When the Sorting Hat Fails

Watching 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 a 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 humanity 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!

2 thoughts on “When the Sorting Hat Fails

  1. Dear Son,

    We had just come back from Bangladesh and we bought a fixer-upper. The first room I renovated was the attic. It was not so much a priority as a necessity. The house had been abandoned above the first floor for years and the bats moved freely through the attic when we moved in. The only way to get rid of them was to gut the dormers where they lived (and died by the dozens -ugh!) and while I was at it, turn the room into a bedroom for you and Dave. It took pretty much the whole first year, so 1988 by the time it was done. More or less immediately you were clamoring for a computer. Not just a gaming device. You and Dave were already pretty good with the Atari (though just so as you know, I still have the high score for Asteroids in this family). No, you wanted a real computer. So I bought you one second hand and delivered it to you in the attic to your great delight and went back downstairs to work on the kitchen, which was the second priority. About an hour later I went back up to see how you were doing and found the computer in pieces all over the carpet. Again, this is 1989 so you were 9 years old. You looked at me with a beatific smile and seeing (quite empathically I might add) my concern said, “Don’t worry Dad. I know where everything goes.”

    That seemed impossible to me at the time. I knew that my friend Marv Nolan had taken his television apart piece by piece after his wife Cindy had watered a plant on it. But he was an adult and an engineer. I looked at all those pieces and thought to myself, “Who knows?” And I went back downstairs. I was so stunned that you had done it that I never thought of being angry. When I went back upstairs an hour later you were putting some basic code up on the screen; some simple commands for the computer to follow. I can’t remember any particular emotion beyond amazement, but I made a resolution that whatever you asked for in the way of computers from that point on you were going to get if I could possibly afford it.

    I remember too when I was younger reading aloud a 1,000-word epic poem on the Battle of Marathon that I had written in Grade 12. When I sat down the entire class broke into spontaneous applause. I got 65 from Ms. Bolt in English that year. So I know that the system I have given my life to is broken. I see it everyday. And everyday I do my part to heal what little bits of it I can, student by student, lesson by lesson. I did my best to heal the damage that the system did to you every year. I put in hours every night helping you to complete the work you hadn’t done in class because you were distracted or bored. I believed in you and fought for you, gave up holidays and vacations for you, drove you all over the county to help you get your computer business started.
    All because I knew the system was wrong about you, and still is.

    There is a lot wrong with America, and I rail at its injustices every day. But one thing it gets right is that it understands that capable and accomplished people don’t always have degrees. Steve Jobs didn’t have one. Gates left before he graduated. Thomas Edison was in school a total of three months before his mother pulled him out to teach him herself. Einstein was more or less a dud in school. The point being that school doesn’t define us. It didn’t define them, and it doesn’t define you.
    And to all your impressive technical and organizational gifts, your ability to conceptualize and think with your hands, to lead others towards a group goal, your willingness to relearn and reinvent yourself at every turn, you have added a considerable talent for composing and communicating in words. This is impressive writing, and this is far from the only example of such skill. You continue to amaze and impress me, Jon. Ben is very fortunate to have you as a father.

    And I will say this as well: Of all the great treasures I have gleaned in this life – a lifetime doing what I love and am gifted at, years of travel to faraway places, a loving and supportive wife – being your father has been one of the richest and most rewarding of all. I will leave it up to you whether or not you post this. But I wanted you to know.
    Love, Dad

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