When the Sorting Hat Fails

Sorting HatWatching my son struggle with his education has to be one of the most humbling, challenging and enlightening experiences of my adult life. Quantifiably gifted, and objectively smart as a whip, yet his ability to focus on classroom material, organize his homework, articulate his thoughts on a page, or even get completed work safely from home to school is astoundingly limited. Not every teacher he’s had has been helpful, but many have tried really hard to accommodate and help him, and have come out as frustrated as his parents. Its like his output is binary – he either innately understands a thing completely, and sees no need to explain himself, or he can’t be bothered with it at all and is un-phased by his inability to grasp it. Yet for every failure, or near failure, on an classroom test or assignment, there’s a standardized test that says his cognitive ability is “superior” and his intelligence is dramatically above average.

I recently read a report about the skill gap in manufacturing work force development, and it made me wonder how I managed to make it this far. My kid is lucky to have this contrasting evidence that keeps people plugging for him. If the only metric was his report card, he’d have been written off as a dummy years ago. If he went into manufacturing, he’d have ended up on a vocational path, focused on purely manual labor. The other path is theoretical – robotics or AI research – and those are generally reserved for the kind of student who can make it into a Masters program (or higher). Whether my son can pull off a higher education career is yet to be seen, but 20 years ago, I could not have. If it weren’t for community college, my path would have been significantly different.

For most of my career I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome. Fresh out of college I found myself lecturing a packed room full of engineers on how my company had applied web technologies to manufacturing. Years later, and still without any advanced degrees, I found myself as the product manager for what is possibly the most sophisticated embedded AI in manufacturing. And somewhere in-between I tricked two tech titans, Microsoft and Amazon, into hiring me. Surely someone was going to figure out that I was faking at some point!

What I’m figuring out, two decades into my career, is that people like my son are rare. An instinctual grasp of theoretical concepts – maybe not good enough to research new ones, but at least good enough to apply them – and sufficient technical skill to manipulate the real world into the right shape to make those concepts useful, is a relatively unique combination. Add to that a skill I’d like to think I have, but that my son definitely has in spades: empathy for others. This combination of attributes makes for a bridge – a person who can connect ideas, people and technology into better tools, easier user interfaces, and more delightful experiences. People with these skills are translators, connecting people and technology in ways that are simpler to understand and more comfortable to use.

But our education system, and often our incentive system, fails these kinds of people. A two path approach, that accommodates either vocational technical training or theoretical advanced education, doesn’t equip someone who straddles both worlds. I returned to theoretical education in my 30s, and found I was a better at school than in my youth, but I’m still not likely to be a successful Masters student any time soon. On the other hand, had I found myself in a manual labor career path, I’m sure I would have succumbed to depression and boredom years ago – as flawed as my brain might be, I do love learning and exploring new things. If I couldn’t take something apart to see how it worked, and think of ways it might work better, my loving wife would probably have had no choice but to have me committed.

Additionally, if it weren’t for my self-directed employer-hopping, I likely would have hit a career brick wall long ago. My education really does not qualify me for most of the jobs I’ve had. The only reason employers can rationalize hiring me is the experience I’ve had. It was nearly 10 years before one of those employers had the thought (or perhaps the immigration sponsorship requirement) to have a University professor evaluate my experience and effectively assign me honorary degree equivalency. Imagine the vindication when this Cs and Ds student got a 6 page report concluding that I was good enough for the job I was doing!

So how does someone who barely made it, with a minimum of education, whose only redeeming value proposition is curiosity and a drive to try to make things work better, help a kid with all the same flaws find his place in the world? I can’t let his D in English slide when I know how important communication is to his future career. On the other hand, its hypocrisy for me to tell him its not good enough. I can’t tell him that getting into University doesn’t matter – even though I know for a fact that experience is more valuable.

Because of changes in our county’s education funding, this year, his 7th grade year, is the end of his elementary career. Next year he starts high school. Already he’s facing limitations to his options, and decisions about whether he should be pursuing less advanced classes. I know this doesn’t compare to places like Germany, where he’d already have faced the higher education sorting hat, but it still feels so early to be making decisions that could permanently shape his future. The other two have it easy – they’re good students. No one will question their potential!

I once read that adults learn through analogy. There’s no greater analogy for self than watching your own kids face the same struggles you did. Unfortunately, I still haven’t figured out the lesson of how to navigate classroom learning, when the only kind of learning that ever worked for me was just diving in and trying something. On the other hand, I guess that’s kinda how parenting works. We can only hope that we can learn the necessary skills fast enough to be of some use to him!

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