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Solving problems through different ways of thinking

June 13, 2018

“Schools need to keep classes that foster creativity and problem-solving such as art, playing instruments, woodworking, theater, welding, auto shop and creative writing." Temple Grandin firmly believes that children need to work with their hands to fully develop their minds.

"When I was four-years old, I didn't have any speech," began Temple Grandin, today the articulate and accomplished guest keynote speaker at this week’s Rockwell Automation TechED conference in San Diego. "Einstein, probably the most accomplished person with autism, didn't talk until he was three," she added.

Grandin is an American author, animal behavior expert, successful businesswoman and advocate for autistic people who believes society is failing those people whose minds are wired more for focused, independent thought than for social/emotional interaction. During the next hour of her TechED talk, she expounded on topics ranging on how we invent; how to better teach our children; and how different kinds of minds work when solving problems.

It made me think about how I work with others and about a salesman friend of mine who is concerned that his three-year old, slightly autistic grandchild, hasn't spoken yet. No worries: the child's visual mind, my engineering mind and my friend's verbal mind are all clearly accumulating knowledge and solving problems by thinking differently.

Inventing and doing real things

Grandin talked about her grandfather, an MIT-trained engineer, co-inventor of autopilot for airplanes. His successful collaboration with another, differently skilled individual drove home an important point about problem-solving: "Someone else came up with a crazy idea, but my grandfather made it work," she said. "That's an example of different minds working together. With problem-solving, it’s okay for someone to come up with the idea and then someone else make it work."

Grandin wants kids to get back to doing real things and solving physical problems. "There is a study that shows kids like real activities better than pretend ones," said Grandin. "In my book, Calling All Minds, it has all my childhood projects, like my fifth grade woodworking project where I learned how to use a coping saw. One of the problems we have today is kids are not growing up using tools, and we have a huge shortage of skilled trades."

“I'm very concerned about the loss of know-how,” she continued. "In December of 2017, I toured two giant pork-processing plants," she said. "We no longer make the specialized equipment for those plants. By the time I got through the second plant, I wanted to rip out my hair. I've been working in the meat industry for 44 years. We use to design all that stuff. The reason we are not designing it now is that the kids that should be doing it are in special ed. Instead of designing the mixing machine that was on this stage yesterday, they are playing video games in the basement.

“We have got to get kids back to using tools at a young age,” said Grandin. "The whole point of my book is to get kids doing things with their hands. I was at a book signing at a school in Colorado and found that half the kids had never made a paper airplane. That's ridiculous."

Grandin loves horseback riding and model rockets. As a child, she used to build those rockets from scratch. She was horrified to find that rockets today are ready made. "That's not the point," she said. "You have got to make stuff, you have to tinker. Schools need to keep classes that foster creativity and problem-solving such as art, playing instruments, woodworking, theater, welding, auto shop and creative writing."

What are some common denominators of successful people who are different, like a Steve Jobs or an Albert Einstein? “These are people who might get a special ed label today," said Grandin. “They grew up with lots of books and learning. They also had early exposure to career interests with hands-on projects and learned how to work at an early age."

Different kinds of thinking

Grandin then turned to different types of thinking, what's normal and how to be successful. "When thinking, engineers calculate risk; I see risk," said Grandin. "A brain can be more thinking or a brain can be more social/emotional. A certain amount of variation between the two is normal. Autism in its mild forms has other names—geeks and nerds."

There are three basic ways that people think when solving problems: visual, mathematical and verbal. "I'm an object visualizer," said Grandin. "When I design things, I see them in my mind—it's photo realistic. I couldn't do algebra. A lot of visual thinkers should skip algebra and go straight to geometry. Instead, a lot of our visual thinkers are just getting screened out by the requirement to learn algebra."

“Then you have the mathematical mind, that's the way most engineers think,” continued Grandin. “They are pattern thinkers," she said. "Finally, you have the ‘Google facts’ mind—the verbal thinkers. They know everything about their favorite stuff like a great salesman. He may be dyslexic, but he's a great talker."

The way a mind thinks shows up at an early age. “Maybe visual thinking shows up in third grade, in a drawing. Or maybe the mathematical mind shows up in second grade as a kid who is super good at math,” Grandin said.

Or maybe that child turns into a big problem at school because he has to do “stupid-little-baby math,” as Grandin described it. Maybe they’d stay out of trouble if they were allowed to quietly do high school math in that second grade class. “It all depends on the mind,” she said.

Different minds

For Grandin, when working on a project, she wants the parameters of the expected outcome. Give her the requirements and the priorities, and she can do the design work. But any time there is something that involves a sequence, she needs to write it down to give herself “a pilot’s checklist.” She can’t always keep up with a string of verbal instructions—her brain doesn't think that way, she said. The written list provides the key words for her internal Google data center, what she called a “bottom-up” type of thinking.

“What I want to get you thinking about is that different kinds of minds exist,” Grandin said in conclusion. “When you recognize this, you can figure out how they complement each other. I'm worried that our educational system is screening out a lot of our visual thinkers—and we need them to solve different kinds of problems. The world needs all kinds of minds."