The future of smart hiring

Yesterday’s post about the two NASA engineers reminded me of the excerpt from Stuart Brown’s book Play which I’ve mentioned a few times before.  (Here’s a link to the most recent mention.) Brown tells the story of how the managers at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the lab behind the Mars landing) noticed in the late 90s that graduates of top engineering schools were often unable to solve the kind of problems JPL needed them to solve.  The hiring managers started asking candidates how they spent their childhoods, looking for those who’d done a lot of tinkering, taking apart, fixing, building… playing.  If Brown has his dates right, this JPL realization came before Steltzner and Ferdowsi were hired.

It can seem, given the competitive job market and the competitive college admissions realm,  as though it doesn’t matter to employers whether or not you can actually do the work they need you to do, as long as you have the right alma mater and the right grades.  But employers who really want to do the best possible work are changing their ways, which means it’s no longer a good idea to forsake genuine inquiry, investigation, and relevant training for the sake of toeing the academic line.  Like I said yesterday, the Curiosity guys didn’t make it to the control room just by building things out of blocks and gazing up at the stars.  But the fact that they were driven by their connection with these experiences not only made it possible for them to conquer the obstacles that surely came up in the course of their training and education, it also made them appealing candidates for the extremely complicated work they were interested in doing.

Now and later

In case you haven’t seen it yet, check out the story of a 9 year-old in Los Angeles who built an arcade out of cardboard.

The film is getting lots of attention for this child’s creation, and it’s getting donations for a college fund the filmmakers have set up.  I’m hoping that the collection will be helpful for this family, but I can’t help wondering if the donations could be even better used.  This guy’s already building and imagining complex designs and solutions.  What if instead of setting aside money for him to use for college several years from now, they arranged to fund an apprenticeship to a successful inventor, or hired him a business manager to help market what he thinks up?  What if we found a way to support him without making him wait to go to college to get qualified to make use of the skill and ingenuity he’s already using?

Addendum: Better yet, what if instead of only offering help to him and his family, we took the opportunity to ask for his help?  To invite him to consult on any of the myriad design, engineering, logistical problems that currently challenge us.  Now, while his mind is clearly flexible enough to be resourceful, to think in new unexpected ways, to make purposeful (and repurposeful) use of things and ideas, to turn vision into reality.


The backlog of things to post/comment on is looming large, so here are a bunch of posts in one with not much comment.  Otherwise, stuff gets away from me…

From McSweeney’s, a piece about how kids are reading more than before.  Yes, MORE!

I’ve been meaning to read Blake Boles’ College Without High School, but I haven’t yet, so I’m not yet qualified to write about the book.  I will say that I find the Table of Contents useful in its own right, so I feel qualified to recommend that much.  Once I’ve read it, I’ll be back to say more.

From, an interview with author Diana Senechal about kids’ need for solitude.  I did read this one, and while it bothers me (as many such conversations do) for its attempt to figure out what’s going to work for “kids” as though it’s one thing, I’m glad to hear the call for making more space for young people to actually think. Senechal advocates for being generally more thoughtful about how we teach what we teach.

And one anecdote.  Yesterday, I was doing some fraction work with an 11 year-old.  He loves math, and hasn’t learned it the old-fashioned way.  He figured out about adding and subtracting intuitively, watching the world go by, and he prefers doing his computation in his head in the course of various problem solving efforts to anything that involves shuffling numbers around on paper.  But he also likes to know how other people are doing their math, so from time to time we show him – what algorithms they’re using, what kind of terminology, etc.  The thing is, every time we do it, I’m reminded of how silly much of it is, and how much better it could be.  Yesterday we were multiplying fractions and I heard him say under his breath as he was figuring his way through something “it’s going to be a big-on-top answer.”  He didn’t say it so I could hear it.  He knows that’s not what it’s called.

I couldn’t help wondering, again, how much more fun and pleasant things might be if kids could make up their own names for things as they were getting acquainted with numbers.  Not to mention that it’d be much easier for them to communicate with each other about them.  Also not to mention that, in the case of the big-on-top fractions, there’d be opportunity for less value judgement; who’s really to say that a big numerator is any less proper than a big denominator?


Enough already.  When will we stop the senseless measuring of young children’s intellect by whether or not they can perform (quickly) mundane tasks that require minimal intellectual effort and capacity?  I sit with children every day who can make elaborate and airtight arguments, design architecturally sound and aesthetically interesting structures, negotiate solutions to complicated social disturbances but can’t remember 7×7.  At 8, 9, 10 years old they learn that this shortcoming is an indication of their intelligence, and thus of the degree to which they can be successful; their future potential as a student and then as a wage-earner.

We think it’s a secret because we don’t say it to them in so many words, but they figure it out.  They know that in the eyes of the adults in charge, there are smart kids and not smart kids.  And they know that it’s the smart kids who go to the good colleges, or college at all, and the smart kids who become doctors and lawyers and all the other professionals we hold in high esteem.  They know that we don’t think it’s smart, or at least not the important kind of smart, to be able to fix something, draw something, see something we didn’t see.  They know that the smart that counts in our minds is the kind that lives in reading and writing and math and science and social studies (and only barely the latter two). So they measure themselves that way, form their opinions and their plans around it, shrink the size of what’s possible and probable for them down to the size of our assessment.

It’s a sickening and tragic waste of life and capacity.  I think we should consider stopping.

Big college questions

Three provocative pieces about the value of college have come to my attention in the past 24 hours, so I thought I’d pass them along en masse.

First, a very short one from Seth Godin.

Second, a longer one from Sarah Lacy on TechCrunch.

Third, an older one on NPR.

All three are asking the question that many are scared to ask: “Is college worth what it’s costing?”  There are lots of ways to answer the question, and lots of different kinds of value involved.  This series of questions might help individual families assess:

“What can it do for [a particular young person]?”

“What will it cost (in funds and other ways)?”

“Given that benefit and that cost, does it seem worth it?”

There isn’t one answer, of course, and there’s nothing new about this way of considering a decision.  But something about the question of college has moved us away from this kind of analysis, even those of us who weigh options this way in other areas of life.  If you’re to find an answer that fits a particular young person and situation, you have to let go of the assumption that college will be worth what it costs.  Many assume it will because everyone has been saying it is for so long, or because it was when they went, or because they didn’t get to go and that was costly.  A lot of what you’ll read in these three pieces suggests that we’re trusting college to be things it once was but may no longer be, and we’d be wise to be sure we know what we’re investing in and what it can actually provide before we lay everything on the line for it.


I set up a table at the local farmers market today, to invite people to talk about building kids’ lives around who they already are, as an alternative to struggling in programs where they just don’t fit.  I talked to parents, grandparents, kids, former teachers, a physician, and a speech therapist.  I got the impression that people are interested in talking about issues of learning and pathfinding in new ways.

Just before I left, a small group of young adults who’d been working nearby came over to find out what I was up to.  I told them a little about how I work with kids – looking for ways to make it possible for their lives to start right away, not later, after they’ve finished getting ready for life.  Their participation in the conversation was intent and intense, which makes sense.  They’re the ones who are at the place in their lives where these questions and issues are at the forefront whether they want them there or not.

They’re busy figuring out what to do next:  Should they Just Get a Job?  Should they commit to another chunk of education (either because they want what it will offer or because it will mean they don’t have to decide what to do for another couple of years)?  Should they venture down some other less beaten path?

If you know a young person who’s facing this kind of inquiry, I invite you to remember what a gift it can be (particularly from parents, other relatives and trusted adults) to have the chance to talk through such large-looming options without the tangle of judgment and opinion that is so easy to include.  It’s not easy to do, but it’s worth the effort.

And further, it’s worth figuring out how to make sure that other youngers don’t have to wait until they’re out on their own to work through some of the questions of where they might fit, belong, thrive.

* I haven’t mentioned the Teenage Liberation Handbook lately – for anyone who’s interested in pathfinding, and looking for resources to support it at any age, it’s a great reference. And another for the older young folk among us – Jenny Blake’s Life After College blog (helpful with or without college – a reminder that it doesn’t all just fall into place for anyone upon diploma receipt; there’s always figuring and discerning to do).


I was walking back from the bus stop and heard two city employees talking about the granite curb they were about to install at the corner.  I was surprised by what I heard, and then annoyed at my surprise.

“The thing I’m concerned about is…”

“Well, the worst that could happen is…”

I can’t finish the sentences, because I don’t know enough about granite-laying to have retained the content of their conversation.  But my surprise came from the fact that I don’t expect to hear city guys in Carhartts negotiating with each other in the course of their work.  Apparently I think they’re just out there doing manual tasks free of thought and interaction.

Of course, I know better, but it reminds me of Matthew Crawford’s book about the dying off of technical training in high schools.  We have a tremendous bias about what constitutes good work, and what’s enough to merit good pay and treatment, even though we need people to do this work, and do it thoughtfully and well. And there are young people who are smart in the right ways for that who get discouraged from doing it.  Crawford reminds us that “work that is straightforwardly useful can also be intellectually absorbing.”  (Not to mention lucrative, a point that, bafflingly, often gets lost in platforms about how kids need college degrees to have good jobs so they can earn a living.)