Ender’s Game and Cognitive Apprenticeship

I was looking through some old papers and I found a response paper I wrote about how the principles of Cognitive Apprenticeship (see Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1987; etc.) show up in Ender’s Game. With the release of the movie this last fall, I thought it might be worth resurrecting. At the same time, I got to thinking about the moral issues related the education of Ender Wiggins. But I’ll need to reflect on that and respond in a future post.

For now, the paper from back in my days at USU as a student in the Master’s program (around 2002) mimics an interview style article in a training/instructional design journal or magazine. I hope you enjoy it!

[SPOILER ALERT — Although it doesn’t describe the movie or book precisely, you can probably figure out important plot elements from the contents of this mock interview. If you haven’t read the book or watched the movie, be advised.]

An Interview with Colonel Hyrum Graff

By: Michael C. Johnson, Staff Writer, Training Trends Magazine

Many if not all of us have heard of the famous Ender Wiggins who as a young
boy saved the Earth once and for all from those nasty invaders—the buggers. What few have focused on is the instructional genius behind Ender’s success, Colonel Hyrum Graff. It was this man who was put in charge of Ender Wiggins’ military training. Because of the death of a student that occurred during his time as Head of the International Federation’s Battle School, Graff came under a lot of scrutiny. However, a lengthy trial proved he was innocent of any wrong doing. That is not the focus of this article; rather we have asked Colonel Graff for this interview so we can discuss the training methods he used to help mold Ender in to the leader he needed to become to save Humanity. We hope our conversation with Colonel Graff can serve as an inspiration to you as you plan your training programs, be they what they will.

Training Trends Magazine met up with Colonel Graff at his estate on Lake Brandt, North Carolina. He showed us around the lake where he spent a few months with Ender during his training.

TT: Thank you for having us here today! We know you are usually reluctant to have guests, especially from the media.

CG: It is my pleasure. I admit I have a healthy mistrust of the media, but then again many have an unhealthy mistrust of the military so I guess what comes around goes around.

TT: As you know, we are really interested in the training methods you used to help Ender Wiggins reach his potential. What methodologies or theories influenced how you conducted your training?

CG: Well, the theory that most influenced my training philosophy is Cognitive Apprenticeship.

TT: Many of our readers may not be familiar this theory. Can you explain a little about it

CG: I’d be happy to. Cognitive Apprenticeship is based of the old practice of trade apprenticeships. People used to learn how to be plumbers, silversmiths, and all sorts of trades this way. What they would do is spend time working with a master of the particular trade they were trying to learn. There is more to it than that, but to sum it up the learner spends time observing and working with a master that shapes the learner. The learner is slowly given responsibility and learns a craft in that way. Similarly with Cognitive Apprenticeships a master instructs an apprentice in thinking and problem solving skills.

A Discussion of the Elements of Cognitive Apprenticeships

After that introduction, we asked Colonel Graff some more specific questions about how he implemented the ideas of Cognitive Apprenticeship in Ender’s training. We found Colonel Graff’s answers very open and he even opened up about some of the controversial decisions he made in regards to Ender’s training. Let’s return to our discussion with Colonel Graff.

TT: Can you tell us more specifics about cognitive apprenticeships?

CG: Well, I could but I think it will be more beneficial if we look at how I used these ideas in Ender’s training. There are several principles that are important as you try and understand the concept of Cognitive Apprenticeships. There is the content element, the methods of instruction you use, the sequence of instructional events, and finally you need to consider several social aspects of learning.

We were intrigued by the four areas that Colonel Graff mentioned. Over the course of the interview, we discussed the following four areas with him:

  • Content
  • Methodology
  • Sequencing of Instructional Events
  • SociologyContent

TT: So what type of content did you teach Ender?

CG: Well, Ender had several courses on military strategy, mathematics, history, and other subjects. This sort of content was important for Ender, mostly to help him develop his memory and basic thinking and reasoning skills. Domain knowledge of course was not our real focus with Ender. What we really wanted to teach Ender was how to solve problems and use the right problem solving strategies at the right time. We also wanted him to learn how to adapt to new situations and learn from what the enemy was doing so he could defeat the enemy.
TT: Do you have any examples of how you did this?
CG: I do, of course I cannot take full credit for what he learned. Major Anderson, who ran the battle game at the school, contributed a lot. And Ender himself, he was always thinking, always looking to improve himself. He is the brightest young man I have ever known personally. But let me get to the examples. One that met with a lot of criticism was an incident that occurred before we even brought Ender to the school. As you know we used to connect promising young people up to a monitor so we could evaluate their potential for success at the Battle School. Ender, we felt was top notch but with the way his siblings had turned out [can you strike that last comment, with Peter now taking over the Hegemony that statement could cost me my job, if not my life.]
TT: We will strike it out before we publish this, I promise. Please continue.
CG: Anyway, let’s just say we needed to make sure Ender had the right stuff to move on to Battle School. So we removed the monitor but we did not stop monitoring. That same day, a group of children decided to pick on Ender. Ender hoped a teacher or someone would come by to help him, but we made sure they didn’t. Ender was left to himself and he decided then and there that if he didn’t put an end to it right there these children would hound him forever.
TT: So what happened?
CG: Ender beat the leader down. And he made sure he would never challenge him again.
TT: What do you mean?
CG: He beat him so bad that the child went to the hospital and later died from the injuries he sustained. Of course Ender didn’t mean to kill him but he did mean to beat him decisively. That is what we wanted to see, that he could face a problem and do what it took to come out on top.

There were other challenges that he faced. When he was on his way to Battle School, I pitted all the other children against him by telling them how smart he was compared to the rest of them. Fortunately, the worst we saw from this was a broken arm (not Ender’s by-the-way). In the end, that group of students really bonded.

We also promoted Ender very early, which caused him more grief, but as expected Ender learned how to improvise and make the best of the situation.

TT: We appreciate you for opening up so much. I know that the death of the boy caused you a lot of trouble.

CG: I really don’t want to talk about that any more than I have to. I feel terrible looking back on that, but I felt that I had to let Ender defend himself so he would never try to use a crutch to get him out of a bind. I have spoken with the family of that boy and the other who lost his life. They are good people and I believe that understand why their sacrifice was so important. If they read this article, I hope you will include the fact that I am really sorry that those incidents had to happen.

TT: What happen to the other boy?

CG: It was a similar situation only this boy didn’t just want to pick on Ender, he wanted to kill him.

TT: And you didn’t stop it?

CG: I think I have already explained my rationale both here and in a court of law. I am sorry about what happened, but it had to happen or we would not be here right now. Let’s not go into this any further or this interview will come to an abrupt end. I thought you wanted to talk about training, anyway?

TT: I am sorry, I’ll stay on track.

CG: One other thing we really needed Ender to learn was how to lead others. That really is part of problem solving, but working with other human being is always so complicated. Nevertheless, Ender came through as we put him into leadership roles. His subordinates always respected him even when, from their prospective, he was being too harsh.

At this point we took a short break.


TT: Now, let’s get back to our discussion. We discussed the content of your training, but how did you do it?

CG: It is interesting you should ask that. The first thing we tried to do was to expose him to models. Another theory, Model-Centered Instruction, which has greatly influenced me, tells of three principle types of models, they are as follows:

  • Environmental models
  • Cause and Effect Models
  • Human Performance Models (which in our case included bugger performance models )

TT: How did you expose Ender to these types of models?

CG: There are many ways. First of all, to expose him to environment models we took him to the Battle School. The environment there is very much like the environment on any battleship. The military environment is just one aspect though. To model the environment of battle, especially zero gravity, we set up a game for the students. They play this battle game in a room where there is no gravity and there are stars and other obstacles that simulate the real battle environment. In this game, however, the individual student really acts as a battleship more than an individual. We think this helps the students get a feel for real battle and gives them a unique perspective on the actual battle environment.

Then we also had a simulator at Command School that exposed Ender to the actual environment that he would be called upon to perform in to save us all form the buggers.

Interestingly enough, the Command School was located on a former bugger outpost. In a way, taking Ender there exposed him to an environment that helped form his understanding of the buggers to a small degree.

As far as cause and effect models, we did a lot of this through the use of simulations. At the Battle School we had not only the zero-gravity room where the battle games were played. The zero gravity not only exposed them the environment of space, but the cause and effect relationships that arise from trying to move about in that environment. We also allow students to play a fantasy game that allowed Ender to learn interesting insights into the effect of his actions.

More importantly in this case was exposing Ender to human performance models. He started with simply being able to watch then work with older more experienced students at the Battle School. His friends Petra Arkanian and Dink Meeker served as good models and other such as Bonzo Madrid and Rose the Nose served as counter examples. With the help of these students, Ender progressed to actually creating new models of human performance himself in the Battle School Game. When facing odds of teams getting an early start in the game, or having to face more than one team at a time, Ender always came up with a creative solution.

Another important model that Ender was exposed to which we didn’t rally plan for was the performance of the buggers. At the Battle School, Ender pieced together many battles from the old propaganda films. This allowed Ender to get to know the enemy and how they tend to perform so he could begin to find their weaknesses. Later at Command School, the simulator that Ender used as part of his training regimen allowed him to go head-to-head against a simulated bugger fleet. And perhaps most importantly, Mazer Rackham further exposed him to his understanding of how buggers fight.

Speaking of Mazer Rackham, in Command School he served as a model to Ender of how to successfully fight the buggers. His help in Ender’s training was invaluable, but I am sure we will go into that more later.

TT: There is a lot to that idea of modeling. Are there any other methodologies you used?

CG: Of course. We still need to look at scaffolding, coaching, feedback, articulation, reflection, and exploration.

TT: I guess we have only just begun.

CG: True. However, I have to admit we really didn’t provide Ender much of a scaffolding.

TT: What exactly is scaffolding, besides the stuff they put around buildings during construction.

CG: Well much like the structure around the building gives support and allows workers to do their thing in working on the building. Scaffolding in the Cognitive Apprenticeship sense means the support given to the learner as he or she is presented problems to solve. We really only allowed Ender to gain a few friends, but we tried to keep him from getting too close and relying too much on others to solve his problems. In fact I always felt ender must never believe that anyone would come to save him. Of course, before he came to the school he wore the monitor that certainly served as a scaffold at first. But we didn’t know if we could really use Ender until we took that away.

TT: How about the other areas you mentioned such as coaching, feedback, etc.?

CG: When Ender first arrived, Dap, his Launch Mother, provided some limited coaching. Then other students like Petra and Dink teaching him how to shoot and behave in battle. Finally, Mazer Rackham coaches him on how to face the buggers. Mazer is probably the most important coach in Ender’s training.

Articulation, which is where the learner tries to expound on what he or she has learned and make sense of it for him or herself, wasn’t really required of Ender. However we found that he naturally articulated. After every experience he had, Ender seemed to think about how he could learn from whatever happened. Even though I did not plan for this method, Ender made it work.

The same could be said for reflection. Ender would also evaluate his performance and seek to try to learn how to do better the next time. Mazer was good at this and purposefully had Ender evaluate his performance in the Simulation at Command School. I guess in a way this combined articulation and reflection as they together evaluated that day’s performance and planned for the future. Of course as Ender later found out by the time he was working with Mazer, he was really performing not just training.

TT: So at the point, it ceased being a simulation?

CG: Yes.

TT: That is fascinating. Do you have anything to add on the idea of the method of exploration that you mentioned earlier?

CG: Well, yes. We tried to give Ender plenty of opportunities to work through problems to solve. From the time we brought Ender to the Battle School, actually on the way to the battle school, I began giving Ender problems to solve. I set Ender up so the rest of his launch group would start out hating him. Then one of the group started hitting Ender and that set off a whole conflict that ended up with this boy having his arm broken. Ender ended up handling it quite well and won the group over to his leadership. He didn’t take immediate leadership; he worked with another boy Alai, who actually took the leadership role. Ender orchestrated it all though. Then we promoted Ender very early and let him deal with the fall out. He handled that well, too. We sent him to a new army with a less than disciplined leader. Going back to scaffolding, at this point a young man, Dink Meeker, served as a scaffold and coach to Ender. Come to think of it, another older student Petra Arkanian also helped Ender out a lot when he was with his first army.

I digress. Going back to exploration, one of the biggest problems we through at Ender was making him the youngest Commander ever. To add to his early promotion, we threw in a lot of wrinkles to the battle game for Ender to deal with.

TT: Wrinkles?

CG: Well, we bent the rules and norms severely some. To tell you the truth, I had Major Anderson, who was in charge of the battle game ran several scenarios through the computer to see how we could push Ender to his limits. We fond some interesting things and it seemed to work.

There was a psychologist named Vygotsky that you may have heard of who proposed an idea.

TT: Of course, I have heard of him.

CG: Good! Anyway, he stated that there was a range of performance that a learner can handle. Then there are tasks that the learner would not be able to handle. But in between these two areas the re is a zone where given support the learner can perform, and when in this zone learning can really take place. He called it the Zone of Proximal Development. We tried to keep Ender at the upper limit of his Zone of Proximal Development as often as possible.

Sequencing of Instructional Events

TT: We discussed sequencing of instructional events earlier. Does that come into play as far as trying to maintain a learner, in this case Ender, within the Zone of Proximal Development?

CG: That is a good question. The answer is absolutely. In fact that will lead us into a discussion of that point. Ender was brought through a variety of problems that he was able to handle at the time. If we would have asked Ender to fight the buggers when he was six, he would have failed. Instead, we lead him through problems that would push him to his limits but that he could still handle. The principles of cognitive apprenticeship state that you should do the following:

  • Increase the level of complexity of the problems
  • Increase the diversity of problems
  • Start with more global problems and move to more specific problems

TT: What does global to specific mean?

CG: To me that means that when you present problems you start with the general case or exemplary case then move to more specific or exceptional cases.

TT: So how did you do that in Ender’s case?
CG: You know I struggle with that one. We did try to teach Ender general concepts around the idea of winning the war and the need to beat the buggers. Then we moved into the specific battle tactics and strategies. Still we may have done better in this aspect of sequencing.
TT: How about the level of diversity?
CG: We did a few things in this area. Ender’s problems, like I said, started on his way to the Battle School. Really though, they started with his brother. I cannot take credit for that one though. But really from Peter to Stillson to Bernard (the kid that got his arm broken) to Bonzo Madrid and Rose the Nose and even Mazer Rackham to some degree Ender had several problems to solve with individuals. He also had to solve group problems when his launch group was set against him. Then he had battle game situations to deal with and there was the computer. We allowed students to play adventure type games with the Battle School computer. Within that environment, there were a variety of challenges and problems to solve. Then he had the simulation at Command School which was another type of problem. He did have a diversity of problems to solve. I think it kept him on his toes.
TT: I would say. I have a tough enough time just keeping up with my job and my family, let alone having to save the world. Ender is a remarkable young man. Did the problems increase in diversity? I am not sure I caught how that worked.
CG: You make a good point. With Ender, most of his problems started out on a personal level, then as we moved him into Battle School we began to introduce problems that involved groups of people, then added the situation with dealing with the battle game, etc. The diversity grew. He did not start out with all these problem types at once. Gradually, though Ender might beg to differ, we added on the new problem types, thus increasing the diversity. Does that clarify it for you?

TT: Yes, I believe so. Well, that just leaves complexity. Your thoughts, Colonel?

CG: Umm, I would say that we handled this in a variety of ways. Let’s look at how we tried to do this. As I just mentioned, Ender began by dealing with problems that were more at the personal level. He just had to learn to deal with one individual. For example, Ender was dealing with problems with the following individuals:

  • Peter
  • Stillson
  • Bernard
  • Bonzo Madrid
  • Rose the Nose

After dealing with his brother and Stillson, Ender dealt with a problem I introduced for him with the majority of his launch group. Then his promotion created more complex problems for him but he was really just dealing with more individuals at this point in time. Then he moved into leadership roles going from “toon” leader to commander. These changes in role where more increasing more complex since he went from leading individuals to leading leaders of groups of individuals. Not only that we then added the complexity to the battle game. We threw the following situations at Ender as he took over as a commander:

  • He was given unknown and less experienced soldiers
  • We started him in battles more than two months early
  • We gave him battles every day.
  • Then we increased to battles twice a day.
  • We made the star configuration of the battle room different on several occasions.
  • We gave the other army advance notice so they could get into the battle room before Ender had a chance to get there.
  • Then we let Ender go against two armies at once.

You know just the fact that we were increasing the diversity at the same time really adds complexity too. Dealing with two types of problems at once is more complex than just trying to tackle one problem. Before he left Battle School, Ender was dealing with Bonzo Madrid trying to kill him, while commanding and entire army that was being asked to fight twice a day. That is quite a bit more complex than just handling one kid hitting you on the head with a seatbelt (which is what Bernard did to Ender on the trip up to Battle School). Then as he moved into Command School as he went through the simulation there. He learned how to command an individual ship, then platoons, on to commanding an entire fleet. Not only that, the simulation would gradually increase the enemy’s level of play.

I would say then that we definitely increased the complexity of the issues that Ender was asked to contend with.

TT: Yes, I would agree with you.


TT: What about the social aspects of learning that you mentioned earlier? How does that come into play?

CG: Well there are a variety of dimensions to the sociology of learning. The following are key ideas of sociology:

  • Situated Learning
  • Culture of Expert Practice
  • Intrinsic Motivation
  • Exploiting Cooperation
  • Exploiting Competition

TT: Would you explain a little about these key ideas? Especially how you used these ideas with Ender?

CG: Well, that is why we are here isn’t it. Situated learning implies that you try to put the learner in the context of performance, in real life situations. When you cannot put the learner in the actual performance environment you can put them in a simulated environment. In the case of Ender, we strove to simulate the environment of actual practice.
In the Battle School we strove to create a military environment, so Ender’s education was in this sense situated. I believe it is even clearer if we look at Ender’s training at Command School. There he was trained on the simulation. Later, the simulation was used as the environment for actual performance. So his training here was really situated.As far as a culture of expert practice, as the name implies you want to expose the learner to models of expert performance. This may be actually getting to work with the expert or at least observe them perform. Well, as I mentioned before Ender was able to work with Mazer Rackham who lead the International Fleet to victory in the second bugger invasion. There was no better expert for Ender to work with. Also back in Battle School, we would try to match up younger students with the older students so they could serve as mentors to the younger students. Now this didn’t always work out, but in Ender’s case he had Dink and Petra that served as mentors to him.
TT: How did you encourage intrinsic motivation? It sounds like this training was pretty tough. How did you get Ender to not quit?
CG: That wasn’t easy. I thought we were going to lose him several times, but we used our resources to keep him motivated. First of all, when we first brought Ender to the Battle School I was perfectly honest with him (despite my better judgment, I might say) I let him know it was going to be hard, but that the world needed him. That kept him going for a while, but then he struggled. So we used his sister. She wrote him a letter to encourage him and to let him know that she thought he wasn’t becoming like his brother. We felt that he did not want to be a killer like he felt his brother was. We needed to convince him he wasn’t a killer, but we couldn’t. His sister Valentine was able to. Then when it was time for Ender to move on to Command School, the powers that be wanted Ender there right away. I decided that that wasn’t the best. I took Ender back to Earth for a three-month trip. While he was there, I asked his sister to visit with him again. I did this to accomplish two things. First of all, I wanted Ender to remember his home planet and to revive his appreciation for it. Second of all, I wanted Ender to remember a social connection he had with another human being on Earth. I figured that this way he would renew his own motivation to protect the planet. This seemed to work pretty well.

Finally, Mazer Rackham was blunt with Ender in letting him know that he was Earth’s last hope. Nothing like putting the weight of the world on a young man’s shoulders to keep him motivated. But you combine the thought that humanity is counting on you with the memory of his love for his sister and you have pretty powerful motivation to help keep Ender trying hard.

TT: It is amazing Ender didn’t lose it with all that pressure

CG: You have to understand, Ender’s case was extraordinary. I don’t really feel like you have to be so hard on a student. We could be so hard on Ender because if he couldn’t take it he was not the one we could count on to lead the fleet. If I were training a student for some other purpose, I believe you could be more genteel. There were time that I hated myself for how hard I had to push Ender. But I truly feel it was the only way.

TT: I am sorry, I was not implying anything. But Ender’s tenacity amazes me.

CG: Me, too.

TT: How do you exploit both cooperation and competition at the same time?

CG: Well, in the case of war it is quite easy. The analogy of war carries over to other situations like sports and many other endeavors. There is a need to beat your competition in this case the enemy. People’s survival instinct in this case can be used to keep them motivated to learn and enhance their ability to learn in some ways. With Ender his ultimate competition was the buggers, but along the way he competed against other armies in the battle school game and against a simulated enemy in the simulation at Command School. Ender wants to win, and that served him well in his training. Now especially in a war scenario, if you get people wanting to beat the enemy, then they will also be willing to work with others to obtain their goal. The cooperation that is fostered can help each student achieve much more than they could on their own. With Ender, we wanted to keep him aloof of the other students to a certain degree because he would have a hard time leading if he was too close with the other students, but at the same time whether it was in the battle game or in the war itself, Ender had to work with others to succeed. We had to allow Ender to cooperate with others in order for him to accomplish what we wanted him to.

TT: So Colonel Graff, what are your plans for the future?

CG: I have taken the position of Minister of Colonization in the Hegemony. I intend to lead the first expedition to settle the colonies left behind by the buggers.

TT: That sounds interesting. Good luck in that new adventure! And thank you for visiting with us today.

CG: You are welcome. I always like to talk about my work with Ender Wiggins. And I figure if someone can glean something from my experience, then it was time well spent.


I gained a lot of useful insights from my discussion with Colonel Graff. The principles of Cognitive Apprenticeship are powerful educational ideas, although they seemed to be applied in some extreme ways in Ender Wiggins’ case. It is my hope, however, that reading this interview will spark some ideas on how these principles can be applied in your teaching or training projects.


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