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teach someone something

I was talking with other parents about school choices, good schools, getting kids into gifted, summer reading programs, curriculum to get their kid "ahead" before school started again. It all rubbed me a little wrong.

I think it's because where I work, we don't really have much need for turbo-geniuses.

I mean yes, of course, we have some VERY smart people at the airplane company! But they're also good communicators, because in our industry you're not allowed to make something that only you understand. You have to get the FAA, safety regulators, sales people, and customers to understand it too. If no one wants to buy it there's no point to making it. If we don't think it's safe it's not allowed to fly. So there's this tribal understanding that's incredibly important. Intelligence in a bubble is fine in school where you're graded by yourself, but come to work and the bubble makes you worthless.

Every summer I am sent interns and new college grads and we have to train them on our internal processes, which are complicated and not part of any college curriculum. The guy who just learned the system has to train you, and there's uniqueness for every assignment, and there's a million tools, and it would be pointless to try to teach it in classes. How long would it take to train someone about products that thousands of people spent their whole lives designing? Maybe impossible - and it'd be forever before they could contribute and earn their paychecks. So we just throw them in the deep end and they do productive things and learn along the way, mostly from the people around them, not teachers.

It's said that career success is based 70% on experience. You can't learn it in a class. And the way to do stuff is to have a team who can give you little pointers along the way. So we need engineers who can train other engineers, find them perfect assignments, communicate communicate communicate.

So put yourself in my place: how would you feel hearing that one of the new grads took differential equations in the eighth grade?

That's nice, you'd say. But we're not doing differential equations today. Is he good to work with?

If you knew that classes could only account for maybe 10% of career success, how would you feel if you heard your new grad was good at classes?

When we talk about who's important in our department, we talk about the good mentors. One genius cannot do the work of one "fairly smart person" who can get 10 other people to also be fairly smart people... that team will always out-produce the one genius.

When I think of my kid in school, I don't want her to be ahead of the whole class. I want her to be "of the people" and if she's got time, helping someone else at her table learn the concept she grasped quickly. Her knowledge isn't worth anything unless the people around her are on the same page.

But I don't think that's a thing schoolkids get to do, is it? There's no line on the report card for "can train others". There's only one person who's supposed to do the training... the teacher at the front of the room. And there are group assignments later on, but even then the end result is prioritized over the learning. The group is sometimes asked who did the most work, but I don't think there's ever a question about how effective the smart person was at bringing the other group members along with them.

Maybe it's an irreconcilable gap between school and industry that I'll just have to deal with. It's great that we get graduates who've taken lots of calculus to prove they're smart. Being smart is a first step, I suppose. But the ability to expand your toolbox, keep learning, teach others what you've learned... is that a thing in school?

Posts from This Journal by “engineering” Tag


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 29th, 2016 01:48 pm (UTC)
I feel the same way, and I had those kind of kids. Don't get me wrong, we did plenty of private qvelling about their school success, but because I specialize in people and relationships, I was well aware of the importance of EQ in bringing any of your smarts to fruition. We were at least as glad to see them developing their empathy and self-awareness as their school smarts. In fact, being very smart can be a sore burden for someone who doesn't have the people skills to find a home for that intelligence. Or can't overcome his self problems enough to give it its head, viz, the underachieving genius type, a fairly miserable case.

I really like this: "One genius cannot do the work of one 'fairly smart person' who can get 10 other people to also be fairly smart people."

I think you would like this article. It speaks to your point.

May. 29th, 2016 01:55 pm (UTC)
I went to a weird little liberal arts college where all the classes were collaborative discussions, and for 4 years I demonstrated mathematical propositions, scientific concepts, foreign language translations, and other ideas to my classmates (and they did the same to me)- it was just how class time was structured. When I graduated, I found that I could pick up systems and tools pretty quickly, and also teach others how to use them. I think the only remotely comparable experience I had before college was teaching younger kids how to do crafts as part of Girl Scouts and other volunteer things. It's not a skill set that's actively taught in most elementary/middle/high schools, and maybe not in many colleges.
May. 29th, 2016 02:49 pm (UTC)
It's funny, I actually talked to your mum about your post where you talk about not doing calculus until college, and she said, "she must be an exception! When I talked to people they said that no one that amounted to anything did the lower track algebra!" (I suspect some reverse causation going on there!)

I will say, that in my particular job, it's like 90% figuring out things out yourself, and that's being generous to the other 10%. It's because I work remotely so there's not a huge amount of communication. So even if I might have been able to work a lot better if I had more help, I have to rely on not having help and figuring stuff out myself. It's actually pretty similar to university.

Anyway, thank you for this post... it makes me feel better about holding back my eldest. It is definitely not a race. In England they start formal schooling the year they turn 5, as opposed to in the US where you have to *be* 5 to start school. He's born in the summer, so he's young for his class, and there's been a whole bunch of research showing that kids who are young for their class are disadvantaged. He's also behind for his age to begin with. It was kind of a hard decision because the UK is very rules-orientated and this was actually the first year they let kids born in the summer stay back. So it feels like we're really pushing back against the system.

And of course my mum is very much against it. Figures!

I do worry a lot about my first, just because I know that intelligence isn't everything and social skills are just so important, and it isn't any surprise that he's coming up short on the latter (based on his parents, lol).I'm hoping he ends up being an okay programmer because that's the only job you can have where you can (sort of) get away with having no social skills.

Edited at 2016-05-29 02:50 pm (UTC)
May. 29th, 2016 05:29 pm (UTC)
your mum has a different perspective than me that's for sure! What's her career?
May. 30th, 2016 03:36 pm (UTC)
She was a research scientist in biotech (worked at MIT and various pharma companies) until she had me. Then she was a SAHM mom for a while, then she when I got older she did some contract work in the same field, then she did substitute teaching when I was older.
May. 29th, 2016 04:32 pm (UTC)
I do think it's important to be good at learning, and at figuring things out for yourself, and at knowing how to find the information you need. Those are things that you use in school, but they don't necessarily teach them in school.

You do make a good point about working well with other people -- it's very important in many types of work. And I certainly wasn't taught that in school, even though I was "forced" to work with others on group projects that were opportunities to learn that. What I learned in those situations is that I don't work very well in an egalitarian group.
May. 29th, 2016 04:42 pm (UTC)
I teach a college-level research methods class about how to use library resources and think about research on a larger scale. Their semester-long project is a group project. It's divided up into several assignments, some of which the entire group is responsible for, and some of which individuals are responsible for (which then must integrate into a cohesive whole).

I occasionally get pushback on this - I once had a girl tell me that in her career, she would never have to do group work. I didn't ask what career that was going to be, but I cannot imagine ANY career where you NEVER have to work with a group.

I designed the project not because I hate my students and want them to suffer - I mean, I get it, I hated group work too. But I think doing it is a very, very valuable experience. I think creating a final project with a team and figuring out how to make every person's piece work and how to get things done on time and even how to encourage (or beg) your teammates to do quality work is very important.

I mean, I do it daily in my job. Sometimes collaboration is smooth. Other times it's herding cats. Other times I have to make a choice between redoing subpar work (and probably hurting someone's feelings) or putting subpar work out into the public where it harms us in other ways.

You don't learn this stuff without PRACTICE.
May. 29th, 2016 05:26 pm (UTC)
you are fighting a good fight!

I will say though - a lot of my group work in college was really frustrating because it has to be done outside class, conflicts with busy schedules, there's always one slacker who does nothing and there's nothing I can do about it.

In the real world we all work from 8-5 so if this is the priority project, meetings are automatic. and if one guy is slacking off you tell his boss and get him fired. those things sometimes make college group projects worse than the real world.

I am trying to think really hard now about what job you can have that requires no group work or people skills! Engineering sometimes gets named as one of those jobs but clearly not!
May. 29th, 2016 07:47 pm (UTC)
Yeah, and the scheduling thing is something I struggle to pace well for that reason. It's one of the reasons they do that majority of the work separately and then come back together - and we have several class days devoted to meetings with me as a group and group work.

It's also been an interesting reason to introduce them to tools like google docs (a LOT of my students have never used them).
May. 29th, 2016 06:09 pm (UTC)
I SO agree!
May. 29th, 2016 08:28 pm (UTC)
I had the good fortune to have a professor who helped me learn the value of being a good mentor before I graduated, deliberately pairing me with a hard-working but non-brilliant fellow and explaining the matter privately to me. He was a universally loved prof, and with good reason.
May. 29th, 2016 10:25 pm (UTC)
My eldest goes to a very small country school where there are multiple years in each class and the older students are enlisted to teach the younger ones often.
May. 29th, 2016 10:30 pm (UTC)
I spent 2.5 years at an elite liberal arts program where EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT was process based and collaborative. It killed me. I hated it. It was also the best thing to ever happen to me. I'd been one of the classic smart kids and always encouraged to learn learn learn and follow my own interests and talents.
May. 29th, 2016 11:33 pm (UTC)
I think one of the reasons why our graduates see a lot of success in college and later on in careers is that my school, being a vocational school and a magnet school, emphasizes hands-on learning, independent student-led capstone projects (every senior is required to do one), and through the NJROTC program, an emphasis on leadership, teamwork, and communication.

Disproportionately, a lot of schools are graduating students who just know Calculus. We need students who can work with a team, communicate their results, and speak intelligently with adults. I wish more schools would recognize that.
May. 30th, 2016 01:56 am (UTC)
your school is awesome!

senior projects are the most important discussion point when we job interview people, there's just so much you can tell from asking about it. how things went, their part on the team, how they picked the topic, what'd be next for it, troubleshooting stories... you get none of that by looking at a math test score!
May. 30th, 2016 09:36 pm (UTC)
A senior project is a required graduation element for our school. In the past five years, three seniors have not graduated specifically for this stickler (they never completed a project). And I feel they learn so much from an independent project that they'll never get from traditional studies.
May. 30th, 2016 03:05 am (UTC)
So agree!!! And we are glad to a point that D's school places a lot of importance on collaborative studies and not just between peers, they have fifth graders come in and help be reading partners, they have first graders also come in and they work together on things/activities. It's amazing how much they get from this.

I do hear from our teachers D loves to "teach" - and she is good at it - so much patience (now that explains why is exhausted when she gets home!!!)! But the principal sees that social skills, team work, leadership are skills that have to be practice. Pure academics can be learnt.

I remember once someone sharing, to really grasp a concept, you should (be able to) teach it - I remember in our biology class (in high school) our teacher had each of us teach part of a class on a topic. I still remember my module I "taught"! And it taught so m much more!

We do have a summer reading program - but for me, I see it as just practicing and keeping it up as a habit. D doesn't really get the need for an incentive to read right now.

And I remember my first job interview. They focused on how I worked with people and all my questions were just that - how I would handle situations. Knowledge-base can always be expanded on the job.
May. 30th, 2016 03:07 am (UTC)
I think though the intentions behind all these summer programs have/had good intentions - I know I needed it up until high school. But parents go and turn it into some competition that if they didn't have their kids doing it they are somehow behind!
May. 30th, 2016 05:22 pm (UTC)
I think a lot of parents are afraid of their child being that kid who falls behind and since they need to be in the top 5% to get into a good college after high school you have to start with a good preschool!

Maybe I was weird, but I didn't see the need to bust my butt in advance placement classes. I ended up taking college classes my senior year anyway for my English, Economics, and Government classes (high school credit for college classes and not having to take a test at the end that everything hinges on, thanks!) and the only AP classes I took were Studio Art and German. I did spend some time helping fellow students with concepts and as others noted I think that helped reinforce the the learning more than spending an extra 20 hours a week studying and doing busy work on my own. I also planned on getting my generals out of the way at the community college level so I wasn't in a class with 100+ other freshmen and after two years of that colleges aren't really paying attention to your High School transcript anyway.

Short version: People make it way more stressful than it has to be and they end up burning out their kids, which I definitely saw in my friends who were trying to do the "fast track."
May. 31st, 2016 01:15 am (UTC)
Can I just print out this and share it with my students when they whine at me?
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