Asperger’s Syndrome (more info), a condition within the Autism spectrum where social awareness is lacking, but communication skills are not affected much, is a topic floating around our house for a few years. After many ups and downs, our son has finally been diagnosed with it, and the rest of the family will need serious checking, too.
That has brought us many explanations to most of our problems at work and school, and got me thinking on many of the issues I found illogical in the educational system, but always though it was my fault for not adapting to it. Now, the more I think, the more I realise that any system that base teaching on the average child is, to say the least, mediocre.
On a large scale, children (and adults), range from very low to very high skills in many areas, from IQ, to social, to artistic or empathic skills. With so many different dimensions, and so many scales focused on defining people for what they are, and so many different types of peoples around, trying to create the imaginary “average child” to educate is a folly quest. But a lot more serious than folly, is the quest to force different children to accommodate to that imaginary average and brutalise them when they don’t. There is a name for it: bullying.
Schools are well known for not caring much for the “lesser minds“, since they don’t contribute much to the scoring system, under disability Acts, they’re free to refer those problematic children to special schools, where they will be marginalised and receive funding from the government for the rest of their lives, even though, if thought well, they could perfectly have a decent living by themselves.
But the brightest children are also in peril, for they do contribute to scoring, and in a positive way. They’re sought after by schools that have no idea on how to educate those children. With the failure to understand their advanced needs, those kids become repugnant braggarts. Even though they can go beyond on arts, maths or science, most of them lack any social skills or, for the very definition of “special“, fail miserably to conform to the “average child” norm.
The expectation that special children have the same traits as average children, plus a few special skills, is idiotic, and I’m really surprised that this has passed in so many countries and educational systems as the norm to be followed, and imposed. It shows that whomever is dealing with educating the brightest minds are not brightest minds themselves. It’s the same as giving the job to rehabilitate petty criminals to serial killers.
The very notion of scoring system is at the core of the standardisation of the human race.
Each group in society has a different take on what’s important for their cohesion. Some rely on competition and selfish behaviour to keep the capitalism alive and kicking, others rely on knowledge and logical thinking to progress science, and so on. This diversity is paramount to define the human race as a multi-cultural species, where every aspect of it is as valuable as every other.
The notion of a National Curriculum is a good one, since even the most artistic ones have to be able to add up at the grocery store, and the brightest mathematicians should be able to plat instruments, if they so chose. But what happens in most schools, and certainly in all public schools we’ve been in England, so far, it’s that they treat the curriculum as a golden standard, and don’t even attempt to go beyond.
The same way when you’re speeding on the road, and the policeman stop you and say “The speed limit is a limit, not a guideline”, the National Curriculum is a minimum, not a guideline. It means that, if you’re not teaching at least that, you should not be called a “school” to begin with. But it also means that you should go beyond, at least for the children that have the capacity to follow.
No child will follow on every category, so you need to know what each child can do on each extra topic. That also means that, while the least able children will have at least the National Curriculum, the average children will have more in different areas, and the only difference between the average and the above-average children is the amount of extra subjects and topics they learn. It’s that simple.
But for it to be that simple, the way exams work have to change completely. Exams today don’t test for what a child knows or have learnt, but it tests for what they are able to memorise in a short term, or how effectively they can guess, or how efficiently they can cheat.
Take, for example, the SAT tests, which are the exams taken by all children between primary and secondary schools. The format here is to fill the blanks. It’s a lot better than multiple choice, even though there are many questions in it that are multiple choice there, but it’s not testing the ability of children to think at all.
It is true that average children will have to think to answer those questions. It is also true that average children will have to have learnt that in the first place by listening and memorising the concepts, but not necessarily understood why they’re like that. There seems to be no questions about why the universe behaves in that way, or why I can solve the same mathematical problem in different ways and still get the same results.
But the biggest failure is that the tests are standardised to the National Curriculum, and standardised to what an ideal average child will be able to understand and answer from her memory. In the age of the technological revolution, we have to ask ourselves if this is the right way forward.
Do we want to continue forcing people to follow averages, if we want humans to be a better species? Do we need more average people doing specialised work? Isn’t our technological level ready for a de-centralised, de-normalised learning experience, which will fare a lot better on all non-average children in the world (ie. all children), and allow better matching to their own skills, desires and abilities?
One such way would be to have more meaningful questions, with non-obvious answer, and software to analyse them. So, instead of drawing the circulatory system and asking children to fill the lines pointing to organs with names, ask them to describe how the blood circulates inside the body. True, natural language processing is still not there yet, but there are a number of different ways to ask questions and make sure that the answer will be simple enough to be dealt with simple regular expressions or state machines that, in context, will be limited to only a number of valid answers.
Each answer will lead to different following questions, based on the answer, and each new step will take you towards harder or easier questions, or more specific to one topic or another. Recording the paths for each child will also tell you what are the missing knowledge in each child, and what topics the teachers have to cover more in depth, in general.
Personalised learning per se is not optimal, as I have seen myself with the Khan academy and programming books. My son could easily write new programs, and they would certainly work, but he couldn’t explain to me why. It was only when I intervene that he starting to understand why, but the attitude remains: he won’t need to understand why while questions, exams and results are measured by multiple choice, filling the blanks or guessing the answer.
Among intelligent people, those with Asperger’s have a serious disadvantage: as with other types of Autism, they can pattern match instinctively, and come up with accurate results without knowing how they did it. During primary school this is a huge advantage, since all questions are too silly to matter, but as you progress to secondary school (or worse, if you have a perfectionist father), you’ll have more and more difficulties in answering the questions that really matter: why?
Knowing “why” is fundamental because of reproducibility. Science is all about method. Mathematics is only consistent because it has a single method. Science follow suite, and is only consistent because it’s based on maths. This consistency comes in the form of reproducibility. If you can describe your method, and others can follow, than you have a proof, or a theory. Otherwise, it’s pseudo-science, or religion.
If one wants to answer questions, not just get them right on average, one wants to understand why certain method works, on which cases, with which constraints. If you spent your whole (short) life guessing and getting accurate answers (not necessarily correct ones), and if all the school cares is to be reasonably correct, than you’ll think you’re a genius (the school will, too), and you won’t learn how to think until it’s too late.
Since schools don’t even try to understand the differences between the learning process of children, they never spot this in any child. We only got an early warning from one of the head teachers (the best, so far, at Queen Edith’s), because of behaviour issues, not learning problems. They were simply unaware that our son would not even know why he was right. This is very similar to what expert computer systems can do, and we don’t consider them to be intelligent.
Recently, I took matters into my own hands and am teaching both my kids to think. I don’t care what answer they give me, I want to know why they think that’s the answer. I want explanations, not step-by-step equation solving that can be easily memorised, I want them to tell me why they can apply that step in solving that equation. Why do they think that stars are hotter than planets, why can’t you send messages faster than the speed of light, even with entanglement. Why is what really matters, and that’s the least worry in all schools I’ve ever been, or have ever seen.
Time for a change
Until we manage to find a way to ask why, and get meaningful and measurable answers from our children, we’ll still be in the stone ages. All the progress that we think we’ve made since the wheel is but a fleck on what we can achieve. People that assume our understanding as complete, or even good enough are idiots and should not be given any level of control over our society.
Next time you vote, ask your candidate why, and be ready to change candidates if they don’t understand, or can’t answer the question. You’ll see, like Russel Brand did, that you’ll end up without a candidate.
We need to change how we think, and the question of this century is why?. Ask your kids every day, why. Don’t let them ask why if they can’t answer why. Every day, wake up, look at yourself in the mirror and ask…