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Our Innovative Students Are What the World Needs

Dr. Tony McCaffrey

Written by Dr. Tony McCaffrey

Teacher at Eagle Hill School

Feb 9, 2018

The desire to hire people who look at problems differently is growing. The Harvard Business Review published a 2017 article, Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage , which discussed how a growing number of companies are now changing their hiring practices. These businesses were finding that people with learning differences had some incredible skills that the companies badly needed but very few people with learning differences were actually making it through the interview process. As part of their changes, these companies were also providing assistance to these new hires to help them with some of their weaker skills.

Given this context, it is exciting to share that our Eagle Hill School students easily out-innovated a roomful of twenty high-tech Ph.D. researchers when I gave both the same aha problem.  With an aha problem, people generally get stuck until they notice an obscure feature that then illuminates a solution. However, a significant number of our EHS students consistently solve these puzzles without getting stuck.  Rather, they often come directly to the correct solution as their first answer with little or no hesitation. For the aha problem given to both the adult researchers and EHS students, 26% of the EHS students solved it in this direct manner without getting stuck while 43% solved it overall. In contrast, only one of the twenty researchers solved the problem at all—just a 5% solution rate.  For comparison, in an informal study, only two of the 98 randomly selected public school teens tested solved the problem directly without first giving a wrong answer (a 2% solution rate) and 28% solved it overall. 

Why are there such differences in performance? One possibility is that high-tech researchers tend to be exceptional analytic thinkers, b ut innovation requires thinking differently to notice what has been overlooked and then using it creatively to solve the problem.

Comparing youth, in general, to adult researchers, it is believed that somewhere within the age range of pre-teen to teen, youth are thought to be in a cognitive “sweet spot,” in which they can still make the wild associations of a child but are beginning to be able to assess their idea’s plausibility like an adult.

But beyond this general advantage of youth, our EHS youth do have a definite but often hidden advantage. By the time our students finally find Eagle Hill School, their files are filled with the results of many educational and psychological tests. These tests primarily inform them of their deficits as well as any “normal” skills they possess. Blatantly absent from their files are any “non-normal” abilities that can be leveraged toward academic achievement and ultimately real world success.

Currently, the range of cognitive abilities measured is very narrow compared to the true diversity of human cognition. More and more evidence supports the thesis that our verbal language that we treasure as the pinnacle of human cognitive ability is far from our most powerful method of processing and understanding the world. Much educational testing has a linguistic bias and often masks our most powerful processing methods. Regardless of a student’s linguistic ability, they may be extraordinary at noticing the obscure aspects of a situation—as was needed for the aha problem—as well as tasks involving spatial, visual, or tactile skills. Thus, it is quite possible that many of our learning diverse students possess an exceptional ability that today’s standardized tests do not acknowledge.

Since arriving at Eagle Hill School, I have put in place various activities to help uncover these overlooked abilities.

  • Classic Math Puzzles originally solved by math giants such as Gauss: I have found students who could also solve these math puzzles with no teacher guidance.
  • A Classroom Full of Puzzles: I watch for exceptional abilities especially in spatial reasoning and pattern recognition as students try these puzzles. My students have not disappointed me.
  • Puzzle-ology Class: Students try out many published games and then design an original one. Thus far, all of my students have designed original games and already two of those games (with more to follow) have been placed in our Maker Store: an online store where student-designed games are for sale to benefit charities.
  • Innovation Group: Eagle Hill School students solve problems for the campus, local businesses, non-profits, and town governments. Stuck on a problem? EHS students can help. 

In sum, those who struggle with a traditional educational approach may possess some of the most awesome abilities and companies are beginning to recognize this reality. Eagle Hill School is one of the high schools that recognizes and develops these often-unnoticed talents in their students. EHS is definitely doing its part to develop the whole student by strengthening their weaker skills and discovering their hidden talents. 

Do you want to try the same aha problem?

Consider the Two Rings Problem, in which you have to fasten two steel rings together in a figure-eight configuration. The rings are each about six inches in diameter and weigh about three pounds. All you have to work with is a long candle, a strike-anywhere match, and a two-inch cube of steel.

 Answer:

Most people first try to light the candle and drip wax around the rings. However, the rings are too heavy to be fastened securely with a wax bond. The key is to notice that the candle’s wick is a string. Remove the string by scraping the wax away on the steel cube and tie the rings together.

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