Book Review: Calling all Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor

Visual Thinking Example by Jinho Jung, flickr creative commons


Are you a visual thinker? If you are, how do you know this? What is the experience of thinking visually?

Temple Grandin’s book, Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor, opens with a description of her powerful ability to organise her thinking and her world as a series of detailed visual images.

What is visual thinking?

On the front cover, Grandin is described as “World Renowned Scientist, Inventor, and Expert on Visual Thinking”. Grandin describes that she was able to “test run equipment in her imagination” from a young age.

The only thing I know for sure about visual thinking, is that I don’t know if I think visually.

I recently felt a flicker of recognition of a familiar face in a cafe. I couldn’t immediately place the women who looked roughly my own age. She looked at me as she passed through, but she gave no indication of recognising me, so I felt uncertain about whether I knew her at all. Later, while I was chatting to my children, I thought about an image of candles and baubles. The image surfaced in my mind. It had a purple background, drawn with a crayoned art style. I then immediately knew the woman I had seen earlier was in my class in high school, although we had not known each other well.  The image was from a Christmas card that she had given me. I can sometimes still associate people with the artwork on the cards they gave me over twenty years ago. Even with this oddly useless knack, I still don’t understand whether I am a visual thinker, or how to harness the way that I think to help me as a learner.

When you read my description, the image surfaced in my mind, do I actually see this in a way that you, reading this would? The recent flurry of responses to articles on aphantasia, described as not being able to conjure visual images in the mind, seemed to relate to me too.  I don’t ‘see’ the image in the way others describe in such rich details. I am astounded by Grandin’s ability to describe techniques for visual thinking in a way that demonstrates her understanding of how she applied her thinking to her domain of animal science.

Autism and learning

Diagnosed with autism during the 1950s, Grandin shares her personal experiences of traversing education where she was often bullied by her peers because she expressed her ideas differently to others. How Grandin grappled with this, is also a powerful story of those adults and educators who not just supported her unique thinking, but encouraged and celebrated it. Particular teachers, her inventor grandfather and her family seem instrumental in helping Grandin uncover the transforming power of being able to think in such detail.  Grandin in turn, is helping support millions of learners, through books and talks.

Temple says that her message in the book is “make things”. I would add that’s it’s also one you can do without an equipment list –  make thoughts.

Maker projects

Grandin’s book includes short instructional maker projects from things you might have tried before, like making handmade paper, and projects that you might not have tried, like water bombs made from paper, puppet theatres,  wooden structures, including a corral with a self-closing gate, homemade stilts and boats. The equipment needed ranges through the everyday through to handsaws and drills. The projects are eclectic and imaginative.

Hack the instructions

Throughout the experiments, along with encouragement from Grandin to always hack the instructions and “experiment with the experiment” you can wander off easily from the step-by-step, into stories of great inventors, from Grandin’s thinking and experiences. For me, snippets like the connection she made as a child between snowflakes, bicycle wheels and sunflowers stands out for me as a beautiful example of how thinking about connections leads to what we mean when we talk about thinking like a maker.

Note that the project instructions do need some immediate hacking for international audiences. Be prepared to research what some local equivalent items are when referred to with US terminology, such as “small dixie cups” and needing to convert to metric conversions before you embark on the experiments.

Wandering thoughts

Reading this book feels to me like an example of why I love walking through a physical library. The chapters are organised around themes like ‘Things Made of Paper’, ‘Things that Fly’ so that you can have a sense of order, but you are wonderfully drawn off into serendipitous finds and curiosities woven by the author. The book seems to reflect Grandin’s way of seeing the world. There is a wonderful feeling of slightly chaotic connections in the pages,  if you read it in a linear way. In a library where librarians have turned a book cover to be front-facing to catch your eye, or a word on a book spine leaps out at you, or a book falls off the shelf next to the one you pulled out, so to in this book, you can find yourself wandering off into mathematics, science, the history of inventing and stories from Temple’s life.

Agency in learning

Calling All Minds is for all thinkers, with a powerful message about people traversing the world on the autism spectrum. Grandin’s call is to  trust the way we think as individuals. To trust our minds in their unique ability to make connections that others might not. How educators help us to learn about how we learn, is one of the most powerful supports we can have.

My useless knack of remembering the cards that people give me, perhaps did find a more useful purpose. As an undergraduate literature student, I struggled to commit Middle English quotes to memory. As exam preparation, I decided to scrawl them in different parts and directions around the margins of my notebooks in different lettering styles with small drawings .My notebooks were mad messy scrapbooks and not the neatly ordered linear notes and lists we had been encouraged to keep throughout our educational journey. In the exam, I’d think of the pages, and slowly the quotes, word for word,  would then emerge. I’ve always wondered if this technique, might have helped me avoid the gulf between the love I have of written maths, and my failure and anxiety in even simple mental arithmetic techniques as a young child and adult.

Grandin’s book made me think deeply about my own learning struggles in the past, what learning lies ahead, and how to approach maker projects as thoughtful opportunities to learn about how we learn.

This book would make a great addition to Makerspace libraries for middle to senior school students.  For younger students, you could pair it with picture book from the Amazing Scientists series – The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin by Julia Finley Mosca.

Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor by Temple Grandin, was published on 15th May 2018 by Philomel Books. This review was written from a public library copy.

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