In our dream we have limitless resources, and the people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hand. The present educational conventions fade from our minds; and, unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive rural folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or of science. We are not to raise up among them authors, orators, poets, or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians. Nor will we cherish even the humbler ambition to raise up from among them lawyers, doctors, preachers, statesmen, of whom we now have ample supply.
– Rev. Frederick T. Gates, Business Advisor to John D. Rockefeller Sr., 1913
I have two autistic boys. Both love school (or more accurately, love learning and the social experience of school). I want nothing more than for them to enjoy this time while being provided an opportunity to gain skills that will help them realize their potential, preparing them to take on the challenges of the world in which they will live. However, it is my fear that they will grow to dislike school as their divergent ways of thinking and behaving are far from expected norms.
Throughout history, schools have marginalized students for being outside the “average.” Schools push students to become “model students” who read at grade level, are fully engaged, and willing to complete all assignments handed them. Textbooks, desks, and instruction follow the notion that “one size fits all.” None of these are adjustable. However, walking into classrooms in any school across the country we find students who are disengaged, left behind, and often shamed for not fitting the mold. The idea that education is the great equalizer only works when students conform, learn quickly, and willing to play the game of school—when they are “average.”
The problem is, there is no such thing as average. It is a myth. According to Todd Rose in his book The End of Average, all people have a “jagged learning profile.” Every student has unique strengths and weakness. Even the more advanced students have areas in which they struggle.
Rose goes on to suggest that, when people are compared to an average, “we can only achieve success…if others do not view us as mediocre or—disaster!—as below average.” When learning is standardized, it causes students to compare themselves to one another and worry if others will consider them either average or below average—whether they fit in. As a result, these students often transfer feelings of inadequacy through aggressive behaviors such as bullying, harassment, disrupting class, and other defiant behaviors. Thus, compliance-based education can promote hostility in those who are different.
In order to combat hostility, schools across the country promote anti-bullying campaigns. They host assemblies, put up posters, and conduct lessons in the hopes they will eradicate this problem. Ironically, they ignore the fact that our current system itself promotes aggression both from and toward those who are different.
Autism is becoming one of the more prevalent disabilities. Autistic children have challenges, strengths, and differences like every other child. According to the CDC, 1 in 68 children (1 in 42 boys and 1 in 189 girls) are diagnosed as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Thus, the high school teacher with approximately 150 students is likely to have 2-3 ASD students.
Because they think and behave differently, 63% of autistic students are bullied and are three times more likely to be bullied than other students. And what’s more astonishing, it is common for ASD students to be ignored by their teachers. Author and musician Jonathan Chase describes his experience growing up:,
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when I was fourteen and a freshman in high school. My experience in the public school system was incredibly negative; I suffered at the hands of bullies for many years, struggled to connect with teachers who could not understand me, and left school my freshman year. I earned my GED when I turned eighteen. I felt not only hopeless but that the education system was hostile because I didn’t fit in.
The problem goes beyond high school, as Max Sparrow explains:
I had a very hard time in school and left unprepared for independent living, higher education, or a career. I could make it through an interview for a minimum wage job but couldn’t manage to keep those jobs for more than a couple of weeks before I was “let go” with no explanation. Since my lack of formal education only qualified me for the lowest income employment to start with, I couldn’t keep a roof over my head. Being forced to change jobs two to four times per month left too many gaps in an hourly wage that was already painfully low.
Sparrow continues to describe how this led to struggles with ongoing homelessness. His account is shared by many. School is often an unwelcoming environment for the ASD student and an education designed for the average misses opportunities for many talented students.
Johann Hari suggests that isolation is the underlying cause of addictive, self-destructive behaviors. He discusses a study that shows, when rats are isolated in cages and offered either clean water or water laced with drugs, they are more likely to choose the drugged water and become addicted. However, when rats are placed in a community of other rats, the likeliness of addiction is almost completely eliminated. In other words, self-destructive behavior stems from rejection and isolation while mental well-being flows from community, purpose, and engagement.
The cage determines what will become of the rat.
The implications of Hari’s unsettling research goes beyond drug addiction. Students are “addicted” to more than just drugs or alcohol. They are addicted to their phones, cutting, pornography, and other avoidant or self-destructive behaviors. We can also point to other seemingly “positive” addictive behaviors such as an obsession with academic achievement that ultimately diminishes learning. These result from feelings of isolation rather than community. Autistic students have are more susceptible to addiction as compulsive behaviors are often comorbid with autism. I am curious to what extent feelings of isolation play into this.
If schools are to become a setting that embraces all students, we need to consider its foundation and purpose. As long as schools continue to promote compliance and standardization, it will remain a hostile place that no anti-bullying campaign will ever cure. The only way to create a welcoming environment is to do away with the standardization and compliance that are welcoming to no one. Instead, we should consider how to create a setting that promotes community, purpose, and engagement.
In her valedictory speech, Erica Goldson compared school to a cage. If Johann Hari is right, we need to redesign the cage to create an environment where all children can realize their potential in a community that fosters individuality and creativity. Going gradeless can be a step in a positive direction. However, it cannot end there.
Todd Rose suggests we redesign education “to the edges,” creating an environment that can adapt to the jagged learning profile of every child. The greatest concern is it will be too expensive and difficult. This is not the case. Many pedagogical designs consider the child first. The work of Diane Heacox suggests ways teachers can differentiate instruction to accommodate all learners. Jan Wilson offers Universal Design for Learning as a way to engage and include all.
More than anything, I want an educational environment that is inclusive and challenges my boys to discover their potential. Doing away with “average education” is good for all students because it was never really designed for any student. An education that is designed to the edges and takes into account the jagged learning profile of all students can help unlock the potential in every child. As Todd Rose observes, “Not only will we increase the performance of the kids in our classrooms today, we will dramatically expand our talent pool. Because right now, there are so many students we cannot reach because we design on average.”