The rigid insistence on conformity at any cost is crushing the souls of so many American children and harming them for life. It’s time for every parent to take a stand, whether our antiquated education system negatively impacts your child or not.
Modern public education was created to meet the new demands of an industrializing society. The skills that were once needed for a predominantly agricultural society weren’t the most appropriate for factory jobs and assembly lines. Instead, we needed to create workers who could conform in a way that would almost mechanize their habits, making them as productive as possible in this type of work.
It made sense in the 1800’s. It was a great improvement to the education offered up to that point and produced the skills needed to succeed in the emerging workforce of that time. Applying the productivity model even further — to education — students were grouped together and taught in the same way, at the same time.
Well over a century later, we’re still applying the assembly line of the productivity model to education, despite the fact that it’s grossly outdated for our ever-changing society, and no longer creates individuals ready for today’s workforce. Creativity, unique thinking, and problem solving are some of the most valued skills in the workforce now. Our current education model devalues the individuality necessary to create those skills.
“Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”— Horace Mann
The Diversity of Learners
We can already clearly see that traditional public education is no longer serving the true needs of today’s American society, and we haven’t even talked about the diversity of learning styles yet — a crucial ingredient in successful education. We all learn in different ways, based on different strengths.
There is still some debate on how many learning styles there are and how to define them, but I have seen every one of the seven styles of learning outlined by Harvard psychologist, Howard Gardner, in his theory of multiple intelligences — Visual (Spatial), Aural (Auditory), Verbal (Linguistic), Physical (Kinesthetic), Logical (Mathematical), Social (Interpersonal), and Solitary (Intrapersonal). My own two children have different learning styles. While many students can learn in ways that aren’t necessarily aligned with their most prominent style(s) of learning, others simply cannot. When we apply the factory educational model of conformity to every child, a disservice is done to those students who can’t learn in that one way, no matter how much they want to, how hard they try, or how much they are punished and shamed in an attempt to force compliance.
The assumption that students should learn all in the same way and at the same pace is not only false, but it’s a damaging ideology to many students who just don’t fit the mold, and to all students who need to be prepared for the demands of today’s society and today’s workforce.
Why do we keep insisting that each and every kid fit inside a pre-defined box, leading to every adult fitting inside a pre-defined box? Is the goal still conformity? With a heavy emphasis on test scores and academic performance measured solely by grades and tests, it sure seems so. It appears that the goal is still to exert as much control to teach kids to submit to authority and do the same thing as their peers, in the same way their peers are doing it, in the same time. It barely seems like the actual learning of knowledge is important at all, other than to measure the “worth” of a child through comparing standardized test scores.
My own son — apparently a philosopher in the making — said, “Mom, I don’t understand why I have to learn what they’re teaching at school. I’m not going to need this crazy math in the career I want. I’m not going to have to write a formal critique of works of art either.” The only answer I could come up with to his deep teenage inquisition was, “Because the law says you have to. High school is a means to an end. It’s a stepping stone required before you can study and do what interests you.” First, that is truly no reason at all, which he totally called me out on, and rightfully so. Second, this is a kid who is highly intelligent but just isn’t good at school, because school wasn’t designed for different learners like him.
All of this leads to tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of kids who feel incapable, dumb, lazy, and broken, like my own son. They are acutely aware that they don’t fit and they assume that means it’s their own fault. Nothing could be further from the truth, mind you. The educational system is failing these kids, and failing them in ways that are traumatizing and negatively impact their entire lives. The American educational system is, in fact, abusive to many, many of its students. That’s right. I said it. Our educational system is abusive to a large portion of the kids it serves.
Let that sink in.
What happened to school being a safe place (and I don’t mean physically here, although I am deeply troubled by that dire situation, too)? Why have we not accepted that our antiquated school system is making mental health worse? I hear the powers that be saying that they don’t accept that, but the lack of awareness, acknowledgement, fight, change is acceptance.
Honoring & Celebrating Individuality
The current status quo for dealing with students who can’t succeed in our educational system — students who aren’t like the others — is to hope no one is watching, lift a little corner of the rug and very quietly sweep them under. When you’re teaching all students the same thing at the same time and you have a few that don’t fit, this is the easiest thing to do, especially when schools are underfunded and understaffed to teach each individual as… well… an individual.
We are a neurodiverse population, growing more so every day. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, seven million (14 percent) of all American students ages 3-21 received special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2017-2018. Fourteen percent! And that doesn’t include students receiving accommodations for learning challenges under Section 504, nor all the kids who are slipping through the cracks and aren’t identified at all. My guess is that at least 30-40 percent of American students have some sort of learning challenge or disability that requires a different approach to learning to succeed, at a minimum. A large portion of the student population, but we’re still ignoring this need because it doesn’t work within the educational model we refuse to deviate from.
Neurodiversity is our new normal. In simplest terms, neurodiversity is normal variations in the human population. Those who are neuro-atypical often present skills not frequently found in neurotypicals. Our modern workforce is beginning to embrace and value this fact, evidenced by the autism employee initiatives at companies like Microsoft, Walgreens, Freddie Mac, SAP, Home Depot, and many more.
Corporations are harnessing the strengths of having a neurodiverse workforce, but our schools — the one place that’s supposed to be all about helping kids — still do not. Our schools are still demoralizing and limiting kids with differences (sometimes this is even the experience of neurotypical students). Hell, most of our schools don’t even require their teachers and staff to have any knowledge about learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, anxiety, and other disabilities that make mainstream public school an enormous challenge.
We are a population of individuals, including our children. It’s time we parent and teach individuals, and stop sweeping those that don’t fit under the proverbial rug. This parent has had enough.