What Ender Taught me about Educational Change

I was invited by John Carver to engage in a conversation about the future of education a couple of weeks ago. I’ve had many of these conversations before, but this one was different—most noticeable in the fact that I am still churning yet today. Typically, I find myself deconstructing the system and talking around the most troubling education questions with a bunch of other education types. The effect of that narrow audience is that we never get outside of the paradigms of education. See, most educators know nothing else. They went from being students in an educational system—one that typically served them fairly well—to being the pillars of the same system. We struggle to “think outside the box” because the box has framed our entire lives. What was different about that meeting was that that it was a heterogeneous group—with great thinkers from the private sector as well—and one of these great thinkers threw the curveball that eventually provoked a eureka moment for me.

At one point in the meeting, Christian Renaud got up and started a list of recommended reads on one of the white boards. It was an unassuming move that most in the room probably didn’t give a second thought. However, when he wrote Ender’s Game on the board, I was knocked off balance for a minute. I guess you might even say that I was pushed out of the box. I know this book well—even taught it when I was a classroom teacher—but I had no idea what it had to do with the questions with which we were wrestling. Determined to square this dissonance, I downloaded the audio version and listened to it during my drive to Des Moines the next morning—this time allowing myself to be engaged by Orson Scott Card’s work from a different angle.

What I learned from two hours with Ender

Optimal learning happens when students experience “just right” challenge. This is a widely-studied, well-supported fact. If you need the evidence, start by looking at the research base behind problem-based mathematics instruction. If you need more, look to the work of Fred Newmann and Bruce King in their study of Authentic Intellectual Work. Navigating through complex problems that have value beyond the four walls of the classroom—beyond the expectations of the teacher—forces students to develop complex procedural knowledge. And, if well-designed and delivered, valuable metacognitive knowledge and deep conceptual knowledge of important stuff.  Throughout the book, Ender is constantly put in situations that force him to navigate his way through carefully constructed challenges that force him to develop needed skills and knowledge.

For an example of a “just right” challenge take a look at the “Give Me Shelter” project viewable through Edutopia’s Anatomy of a Project series. We need to create an educational system that consistently puts students in situations where they are facing "just-right" challenges. 

We must understand our students. Creating the situations in which “just right” challenges can occur requires that we know our students in deep and distinct ways. We must understand how each and every one of them thinks. We must understand their individual strengths, weaknesses, and learning trajectories in order to know which challenges will help them develop their strengths and chisel away at their weaknesses—all the while developing important concepts and skills. Further, we have to attend to their affective development. We need to foster the dispositions and belief systems that allow our students to develop confidence, perseverance, and openness. Ender is constantly observed for signs of growth and areas of deficiency. I don’t propose installing monitors in children’s brains like they do in Ender’s Game. However, I do propose that we develop valid tools and processes that allow us to monitor an individual student’s growth and development to ensure he or she is consistently facing “just right” challenges that do in fact lead to the development of important skills and knowledge. 

The system must transform—in real time—to match the growth of the individual student. Currently, we depend on what I can only call an arbitrary system of grouping children by age and moving them along at essentially the same pace—presuming 180 days of school constitute a recognizable unit of growth or development. Ender’s game constantly changes to match the difficulty and context of the task he faces to the level of proficiency he demonstrates. I have sketchy ideas of what this looks like, sounds like, and feels like in action. I’ll be sharing these ideas with the group when we meet again Friday, and I will share them with all of you in the near future.


  1. Bridgette, don't you think this is where formative assessment comes into play. By setting success criteria (to use Margaret Heritage's work) and monitoring this closely, teachers can find exactly what the "right challenge" is for each student. This is also where teachers can use their specialists (special ed teachers, TAG teachers) more effectively - also giving more time for teachers to spend with those kids "in the middle" who often get overlooked. Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  2. "Just right challenges" reminds me of the Goldilock's Theory. The technical term is something like "Zone of Proximal Development."

    We all learn best when we have to make an effort to learn it, but it has to be possible to learn it. That's when the "porridge" is just right.

    I'm putting Ender's Game on my reading list. Thanks.

  3. David--Definitely read Ender's Game. I've got a hard copy and the audio version. I'm happy to give you either (or both).

    Alynn--You're absolutely right that formative assessment is critical in this process. I'm all for Margaret Heritage's variety. We just need to get to work and develop the formative assessments that will tell us the information we actually need.

  4. I love this book and all of its sequels, but think that the ultimate lesson of all of the books is that educators cannot predetermine the ceiling [or floor] for any child's learning. Ender's true achievements occur despite, not because of the system. And let's not forget that his 'just right' challenge is the annihilation of an entire civilization under the guise of playing a game, not curing cancer or closing the achievement gap.

    TAG students and others I know love this book and relate to both the challenges Ender faces and the way the system tries to exploit him for their own purposes. I always thought of this book as a cautionary tale for educators who think they know best. Ender doesn't think well of his Battle School teachers past this first book....

  5. You're so right, Becky. Thanks for commenting! We absolutely need to get past the belief that we adults know what's best for students. I learned--over and over again--in my classroom that we have much more to learn from students than they have to learn from us.