I rarely read fiction, but this week I picked up the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Since the movie just came out on DVD, I decided to read the book before hitting RedBox. Without creating a spoiler, the plot of the novel revolves around a young man named Andrew “Ender” Wiggin who just happens to be a very gifted child. At a young age, the world government decides to train him to be a commander in their battle against creatures known as buggers. These beings had attacked Earth in the past and now the focus of mankind was on preventing a future attack while always being prepared for another war. The novel revolves around Ender’s training and preparation for entering the bugger wars as a battle ready leader who can face any situation and be effective. In the novel, Card, in my opinion, describes many parallels to education, some positive and some negative. Again, as I go through these insights, I will try not to spoil the novel. If you haven’t read it, you might want to stop now, read the novel, and come back after doing so.
- Not all children have the same gifts. In the novel, Ender is a brilliant strategist who has the ability to think on his feet and act quickly. His brother and sister, Peter and Valentine, on the other hand, have the gift for expressing themselves through writing and for being opinion leaders. In education, we sometimes forget that children are different and try to teach them the same things in the same ways. Instead of differentiating instruction, we teach all children using the same methods and then wonder why some get it and some don’t. We also often require all children to produce the same products to show their grasp of new knowledge and skills. If we truly understood that children were different, we would stop using a cookie cutter model for education and start developing instructional units based on the needs of the individual children.
- Children, when given the opportunity, will amaze us. - Colonel Graff, the headmaster of Battle School where Ender attends, decides to let him face difficult situations without adult assistance. He does this to see how Ender will respond and react. Now, I don’t recommend leaving kids to their own devices without any adult help, but I do believe that, too often, we contain children’s ideas and do not let them try out new strategies simply because their ideas are not what we’ve always done. When we allow children to try new ways to solve problems, we are giving them the freedom to explore and learn. In doing so, we are creating thinkers. Thinkers who are able to implement their ideas will always do more than simple direction followers.
- Always hold high expectations for children. - Throughout the book, Colonel Graff continuously raises the bar on Ender. As soon as he meets one challenge, another is added. This process is nonstop for young Ender and, while he often resents it, he still pushes himself to meet each challenge head-on. As educators, we need to expect our students to do more than just the minimum. In fact, we should keep the bar high and expect them to be better and do better than they themselves think they can. Now, that doesn’t mean that the bar will always be in the same place for each child. Some will start at different levels than others. Some will have the bar raised quickly while others will take more time to achieve success. Either way, the expectation that the student will be successful must always be there. If we don’t believe that our students will achieve success, it will show in how we treat them and they will, in most cases, respond accordingly.
- Don’t do for kids what they can do for themselves. - While this adage is taken to extremes in the novel, it should be a factor in every classroom. As educators, we often do for children what they should be doing for themselves. This may involve actions such as offering help before it asked for or giving too much help when it is requested. There are times when kids do need help and often don’t know how to ask for it, but more often, adults let kids off the hook by doing things for them.
- Let kids be kids. - Unfortunately, this is not done in the novel. Kids need time in their day to simply play. In fact, I believe that children often learn as much during play as they do during class. It is on the playground where positive skills such as playing fair, sharing, and working together are often either learned or reinforced. It is easy, in the midst of the core curriculum, to forget that we are working with children and that they need time to just be children.
- Allow children to apply new learning in as real a situation as possible. - In Battle School, Ender and his schoolmates regularly apply what they are learning in mock battles. These battles allow them to reinforce strategies they have been learning all week. In the classroom, it is not always possible to recreate real world situations, but we need to try and come as close as possible for our students benefit. With the introduction of technology to many campuses, it is becoming easier to create these situations. In fact, it is sometimes possible to have students work on real projects with schools, businesses, universities, and others both near home or halfway around the world. When we allow students to do real work, we are not only helping them reinforce the learning, but are also showing them the relevance of that learning.
- Trust your students to do their best. - In the novel, Ender places great trust in his subordinates. He trusts them so much that he allows them the freedom to develop strategies on the battlefield and to adjust to changing situations within an established framework. In the classroom, we should treat our students like we want them to be, not necessarily as they are. Sometimes this is not easy, especially with difficult children. However, they will never grow if we don’t give them a chance. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have classroom rules, expectations, and procedures. It does mean that we teach these structures and trust our students to work within them until they demonstrate otherwise. Some years ago, I ran a computer based science lab. Teachers would bring their students to the lab and they would work on various experiments. Many times, teachers would tell me I was crazy if I thought their students would be successful, especially when we were using items such as bunsen burners or acids. But, they were successful. I believe this was because I taught them safe lab techniques and then expected them to follow them. I trusted them to use the equipment safely, to follow safety procedures, and to do their best work every time. Such trust and respect led to results.
The above are a few of the parallels to educational practice that I found in the book Ender’s Game. These are mostly positive. Unfortunately, there are a lot of negatives as well. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it. If you have read it, I’m sure you can come up with other correlations beyond those above. I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.