Today, I'm going to talk to you about Neurodiversity. If you're unfamiliar with the term, first consider Biodiversity. Our planet has billions of life forms: all kinds of animals, plants, etc. Even within humans there is immense variation in skin color, eye color, hair color, body features...Do you think there would be just one, standard-issue brain?
Neurodiversity is the philosophy, and burgeoning civil rights movement, that many conditions we think of as disorders, disabilities are actually natural expressions of variation of the human brain and mind. Giving rise to various cognitive orientations. As Temple Grandin says, "Different, not less."
Let's take Autism for example. Autistics have incredible attention to fine detail, pattern recognition, motion perception, long memories. Many are attracted to systematic, technical fields like programming and engineering. Silicon valley is full of them.
Then there is the so-called Attention Deficit Disorder. These people are very high energy, divergent thinking; often creative. They tend to be risk-seeking so they do well in areas of business and as entrepreneurs.
Further there is Dyslexia. These people have good peripheral vision. Able to see wide, big picture, whole systems. They often do well in creative pursuits like art, design, theater.
I am autistic. 'On the spectrum' as they say. Diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at age 21. I don't think verbally. I think visuo-spatially; pictures, patterns. It's quite challenging to compress my thoughts and articulate them within the confines of language. (That's why I'm using so many visuals here. To give you some insight.)
Thinking in images and patterns has served me well in math and statistics. I can visualize quantities as lines and curves. Just look at equations and move the symbols around with my mind. Here I draw on a whiteboard and my bathroom mirror.
Now we can look back in history and find some of the greatest minds had traits like these. Scientists like Newton, Tesla, Turing, Curie, Einstein. In the arts: Mozart, Van Gogh, Glenn Gould. Writers and poets: Hans Christian Andersen, Emily Dickinson. Philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Statesman, Thomas Jefferson. "It seems that for science or art, a dash of autism is essential1."
Now these people died long ago so we can't know exactly what their diagnoses were or would have been. But what we do know is they were anything but neurologically typical. They were eccentric and it's thanks to their unique minds they were able to accomplish such feats. Though I'm concerned, where will the next generation of great thinkers and innovators come from?
Genius is rarely recognized in its own time. Especially in this society that favors normality: conformity to what is typical, ordinary, expected, average as if this were the highest ideal. People who are creative, think differently, outside-the-box are often ostracized and scorned because they don't fit the social order. Studies have shown that such children are given poor marks by teachers who favor compliant satisfiers. Now we have children as young as 3 being medicated as chemical restraint. Behavioral interventions designed to suppress their natural feelings, force assimilation just so they can appear 'indistinguishable from their peers.' Quoting Faith Jegede, "In all honesty, the pursuit of normality is the ultimate sacrifice of potential." And I would add, "The surest way to corrupt a youth," according to Nietzsche2.
Now to realize how we got such a system we just need to look back as Sir Ken Robinson noted. Our school system came from the Industrial Revolution, designed to run along factory lines, prepare children to become factory workers. But the factory model assumes a homogeneous lot of raw materials, processed simultaneously in batches, moving along and at the end of the line they are sorted and graded to see which units are best fit for consumption. Because in the factory, quality just means consistency.
Our assessment methods come from the dawn of the 20th century, during the Eugenics Movement. The presumption that some people are just inherently better than others. They have latent ability we cannot see but you can have more or less of it, and the purpose of the tests is to uncover these supposed differences. It's always been about sorting and classifying people, giving them ranks. A competition to see who is close to, or far, from the norm; often the average set by some prior reference sample. That's how IQ works. They can't have a test where everybody performs the same, good or bad, because if the test doesn't discriminate you from your peers then it doesn't have any "test information." But we don't all come out of the same mold. As in this example3, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will spend its whole life believing that it's stupid4.
Though we could turn the tables, like in this picture: an octopus playing with puzzle blocks underwater and in the other tank a cat...a cat that has drowned. A cat, that may otherwise be an excellent climber, fails in this situation. It goes to show the notion of disability isn't necessarily about inherent flaws, but different sets of abilities and a mismatch with the current environment and tasks at hand. As that test may be reliable, valid to compare the octopus to a larger population of octopi and ranking it within. But all too often, an instrument calibrated to just one population is taken as a general test of aptitude, applied broadly and then somehow find entire races, ethnicities and other demographics are deemed inferior. It's self-fulfilling prophecy. You might try and justify it by saying it's meritocracy. They've been measured, evaluated, and found lacking. But here, "measurement" is just a convenient pretext to reinforce classism. I should know, I'm getting a Ph.D. in this field and it desperately needs reform.
Can we allow such archaic systems to persist in the 21st century? Clearly we need to change, and we can't wait on Superman to come fix our schools. We must change and we can change, but not if we keep using the same old thinking that created the problem, as Einstein noted5. There's no easy answer. We can't just throw money at it. We have to break it down, rebuild, redesign. Think hard. What do we want our schools to accomplish? What should be their purpose? I, for one, don't want to see schools that run like factories, treat teachers like assembly line workers, or worse yet, the machinery. No.
In my vision, young students learn their basics like reading and writing, but beyond that it's a much more individualized, tailored approach. Students could have greater liberty to pursue their interests and talents. They would be in competition with no one but themselves. Challenged, motivated to grow, develop, and learn more than they knew the day before. As my Sensei puts it: don't beat others, beat yourself.
We could do away with the large high-stakes summary judgments and employ and more ethical use of testing. Formative, diagnostic assessments based on objective criteria that show how far you've progressed in mastering some domain. They should be frequent, ongoing, useful to guide teachers and students like GPS: show where you are, help you find where you're going.
Then maybe we could have a wonderful society where all kinds of people with all kinds of minds, abilities, talents, perspectives would work and come together like a grand orchestra and create a world far more beautiful than any one mind could. A world of neuro-diversity and neuro-harmony.
I'm going to conclude now with a poem that captures this theme and was a great inspiration for me in making this talk:
There are all kinds of jobs to be done in our world.
So, it’s a good thing that we have all kinds of minds to do them.
Luckily, every kind of mind has some kinds of mind work that it can do to make the world a much better place.
But first, we all need to understand our own minds.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could all feel good about our own minds?
Wouldn’t it be fun if we could all enjoy and respect each others’ kinds of minds?
Then we might live in a world where all kinds of minds would be happy and proud to be living all kinds of lives6!
- Dr. Hans Asperger, who exhibited traits of the syndrome named after him.
- "The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently." ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
- Cartoon of a black bird, monkey, penguin, elephant, fish (in a bowl), seal, and dog lined up with a tree behind them. A man at a desk tells them "For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree." Larger caption below says "Our Education System."
- Often attributed to Einstein but its origin is uncertain.
- "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." ~ Albert Einstein
- Dr. Mel Levine, All Kinds of Minds, p. 275
Further references here