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What's a Whitney Learner?
In his 1973 documentary, the Ascent of Man, Jacob Bronowski observed that the industrial revolution began in the hands of practical men, men educated, not in classrooms, but in the building of England’s mills, canals and bridges. These independent mechanics were not obedient to tradition. They immersed themselves in the power of water. They invented new machines and a new social order. They invented themselves. Bronowski spoke about the millwright James Brindley but he could have been describing Eli Whitney.
Is this distinction important?
With impressive frequency, the biographies of inventors begin: in spite of an unpromising beginning in school, he went on to…Whitney, Fulton, Edison, Bell, the Wright Brothers - the patriarchs of American invention - are all described as restless students. But each of them had found ways to distinguish themselves by the age we expect contemporary students to graduate from high school.
We have more than doubled the number of school years expected of American children in the last century. That’s an essential and generous commitment. But for Whitney Learners it may be an extended sentence.
But you are not arguing against education, are you?
Not at all. I am arguing that education is bigger than schooling. Whitney reluctantly boasted: I have made more armorers than arms. He recognized that his workshop was a learning laboratory. He recognized that the industrial revolution precipitated a collateral revolution in education. At the very least, we still need to make schooling broader.
Don’t we now live in the age of “knowledge workers”?
Sure. But if you’re asking wasn’t Eli Whitney so…”19th Century”? Remember that Eli Whitney was a knowledge worker. He transposed European ideas about the development of productive labor into an American paradigm. He conceived a system of tooling that is essentially the software and interface of the industrial revolution. Whitney was a master of change. And change is what we must prepare our children for.
And remember that the most transformative change of the last 25 years…the engine of the knowledge revolution – the personal computer…most people have mastered not in the classroom but in their workplaces and workshops, their bedrooms and basements.
Are computers a perfect expressive medium for Whitney Learners?
Yes and no. Yes, computers are empowering. But few schools have found a way to connect to that power. So many youngsters are seduced by the energy and sophistication of games. Many youngsters invest time and memory in games that only distract from their developing competence in school.
Why don’t Whitney learners bloom in the classroom?
Some do. Remember, Eli Whitney graduated from Yale, an exceptional achievement already in 1792. Though he went about it in an unconventional way. He was 24 when he entered. He is remembered because he went to Yale…but not for what he learned at Yale.
Whitney learners are bright, original and ambitious…but not always efficient as students.
So Whitney Learners are “dyslexic”?
Many are. Eli’s sister, Elizabeth, marveling at his success wrote: he wasn’t very clever in the bookish sense. He seems not to have learned to read until he was 12. That suggests dyslexia.
Dyslexia appears in our apprentices at a rate more than three times its incidence in the general population. We don’t select our apprentices for dyslexia. We select gifted and inventive children with a passion for building things. The dyslexia is a now never surprising companion.
Other Whitney learners are very bright ( and even good spellers) but bored with the practice problems of the classroom. They hunger for the real challenges of the workshop.
Are dyslexia and gifted invention related?
Yes. But there are different explanations.
I am greatly indebted to John Dixon’s work on visual learning He observes a pattern in the subtests of the WISC3 IQ instrument. He noticed that people with extraordinary Block Design Scores (measuring the ability to assemble red and white blocks according to a plan) often have very low Coding and Digit Span Scores (recalling 8 digits in a fixed order.) What if, Dixon asks, the extraordinary mental gymnastics of gifted visual learners overwhelm the mundane and lineal thinking which happens to be so essential to reading and the basic early work of school?
Recently Julie Logan, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Cass School of Business in London, has proposed a more concrete relationship. She noticed that an unusual portion of British and American entrepreneurs were dyslexic. How does she reconcile this contradiction of disadvantage (the dyslexia) and distinction (the uncommon success)? She observes that her subjects were entrepreneurial in their education. Impatient at reading instructions, they learned to figure things out for themselves: they learned to trust their own eye. Keenly attuned to their own strengths and weaknesses in learning, they were precociously aware of the strengths of others: they became shrewd delegators and team builders. Unrewarded in the classroom, they sought out or created their own domains for recognition: they got an early start in family businesses, they learned from mentors…or as apprentices.
So dyslexics are inventive?
Both Julie Logan and the Museum start with a pool of conspicuously talented individuals. It’s safe to say that conspicuously talented dyslexics will find ways to work around the obstacles of labored reading. That can be the beginning of a life of resourceful creativity.
In our research projects, it has been easier to find the unseen learning difficulties in populations of gifted students than it has been to discover the unrecognized gifts in populations of learning disabled students.
So Whitney Learners are easy to recognize?
Many of the subjects in Julie Logan’s study did not have the contradictions in their learning habits identified until the same pattern was recognized in their children.
In the myriad competing challenges of a classroom, it’s not difficult for a bright and resourceful child to disguise even severe learning disabilities…in the beginning. Sometimes they are so successful that they fool even themselves. Late bloomer. Underachiever. Overachiever: there are any number of indirect ways to describe this contradiction.
But the Museum is adept at recognizing Whitney Learners?
Yes, with their help.
An impressive number of very young children visit. They take one look at our tools, materials and challenges…the same tools and materials of Brindley and Whitney…and announce with clinical precision: this is how I was meant to learn.