10 Things Ender’s Game Teaches Us About Kids & Education

We went to Ender’s Game over the weekend and during the movie I couldn’t help thinking about how Ender’s Battle School compares to public education in the US. Examinations of morality aside, governments in Ender’s Game made a strategic decision that the survival of the human race depended on gifted children with a superior and specific education. They then heavily invested in a school and a program designed to find and maximize the potential of these children.

Here are 10 lessons about kids and education we can learn from Ender’s Game:

  1. Don’t get bogged down in trying to fully acknowledge that all students are gifted in their own way. Instead, make some hard calls as to what skills and talents will be needed most in the future and pour resources into those areas and those students. Our lack of funding better math and science programs, especially in elementary school and middle school, is appalling.
  2. Start young. Young minds can absorb a great deal of information and we should be giving young kids complex information about all subjects, not dumbing things down to what we think they can handle.
  3. Let kids work at their own pace and accelerate them as they show ability and potential.
  4. Allow kids to fail, to feel the disappointment, and to learn from those failures.
  5. Kids are resilient yet still need someone to confide in, support them, and push them in order for them to fully reach their potential.
  6. Do not underestimate the importance of hardships, including negative social interactions, in shaping determination and character. However, as kids are left alone to work things out themselves, adults should watch from a distance and be ready to step in to prevent irreparable harm.
  7. Book learning isn’t enough. Students must be able to create, build, and interact with things in real life in order to fully internalize and cement learning. We need to increase funding for hands-on classes in science, programming, design, and industrial arts.
  8. Interactive computer games are a powerful tool that cannot be ignored. Advice to limit students’ screen time is antiquated. We should be far more concerned with positive and negative modes of thinking and brain pathways that are reinforced through these games. Instead of merely entertaining, games should be designed to strengthen growing brains in positive ways.
  9. Students that challenge the authority of teachers should not be automatically punished. The defiant student may be an innovative genius in the rough.
  10. If we want superior schools, we need to make a serious investment in them. Educational spending needs to be increased.

The Book on Autism & Education You Need to Read

Temple Grandin’s new book, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum, is a must read for educators, parents, and anyone concerned about how our society is dealing with the huge increase in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnoses. Published this spring it incorporates current research and thinking about autism.

Throughout her life, Temple Grandin has seen and lived through our changing ideas on autism and how to treat those afflicted with it. The medical profession still does not fully have a handle on it as evidenced by the newest version of the Diagnosis Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) from the American Psychiatric Association which redefines what it means have ASD yet again. This controversial change will in all likelihood, reduce the number of children with clinical diagnoses and may limit their ability to get services.

The book combines extensive information on autistic brains with a plea to the parents and educators of kids with ASD to stop defining them by their disability. A few items that really stood out to me:

  • Based of current neural research, what a neurotypical person feels when someone won’t make eye contact is what a person with autism feels when others do make eye contact and visa versa. Kinda gives a whole new perspective on why kids with ASD don’t like to look you in the eye.
  • Through ever more sophisticated brain scans of younger and younger children, scientists seem to be on the verge of knowing how autistic brains develop differently. Geneticists are also picking apart how different mutations and their combinations may contribute to autism. This is going to be an exciting area to watch over the next 10 years.
  • Historically, we have defined and treated autism by what it looks like from the outside rather than what it feels like on the inside. The result of this is that parents, educators, and the medical profession have downplayed the importance of sensitivities. What if the autistic behavior that we are trying so hard to change is actually a perfectly normal and rational response to how the autistic brain amplifies and processes what neurotypicals experience as benign stimuli? If this is indeed the case, modifying the exterior environment might be the most effective way to change undesirable autistic behavior. As an aside, since many gifted people have sensitivities, Ms. Grandin’s advice on how to deal with them may also be helpful for the gifted community.
  • There are probably 3 types of thinkers and these types manifest themselves differently in neurotypical and ASD brains:
    • Visual Object Thinkers: people who think in pictures.

Picture thinkers like hands-on painting, cooking, and woodworking type activities and they are being horribly let down by our schools as curriculum changes emphasize reading and writing at the expense of classes like drafting and shop.

    • Visual Spacial Thinkers: people who think in patterns.

Pattern thinkers think about the way things fit together and can picture objects in their minds and imagine manipulating them in space. these people are frequently musicians and mathematicians. They may be behind in reading but way ahead in math. Schools must allow them to work ahead in math to improve their school success and confidence.

    • Verbal Thinkers: people who think in words and facts.

Verbal thinkers are easy to spot and, except in math, may have a big advantage in our reading and writing oriented public school system.

  • Talent + 10,000 hours of work = Success

It is vitally important that we start defining kids by their strengths instead of their disabilities. Ms. Grandin laments the fact that the current generation of kids diagnosed with ASD are too quick to talk about their limitations. Sadly she feels that today’s gifted kids on the autism spectrum will not reach the same career heights as the Silicon Valley innovators. This is because we have diagnosed them with a disability and then let that disability define them instead of discovering, calling attention to, and nurturing their strengths.

Temple Grandin’s job advice for kids on the spectrum:

  1. Don’t make excuses
  2. Play well with others
  3. Manage your emotions
  4. Mind your manners
  5. Sell your work, not yourself
  6. Use mentors

Our society greatly benefits when people with complementary ways of thinking design our products and systems. Autistic minds have strengths not seen in neurotypical minds and the collaboration between different types of thinkers creates an end product that is greater than what any one type of brain can imagine.

Forget Potential, Nurture Passions

Today as Twitter goes public, it seems right to take a step back and reflect on how a company like Twitter reaches this level. Despite their lack of profits, they are the most anticipated IPO since Facebook began trading last year.

Many companies have great potential, yet only a few become common household names with worldwide recognition. While luck and timing undoubtably play a role, perhaps a more important factor is passion. Having a vision, believing in your ideas, and feeling strongly enough about your goal that you are willing to put in the time and effort to work through setbacks and adversity, is a necessary component for achieving great success.

Too often in business we focus on the bottom line and the day-to-day. While mission statements try to define a purpose, they cannot by themselves create a zealousness for putting in the extra effort needed to take a company to the next level. That type of energy bordering on fanaticism must come from within. People put time and energy into their passions in a way that is unsustainable in an ordinary job. Frequently this enthusiastic effort doesn’t even feel like work.

Our country and our economy needs passionate entrepreneurs, researchers, and innovators. We need our best and our brightest to discover what fascinates them and run with it. Too often though our educational system does just the opposite. In gifted education and literature we focus on making sure students are meeting their potential. We design gifted services to provide identified students a chance to work at a higher level in adult-defined academic subjects. We expect our gifted students to excel in math, reading, and science and we teach them and test them to ensure they are living up to their potential.

Yet, ability and potential does not automatically equate to success in the business world. Yes, being smart can help you pick up on new concepts, but gumption, knowledge, and experience are far more important over the long haul. Instead of merely worrying about whether students’ grades and test scores properly reflect their IQ tests, we should support their unique interests. Instead of just signing them up for yet another enrichment class, we should take the time to listen to what is important to them and find opportunities for them to pour energy and effort into what moves them.

If we want to create enthusiastic innovators, we need to stop worrying so much about whether gifted students are working to their potential and instead help them discover and nurture passions.


5 Rules for Asking Engineers Questions

The other day I was listening to an interview with a project management specialist on how to handle different personalities on project teams. While most of what she said seemed helpful, when it came to working with engineers and IT admin types, she went off on a huge tangent on how “those people” had ego issues. She seemed to think they purposely were difficult and slowed projects down because they needed to feel important. She expressed that when engineers are reluctant to commit to a timetable and/or are reticent about giving details on how far they are through a particular phase of a project, it is because they want to feel important.

She couldn’t be more wrong. Very few engineers are the ego maniacs she describes and even those that are can be very easy to work with. Non-engineers just need to understand projects from the perspective of the engineers.

Engineers know that computers and software are not 100% predictable and reliable. They plan for the unexpected and build redundancies into systems where possible, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been burned. The more experience an engineer has, the more likely it is that he or she has spent hours or days recovering data and/or rebuilding a system that never should have gone down. The more familiar an admin is with different hardware and operating systems, the more likely he or she is to have a strong opinion on what will work. Yet, because sometime it just doesn’t, the more reluctant that admin may be to give a direct answer on what should be chosen and how long it will take to deploy. They have all seen “simple” installs and upgrades that did not perform as advertised. The last thing they want is for someone who does not understand the subtleties of their craft to hold them to expectations and deadlines that may turn out to be unrealistic.

You can start to improve your ability to work with engineers just by following some simple rules for asking questions.

Rule 1: Whenever possible, ask questions in person. This will allow you to see if the engineer is deep in thought coding or troubleshooting. Don’t just start talking, wait a minute or two until they finish typing or reading and turn to you with their full attention. Some of the biggest misunderstandings happen when questions are not fully heard.

Rule 2: If you can’t ask your question in person, ask it through email, not in a phone call. For the reasons listed above, if you just call an engineer and start talking, there is a good chance he or she will miss the first chunk of the conversation. This is especially true if they are actively troubleshooting an urgent problem. You will only have half their attention and it is unlikely the answer they give you will include all the details you need.

Rule 3: Whether you ask the question in person or in email, summarize their answer in an email confirmation just to make sure you understood their answer and you are both on the same page.

Rule 4: Semantics matter. Engineers tend to approach things as black/white, on/off, zero/one. This helps them greatly when working with code and computers and is something you need to keep in mind when asking them questions. To a non-engineering mind, the following questions may appear the same, but to an engineer are very different.

Can you do X?
Can we (as a company) do X?
Can anyone we have on staff do X?
Is it easy to find someone who can do X?
Should we do X?
Does doing X follow best acceptable practices?
Will doing X take so much time that it isn’t worth it?
Have we done X before?  Were the circumstances the same?  What were the benefits and drawbacks of doing X?

Rule 5: Whenever possible, questions should initially be phrased in term of the functionality you would like to see instead of an exact method of achieving that functionality.

Ask: What is the best way to set this up with a CMS so the customer can directly update their site?

Instead of: Can you put the XYZ content management system on their server?

Generally, engineers, especially introverted engineers, will answer the exact question asked. They will not necessarily volunteer all the additional information you may need. By following the rules for asking engineers questions, you will improve your ability to work with the engineers on your team.