A few weeks ago, I posted a blog about the autistic spectrum which generated a fair bit of attention and discussion. One interesting conversation leading from it concerned whether a diagnosis of this or other ‘disorders’ had more to do with the inability or unwillingness of health and education professionals to move out of their comfort zone and find ways of tolerating and accommodating alternative ways of thinking, interpreting and viewing the world.
Before educators everywhere jump down my throat, let me explain that I’ve been there and done that. I’m not for a moment suggesting that it’s feasible – still less desirable – to combine all the different ways of being and learning into one mainstream classroom, along with a sizeable group of utterly neurotypical students and fulfil the requirements of a rigorous, top-down, dictatorial education system in which the young people (and staff) are assessed, tested, compared and expected to comply.
“I see that compliance is everything – and he’s only 5!” the mother of a child in kindergarten commented.
I dare to question who that compliance serves: the child, the educators or the policy makers.
Let me tell you the story of Marley:
By the time he entered my class as a 10-year-old, Marley already had quite a reputation around the school. That’s putting it mildly; he was notorious!
He and I already knew each other quite well, since I’d often found him skulking in corridors as a younger student (“Been slung out for messing about, Miss”) and invited him to join my own class. When he did this, despite being younger than my own pupils, he’d invariably watch their activity with interest for a few minutes, pluck up courage to proffer a few suggestions and frequently end up taking the lead in moving them to a point beyond their original capabilities. In fact, my most academically able group would invariably invite him to join them when he entered the room, since they quickly realised what an asset he was.
Ok, so Marley was highly intelligent. His cognitive abilities stretched way beyond my own, or, I suspect, those of the rest of the school’s staff. He had a fairly abrasive habit of making this known vociferously if a teacher ever made a mistake. It takes an educator with the hide of a rhinoceros combined with the humility of a Zen monk to accept a small boy sighing loudly and yelling, “No, you’ve got that completely WRONG!” in the middle of a lesson. It does little to sustain that fragile control the educator has fought so hard to develop in order to handle the class successfully. And that’s just at primary school…
Marley was never, during the years I worked with him, diagnosed with a disorder, although ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) was often mentioned darkly within the staff room and in conversation with visiting educational psychologists. Nevertheless, he could be highly disruptive and only complied with his teachers’ requests when he felt it was in his interest to do so.
When he joined my class full-time, I worked with him by negotiation. I would briefly explain the objectives of the activity I had planned for the group and give him the option of following this, or moving into one of the extension projects I had prepared for him. He usually made sensible choices, enjoying mastering new skills and proficiencies but absenting himself from much of the National Curriculum’s less challenging or enthralling content. Given the choice, I’d have done the same.
He produced creative writing of a level beyond that of any primary school child I ever encountered, pouring over a thesaurus to extend his vocabulary (I recall a prolonged debate on whether ‘egress’ was a stylistically suitable synonym for ‘door’ in a passage he’d written!) and striving to master use of the semi-colon and paragraphing. He grasped mathematical, scientific and technological understanding at a phenomenal rate and in standardised reading comprehension tests he was off the scale.
He also made dreadful mistakes, behaving callously and with no thought of the implications of his actions. The pain and distress he caused on these occasions was immeasurable and our school’s wonderful pastoral care team and I spent many hours raking over his actions with him and encouraging mental ‘re-winding’ to enable him to see how things could have played out differently, had he made more careful and considered choices. These young people require advice and stewardship as much as any other.
My favourite Marley story, though, comes from when he transferred to secondary school.
The new entrants were required, during their first week, to sit a series of CAT tests – multiple choice papers designed to measure cognitive ability. The new children – still nervous and disoriented at this switch to a far larger school, where they were now the ‘little ones’ – were ushered into the school hall, sat at separated tables in long lines and told to complete the many pages before them within the allotted time.
Marley sat down at his table, picked up the paper and glanced through page one. He considered for a moment, then began to flick through the rest of the paper. Without a word, he put down his pen, picked up the test script and began to shred it neatly, until a small pile of torn fragments of paper was left on the table. He then, quietly, rose from his seat and left the room.
It is to the credit of that secondary school that they persevered with Marley and eventually found ways to engage him in some of the work they offered. Many other such non-conformers are permanently excluded from our school system. It simply wasn’t built for them.
Teachers and educators are already severely over-burdened. The extra work involved in providing something approaching a curriculum more suited to Marley’s needs was ridiculously time-consuming. I suffered from a fair degree of burnout that year.
In any class, a teacher will encounter several children who learn differently – whether it be with autistic spectrum perception, with the butterfly mind of so-called ADD or ADHD, with cognitive abilities which fall to either side of the norm or with such fascinating abilities as telepathy or other psychic skills – and he or she will still be expected to churn out the desired percentage of ‘average’ students, so that the bell curve of achievement remains as predicted by the experts.
Given the multi-dimensional understanding that is becoming increasingly evident in so many of our Version 2.0 young people, (see Life: A Player’s Guide for details) I believe we owe it to them to provide the emotional and educational stewardship that will enable them to share their gifts, while taking what they need from the bank of skills and knowledge we have amassed thus far.
If that means a radical rethink of the whole education system; if it means far more flexibility on the part of those in authority; if it means the young people may not strive to become exactly like us (also see this post) or complete standardised tests, as Marley would have commented, with a casual shrug, “Oh well-.”
- Children’s complex thinking skills begin forming before they go to school (news.uchicago.edu)
- The teachers aren’t letting down kids.. it’s methods of teaching (thesun.co.uk)
- Aspiring to Inspire: Inspiration vs Standardisation (ibiologystephen.wordpress.com)
- The Dehumanization of Education (dianeravitch.net)