Thursday, September 07, 2006

Technical Skill And Maturity

Summary: Gifted young sometimes show a peculiar combination of high-level technical skill and low-level maturity. The lack of maturity is no excuse to belittle or dismiss their technical skill; it can and should be harnessed by methods that compensate for the lack of maturity.

Lately, Finns have discussed special education for gifted children. Since I went to a very ambitious math high school, I want to offer my view on this question.

The school was called Valkeakosken aikuislukion matematiikkalinja. It was located 10km from Toijala, a town with 8400 inhabitants. The students lived in the school.

I found out about the school, when they sent me a letter of invitation after I had done well in a competition. I entered the school in the summer 1997. The summer was a "probabtion period" where they checked if we were correct material for the school and prepared us for the following two years. The days were filled with math education, where we went quickly through a lot of material. We were not supposed to learn it, but to get a good overview which would facilitate more thorough learning later. Typically, every other week was education in Toijala and every other week was summer holiday in our homes.

There weren't that many applicants. If I remember correctly, there were 25 applicants for 20 places. Some of them didn't even want to continue after the summer. Rather than being a hypercompetitive pruning game, it was a test of whether we were prepared to leave our homes for fast-paced math education.

We also had a programming course in that summer. It was some kind of "Introduction to Programming", and it was lectured by two teachers from Tampere University of Technology. This programming course prepared us for internship in companies; that internship would pay our living costs. All students eventually passed the course, although many people had to return the exercise works several times.

With the fall of the autumn, we moved there permanently and started also part-time work. I was paired with Jarno, and we were given a work task by a nearby vocational school. They had a drilling machine, which made holes to chips in places where components should be inserted. The drilling machine took a list of (x, y) -coordinates and drilled the appropriate holes on an empty chip. Our task was to make a program, which would take a scanned picture of a chip as input. The program would identify the holes and output a list of coordinates for the holes.

They didn't just throw the assignment at us, but ensured that we would know what to do with it. Fortunately, I had done some simple graphics programming earlier; otherwise we couldn't have done it. Those past skills were put to good use in this programming task.

We didn't know enough math to rotate the scanned picture of a chip, so a student from the older class wrote a texture rotation code. Also, me and Jarno didn't have Windows programming experience; after we had done the basic algorithm, an experienced Windows coder from our class added a graphical UI to it.

The experienced Windows coder was one of the two persons in our class (2 our of 20), who had already developed almost industrial-strength coding skill before coming to Päivölä. What they had in common was that their parents could also code and gave them advice on their hobby. In addition, there were at least 3 persons (inclding me) who had had some earlier programming experience.

The vocational school headmaster knew how to extract productivity out of immature souls. He gave us a clearly defined technical task, and made sure that we knew where to start. We didn't need to do those parts that require maturity, experience and human relationship skills - negotiating conditions, choosing partners, finding out what needs to be done in the first place, etc. And frankly, I couldn't have done anything that required maturity. I had never had a summer job, my capability to take responsibility was low and my social skills were nonexistent.

The newspaper article ends with a sentence where the Finnish Minister of Education, Mr. Heinäluoma takes a stance against this kind of education by saying that "little Einsteins" would only be damaged if they were to be separated to their own caste.

First, I'll deconstruct the phrase "little Einsteins". The diminutive "little" can imply two things. Firstly, it can imply that these people are little mommy's boys, who do everything their mothers and teachers say and are in general spineless. This implies that they deserve to be insulted and bullied until they grow up to become sullen teenagers. Secondly, it can imply that these people only have "play" skills that are appropriate for children. As I have already explanined, the coding skills which I saw in Päivölä were very real, just waiting to be applied to the easy end of the industry problems.

The word 'genius' has two meanings. First of all, it refers to a person with extraordinary mental ability. Secondly, it is an insult against people who think they are smarter than they are.

We can conclude our deconstruction by saying that both "little" and "Einstein" can be considered as negative testimony against the character of the people involved, and as encouragements to insult and bully them. You wouldn't call a 25 years old fresh collage graduate a "little Einstein" who would be better off vandalizing, shoplifting and drinking himself into a gutter compared to using his skills in a productive way. Why is it completely appropriate to say such things about teenagers? Is it because our society so extremely low expectations about young people that doing something useful while you could just leech your parents has become a sign of profoundly un-indivualistic wimpyness?

Now, let's look at the claim that these people would be damaged by special education. I really don't think that the programming course, work intership, improved math education and likeminded company damaged me. If I was immature after it, that's only because I was even worse when I came there.

In short, Mr. Heinäluoma's comment demonstrates complete lack of understanding about the nature of giftedness; about the division to technical skill and maturity development, and about effective ways to harness giftedness in ways that are economically productive and good for the subject's development.


Matti said...

This is funny. If I understand correctly what vocational school you mean, then I took some courses there in the early 90's. I got my first degree from the other (now defunct?) vocational school in Valkeakoski. School you mentioned is the newer one, where some of our education took place in the last year of study.

soopa said...

The matter is of utmost importance and I would very much like to see your point of view in some old skool newspaper (Helsingin Sanomat). The politicans usually have no clue whatsoever in this kind of matters (as mr. Heinäluoma clearly demonstrated), so an inside view would be very valuable. Propably the politicans can not recodnize publicly, that people has different skills and abilities early on (political suicide because everyone is not equal?).

So please, write this thing to HS mielipide department.