If I Only Had A Brain
Remember Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz? He was seeking a brain, but in the end learned that he already possessed all of the qualities he needed to meet life’s challenges in abundance, he just didn’t know it. Millions of students in the United States possess what they need but don’t know it. According to the Oak Foundation, approximately 20 percent of children (10 million students) in United States public schools have “learning profiles that are not aligned with the expectations and teaching methods” prevalent in mainstream school systems. As soon as they receive a resource referral or diagnosis, their educational plan focuses on remediating their weaknesses, not developing their strengths.
A strengths-based teaching model is a model that focuses on strengths rather than weaknesses. This model identifies how they learn and tailors teaching methods and experiences to them, synchronizes a curriculum plan with their pace, provides engaging projects that align with their interests. Then, why isn’t traditional education riveted on what they do well? Schools are designed to teach to the masses, use a common curriculum, and serve the students who are on the inside space of the bell curve. Unfortunately, for the students who think differently, their disorder, deficit, or disability is the focus of their education. Educators are invested in “fixing the challenges” so they can fit inside the bell curve. However, this growing population is our future world problem-solvers and the different way they think and learn is essential.
Our world could have so many more people like Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Thomas Edison, John F. Kennedy, Walt Disney, Michael Phelps, and Steven Spielberg who make remarkable contributions if we cultivate their strengths. About 1.7 percent of children (one in 59) are now believed to have autism spectrum disorder (ASD). (CDC 2018) The CDC reports that 11 percent of American children have ADHD. (CDC 2017) According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 5 percent of all school children have other learning disabilities like dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia. The ASD and ADHD rates have been climbing markedly in the past few years and are expected to continue. So in every class of 30 students, there are 6 atypical students who are seriously struggling. Their high school dropout rate is about double the national average. So many experience depression, anxiety, shame, isolation, and thoughts of worthlessness and suicide. Steven Spielberg offers this advice to students, “You are not alone, and while you will have dyslexia for the rest of your life, you can dart between the raindrops to get where you want to go. It will not hold you back.”
These atypical students are given individualized educational plans (IEPs) that try to accommodate their needs, yet the notion that something is wrong with them is communicated when these students are pulled out for resource classes and given accommodations. They want to be accepted and included just like other students. Even the language used to define their disorder, deficit, or disability is negative. It gives the impression that they are damaged, not like others, and not valued. Many of these students are twice exceptional (2e) which means that they have a giftedness along with a learning difference. Often, the giftedness cloaks the learning difference, or the learning difference cloaks the giftedness. Our underachieving students are both seriously at-risk and exceptionally bright.
Neurodiversity is the concept that brain differences are the result of normal variations in human genetics. As our world becomes more complex and challenging, the problem-solvers are going to be people who think differently. We need cures for diseases, advances in medicine, solutions for climate change, world peace, and social change. According to November 2018 Forbes article entitled What Great Problem-Solvers Do Differently, “The best problem solvers either had deep expertise and experience themselves or access to others with that expertise and experience.” Our world needs people who think differently. It isn’t intelligence alone that researchers found to be most crucial for solving problems. Forbes continues, “Problems get solved when we look at them from a different direction, challenge standard assumptions, and/or push boundaries.” Forbes explains, “Our educational experiences often teach standard approaches and algorithms to solving problems—but new problems require new approaches.” Students who are wired differently crave new ideas, focus deeply on areas of interest, notice everything, and are some of our world’s greatest assets, not deficits. Their education should invest in their strengths.
In an article published by “Science News For Students” entitled, Learning Rewires the Brain, author Alison Pearce Stevens states, “Recent data have been showing that the brain continues to change over the course of our lives. Cells grow. They form connections with new cells. Some stop talking to others. And it’s not just nerve cells that shift and change as we learn. Other brain cells also get into the act.” The act of growing and connecting new brain cells literally rewires the brain and is the essence of learning. If children are told for their whole lives that they are deficient, disabled, and disordered, they might not realize their true potential. They might stop trying to do what they are wired so well to do.
A twice exceptional student recently commented to me that he relates to Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz because he needed a brain. The irony, of course, is even though the Scarecrow didn’t think he had a brain, he always discovered solutions to problems. For all of us life is certain to contain challenges, but if we can embrace the best aspects of ourselves and refuse to let differences close us off to what’s good in other people then we’ll increase what’s good in the world. Clearly, there is more work to be done to improve the way people perceive learning differences and how to educate atypical learners, but a strength-based teaching model is a no-brainer.