August 7, 2011

A hope for neurodiversity in education

Posted in Marginalization, Schooling and unschooling, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 12:13 am by chavisory

Sometimes when I’m feeling frustrated and pessimistic, I get to wondering if humanity is irredeemably stupid.  Sometimes I look around at some of the things we do to each other and the immensity of the problems we’ve created for ourselves through greed and short-sightedness, and the state of politics in this country, and just can’t fathom how we’re ever going to find the unity, compassion, and concerted problem-solving to get ourselves out.

But I’ve been watching TED talks lately…and this conference has found a really astonishing number of people who have totally brilliant ideas and things to say.  You can really click randomly on just about any TED talk video, and people you’ve never heard of before in a hugely diverse range of disciplines are saying and doing incredible things.  Which makes me think, instead, that we actually have a nearly infinite number of wise and brilliant people on our side.

This talk by Sir Ken Robinson is actually about 5 years old, but for that I think what he says is actually more urgent now and not less.  He says that we’re actually educating kids out of their creativity and natural genius, to our own impoverishment…that we actually stigmatize many kinds of intelligence that simply don’t perform well in a confined classroom environment or on a standardized test.

Creativity isn’t just about making art; it’s that misunderestimation that makes it easy to marginalize as impractical or financially untenable.  We have environmental problems, health problems, food problems, and budget problems, and they’re all going to require creativity to solve.  Balancing our budget will take creativity.  Making alternatives to fossil fuels safe and affordable will take creativity.  Finding ways to teach kids from the most difficult of life circumstances takes creativity (like setting up a pirate supply store as a front for a free tutoring center, as Dave Eggers explains here).

“It’s education that’s meant to take us into this future that we can’t grasp,” Robinson says, noting that we’re trying to educate kids for the next 50 years of their lives, but we have no idea what the world will be like in 5 years.  We have absolutely no basis on which to say that one kind of thinking, one curriculum or set of skills or knowledge, will be the most important one in the future and therefore to stigmatize all the others.

It’s here that I’d like the educational establishment to consider borrowing an idea from the autism community:  neurodiversity, or the conviction that there is very broad natural variation in human neurological wiring, in which even difficult differences should be valued on their own terms.  It’s become a somewhat contentious term and there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of it, but I don’t believe that it’s a denial of the reality of the disabling aspects of this condition, or a denial that people need and deserve help with things that really impede their quality of life.  I see neurodiversity as asking us to understand and accept a way of thought and a way of being on its own terms before we devalue it or decide it should be eradicated from the human experience, to see people first for their gifts and the ways in which humanity needs them.

As Temple Grandin says, “the world needs all kinds of minds.”

To me, neurodiversity’s not just about how we value autistic people, but how we value everyone who thinks differently, anyone who’s out of step with what the culture has decided it values and doesn’t value, and whatever is distinctive about every person.

Very much echoing what I interpret to be at the heart of the neurodiversity movement’s goals, Robinson says “Human communities depend upon a diversity of talent, not a singular conception of ability.  At the heart of the challenge is to reconstitute our sense of ability and of intelligence.”

Robinson talks specifically about how dance and performance arts are devalued in the educational system, and I think of the League of Extraordinary Dancers, as well as all the dancers I’ve worked with, who never stop amazing me with how their brains work in ways that mine doesn’t.  Skills like these are probably not measurable by standardized test, but, I mean, they only have the potential to revolutionize assumptions about what the human body is capable of and the artistic potential of technology and the internet.

No one gets better or stronger or smarter by being defined and valued according to their weaknesses, but that’s exactly how we educate kids.  We sort students out by what’s wrong with them instead of allowing them the resources and freedom to nurture what’s right with themselves.

I think of Hogwarts, by contrast, which begins the process of formal education by sorting students according to their most basic strengths: Gryffindor students are courageous, Ravenclaws clever, Hufflepuffs hardworking and fair, and Slytherins cunning and ambitious.  Notice how the Sorting Hat doesn’t sort anyone out by their deficiencies.  And how it required the gifts of every single House to save the world from Voldemort.  (Even Slytherin, reviled by all the other houses…Snape’s cunning obviously being what allowed him to act as a double agent for the Order, and it was Narcissa Malfoy’s loyalty to her own family first and foremost that led her to betray Voldemort.)

We all need each other.  We all need each other’s brilliance.

{I couldn’t exactly weave this in to my thesis, but it’s just beautiful and I wanted to share it: spoken word poet Sarah Kay talks about how she found out what she wanted to do, using poetry to solve problems, and teaching self-expression through performance poetry.}


  1. […] post by chavisory var addthis_language = 'en'; Filed under Uncategorized ← […]

  2. Sharon said,

    This is a beautiful post chavisory, would you mind if I copied it onto my blog this week? (co incidentally I intend to play a TED talk this week about the dangers of science denial)..

  3. Good catch on the Sorting Hat, chavisory, and throughout. Ditto Sharon’s request, but for Shift Journal — would you allow me to republish this there as well?

  4. Aspergirl Maybe said,

    Fascinating topic, especially as I am weighing the options regarding cyberschool for my son. I have a problem with a school system that would ask my son what he wants to learn about (space), and then say, “Oh, we don’t do space in this grade.”

    Thanks for the links, too. I especially loved Dave Eggers talk and the passion he has for making a difference.

  5. Great topic, I loved the post. Education/the education system was already something that concerned me before I had children, let alone after having my ASD son. I worry about him starting school and I worry about how I’m failing him at home before then. I wish I had more ways of reaching him, of tapping into his talents and potential. I love the quote “We all need each other. We all needs each other’s brilliance”. I hope I can help my son develop his fully.

    • chavisory said,

      I’m sure you’re doing your best for him. How old is he?

      It’s so hard to tell what’s going to unlock someone’s brilliance, or when…the thing that really set me on fire didn’t happen until college.

  6. Katie Beach said,

    What a wonderful post! You clearly and concisely explain what has been on my mind for ages.

    I hope your words start a trend in our world.

  7. truelibertarian said,

    I agree. However, I think your post is rife with optimism. What I mean by that is that it may not be possible, with our resources, to cater to everyone’s needs. I certainly feel like I was marginalized by the education system. They focus on memorization and busy work. But it’s difficult to cater to the students individually. And it may not be possible. The Sorting Hat worked because of magic. So unless you know a spell that teachers could use to gain the requisite intuition to be able to: a) discover each student’s needs and skills and b) meet those needs and improve those skills, then I think we’re out of luck.

    • chavisory said,

      It’s not that I *feel* optimistic about a sea change like this taking place any time soon, but yes, this is where I think optimism for our educational system lies.

      Where I think you’re unduly pessimistic is that an outlook like this would take more individual catering–in fact, I think it would take less. I think the key to this working would be allowing students far more freedom, unstructured time, and self-determination in their studies and projects. More of making resources available and less tightly prescribed curriculum.

      I don’t see how it would take magic, either–right now, we tag and sort out students by their perceived flaws, and that doesn’t take magic. Why would the opposite? I’m just asking that education professionals start reversing their perspective to see strengths first, and allow students to pursue their true strengths and passions. It might ultimately require a massive restructuring of the school system, but it’s not magic.

  8. Dixie said,

    I felt so hopeful after reading this. Thank you.


    • chavisory said,

      You’re welcome, Dixie! I want people to feel hopeful. Thanks for visiting!

  9. […] A Hope For Neurodiversity In Education appears here by permission. […]

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