Temple Grandin and Different Ways of Thinking

One of the highlights of the NAGC was the opportunity to see Temple Grandin speak. I watched The Temple Grandin Story a couple of years ago (a movie she endorsed as very accurate) and have been intrigued by her story ever since.

Temple has her PhD in animal science and is known for her work in the livestock industry as she has revolutionized the way cattle are handled. She was also diagnosed with autism at the age of two. The movie shares her life story: doctors telling her parents at two that she should be institutionalized, a school system that didn’t understand her very well, and the struggles she went through to share her unique way of understanding animal behaviors with those already in the livestock industry. It is an amazing story.

When Temple Grandin spoke she was very different from all the other speakers. Her thoughts jumped a bit, she spoke very quickly and she used a lot of visual images to communicate her ideas. She spoke bluntly about what she thought were some of the biggest problems facing not only education but the world. She was also very candid about how her mind works and how she sees things very differently from others.

So what did Temple have to share with the NAGC? To be honest, my notes are all over the place…it wasn’t easy to keep up with her. But I will try to capture some of the main ideas.

1. We need to find ways to compliment different ways of thinking to work together. She described several different ways of thinking that often get suppressed in a verbal world: sensory based thinking, visual thinking, photo-realistic visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, geometrists and algebraists- each holds a unique way of understanding the world and we should not suppress one in favor of the others. If we can develop complimentary relationships between these thinkers we will be much further ahead.
2. Our system is failing our children with our need for labels. Children should not be their label. She was very clear that she is a scientist first. This has been her passion and life’s work. Many children have unique passions. Talented quirky students need mentors to channel them into challenging careers. We should assist them in their exploration and understanding of these passions rather that trying to label the child and force them to “fit”.
3. We are getting caught up in abstract thinking…as a result we are not “getting things done”. This part of her presentation was particularly memorable as she spoke about the importance of “doing stuff” and how frustrated she was with people like patent trolls (find out more about this here) who do nothing but wait to profit off of other people’s work. It’s time we got back to doing stuff and getting the job done. She told us that she has spent so much time in the construction industry that she knows how to get things done. We need to get kids doing stuff, figuring things out and not afraid to get into the middle of a messy job.

It’s hard not to feel humbled when you listen to Temple speak. She’s so straight forward, not encumbered by the need to be politically correct, full of buzz words or communicating through some of the filters that so many of us employ on a regular basis. When she talks about how her mind works, it’s incredible…like how when she’s trying to figure out if a piece of machinery works, she runs it in her mind to see if all of the parts are connecting properly. I found this particularly intriguing as I had spent the evening before at a Da Vinci exhibit where they build some of his drawings to see if they would work…and they do.

And so I left with this question in my mind. Is the way Temple Grandin thinks really unique or is the fact that she survived a system that didn’t understand her unique? The implications of question have been with me since I heard her speak.

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