility, we have to keep our students motivated, engaged, challenged. Let's talk about time. How do families fit and integrate challenge - integrate problem solving - into their already very busy days?

Richard Rusczyk: Yeah, I think part of it is, they have to say no to something. And that is, this gets more acute as the students get older. When the students are younger, there's generally a good bit more time. There are fewer extracurriculars. As students get older through middle school and then definitely in high school where the rat race of college applications, college admissions starts, then it gets to be a real problem.

At some point, the students themselves, we want them to step forward and say, "Mom, dad, five years of violin is enough. I'm going to stop now. And I'm going to focus on something else." And I think one thing that's important there, though, is for the students to have something else that they want to focus on. And hopefully it's not whatever the hot new video game is of the time, but we want students to go very deep in something at some point because that is one of the critical skills we want them to learn during middle school, during high school is, how to get very good at something? I don't even care what it is... Maybe it is the violin. Maybe the thing that they want to focus on is becoming a concert level violinist.

That requires a different education. Then practice twice a week for an hour. But we want them to find some lane that they really love, a community that they really love being part of and go very deep in that because that's a skill that they can transfer, this ability to learn to really excel at something. Once you know how to do that, well, now you can go to something else and excel in that as well. Then go to another thing and go to another thing. You learn that some things take a couple years to really understand that you're not going to get them overnight. And once you've done that once, you realize you can do it again, you can do it again, you can do it again.

And students today - deep mastery of one thing is not going to be enough because eventually the machines are going to be able to do that. And you're going to have to learn how to do something else and learn how to do something else and learn how to do something else.

This has definitely been the story for me. Throughout my professional career, most of the tools I've used, most of the roles I've filled did not exist when I was in high school. So my high school teachers couldn't train me for that. I had to be adaptable. Students today they're going to see the world change much faster than say you and I did during our professional career so far.

So we have to train them with those skills. And that starts with learning how to get very good at something. In order to get very, very good at something, you have to spend time on it. You have to say no to something else. And that's something that the parents have to help with is to balance this and not put too much on the students. Create the space, create the time for the students to explore so that when they find the thing they can go, they can go very deep into it.

Eric Olsen: I think one presupposition I made with that premise I gave of the student coming home and saying, "Mom, I'm bored," is that the student is voicing their displeasure and impatience and boredom whereas I can say very personally I did not know how unchallenged my daughter was until she was at home during the pandemic and I saw it where now there may be some out of sight, out of mind for parents. How can we check in with our students and really understand and get their understanding of what the school day looks like for them? What questions can we ask?

Signs your student isn’t engaged or being challenged [10:08] 

Richard Ruscyzk: Yeah, one thing you can look at in places that have grades, if they've got hundreds on everything, that is a sign that it's too easy. If there are any time tests, if there's a half hour test and you ask your child, how long did the test take you? And they say five minutes and then I had nothing to do, that's a sign. That is definitely a sign. Conduct problems can also be a sign.

If you're hearing from a teacher that your child is being very disruptive, one of the things to look for is, are they bored? And they're just looking for something to do. And that's a pretty... Speaking from a little bit of personal experience, that might be a common occurrence among some of these students. But hitting the ceiling. You can see him hitting the ceiling and being bored and checked out.

 Talking to the teacher, the teachers know. The teachers know when a student... You can ask the teachers, “Is my child finishing everything quickly? “Or if they say, "Oh, I don't worry about your child. They're doing fine." Now you should start worrying about your child because that means for what your teacher has to accomplish in that classroom, they're hitting that bar. There's probably a higher bar that the child would be interested in hitting. If they knew it existed or areas that they'd like to explore if they knew it existed. 

But post-pandemic, the teachers certainly don't have time. Only very, very special to teachers can make that happen. And that's after the pandemic, only very, very special teachers have a hope of being able to hit the third grader who's operating at a fifth grade level as well as the third grader that's operating at a first grade level sitting next to each other.

Eric Olsen: Yeah. Yeah. So challenging. Richard, really great thoughts. Leave us with some next step advice. Families seeing this happen in real-time, trying to navigate what should ‘back to school’ look like for my family? Where should they start? How should they think about the problem?

Richard Rusczyk: One big thing for parents to do is to experiment with a lot of different opportunities, different subjects. Your goal as a parent, I think, should be to find those two or three things that your child really, really loves and will do without you having to tell them to do it. And they will sit there and they will do it on Saturday when they're bored or they will... You'll have to. 

We have students whose parents, the way they correct misbehavior is they take their math books away. So that's a sign, right? Your grandparents are visiting. I want you to come spend time with them. If you do that, you're allowed to go back and work on your precalculus. If you don't come down, we're going to take precalculus books away. It sounds ridiculous, but those are our kids. I was one of those kids.

Finding your kid’s passion [13:09]

Richard Rusczyk: And you want to find that thing for your child. So this is to try a lot of different things. Try a lot of different... Put them in a robotics club, put them in a writing class, put them in something where they're going to be around other kids who love whatever the subject is because that is part of what turns the kids on is when they walk into a room and they're like, "I didn't know there were whole full rooms of kids like me." 

And that happened for me at math competitions. So the first time I got taken to a math competition, this would've been seventh grade, and I walked in, and there were all these kids there. They like the same books I like. They like the same toys. They play the same games. They pay attention to baseball, not because they like baseball, but they like the numbers. 

And I also there see a whole room of adults, of grownups who aren't required by being my parents or my teacher to be excited about the fact that I can do math. They're excited about the fact that I can do math. They value what I can do despite the fact that they're not my parents, they're not my teacher.

And I've never seen that anywhere except for basketball. And that's a signal that we send as parents when we embrace the sports and we don't go embrace other things that are, honestly, that we think might be more important. And when I saw that, I also responded to that.

And you'll see that in groups where you're bringing together these kids who love what it is they're doing, it might be dancing, it might be karate. When you bring those together, you're going to have parents who really care about that thing as well. And it's building a culture and getting the child to see, oh, there's a whole culture of people who really value this activity. That's great because I love this activity. And now on Saturday, I'm going to do it for fun. And that's when you've won.

Download AoPS’ Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook [14:58]

Eric Olsen: That is when you've won when you see your kid light up, when they find their people, when they find something worth chasing. And we want to help more families do that. That's why we created the Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook. It's full of helpful strategies to support and challenge advanced learners, curriculum recommendations straight from our Art of Problem Solving families, our STEM Gift Guide, free resource recommendations, and much, much more.

It is the perfect next step to help you navigate and build an educational plan that's right for your family. Download our Raising Problem Solvers Guidebook for free today. 

Richard Rusczyk Rapid Fire [15:44]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Richard, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Richard Rusczyk: Math specialists in elementary school.

Eric Olsen: If you could go back and give your kids self-advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Richard Rusczyk: Start coding earlier. Yeah.

Eric Olsen: What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Richard Rusczyk: Technology. I don't think technology has come anywhere close to what we were told technology was going to accomplish in education and might have even set us back in some places. So I hope technology is doing a whole lot better, especially in the classroom or maybe out of the classroom in 10 years.

Eric Olsen: Are you holding out hope for the, eventually it will be the panacea they have talked about for so long?

Richard Rusczyk: No. No. I think we have to embrace education as a human problem and technology is not going to solve the human problem all by itself. So I think there are a lot of very nice tools out there. There are a lot of very nice people out there. We do not have these two working in harmony very well. And I think, again, that is a human problem. That is not a technology problem. And it's not clear to me that the technologists are making that any better. So I think it's fully embracing and appreciating that is the only way we're going to make it better, but I don't know how we're going to get that to happen.

Eric Olsen: And finally, what's your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Richard Rusczyk: Challenge your children with problems and situations that they've never seen before. Invite them to participate with the problems you're facing. So when I was in fifth or sixth grade, my dad had to bring down a tree in our front yard. And he just brought me outside and he asked me a simple question. If it falls that way, is it going to hit those power lines? And he just let me sit there and work through it. And he sat there and watched. And he knew the answer. He'd already done the math, but he was sitting there watching me and I'm sitting here, like I have no idea. We can't measure it. This thing is huge and the power lines are all the way over there. And so I'm learning about similarity. I'm learning about scale. I'm learning about how to estimate this and how to estimate that. And that's a real taste of problem solving. I'd never had to think about bringing down a tree before. The tree did not hit the power lines.

Eric Olsen: I was going to ask if he made you call ComEd after you did the math wrong.

Richard Rusczyk: Yeah, no, no. My dad did pretty well. He's pretty good with a chainsaw.

Eric Olsen: And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at podcast@aops.com with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes. Richard, thanks so much for joining us today.

Richard Rusczyk: Thank you.

Episode Summary & Conclusion [18:48]

Eric Olsen: Loved hearing Richard's thoughts today on the incredibly difficult reality our teachers are facing right now, the academic gap in the classroom that both teachers and our students are dealing with, and those great tips for making sure that our kids stay motivated, stay engaged, stay challenged. I have some homework and thought to do after that conversation and I hope you do too. And may you continue your journey alongside us raising the great problem solvers of the next generation. See you next week.

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