Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Collective Intellect

A while back, I wrote about a new (to me) metaphor to explain an alternative theory of addiction. In a nutshell, the predominate addiction theory is based upon experiments in which rats in cages were given the option between, for instance, plain water or water laced with narcotics. The rats drank the narcotic water until they died prematurely, leading to the conclusion that narcotics themselves are addictive. One scientist, however, began to wonder about the design of the experiments. Instead of putting his experimental rats in traditional cages, he designed a kind of rat paradise with a lot of varied space, play-things, good food, play-mates, and sex partners, along with the narcotic option. In this experiment, none of the rats showed addictive behavior (although most of them occasionally used the drug recreationally) leading the scientist to conclude that addiction has more to do with the cage in which we live than the mind-altering substances themselves.

Since learning about this research I've spent a lot of time thinking about "cages," both mine and other people's, and how our "misbehaviors" are almost always the direct result of those cages.

It's hard, for instance, not to reflect on the cage that is school for many kids. In the play-based model we employ at Woodland Park, our goal really is to create a kind of "kid paradise," full of a lot of varied space, with play-things, play-mates, and the freedom to explore the physical, social, and emotional world as they see fit. Traditional schools, however, are more like the cage in the addiction experiments: freedom is restricted and their days are strictly controlled; children are expected to learn certain things at a certain time according to a predetermined schedule, and if they don't, or if they rebel in any way, they are labeled, condemned, punished, and often even drugged. This does not happen in play-based schools. This does not happen in democratic free schools. This tells me that school children's "disruptive" or "uncooperative" behavior has little to do with them and everything to do with the cage in which they find themselves.

Peter Gray, researcher and author of Free to Learn, a man who wrote, "children hate school because they love freedom," recently posted at Psychology Today about a study in which researchers found that the "inclusion of a person with ADHD greatly improved the problem-solving ability of groups, even though it led to more off-task behavior." Now to be clear, ADHD is generally considered by traditional schools to be a disruptive condition, one that often requires medication, yet this experiment in which groups of middle school students were tasked with solving problems found:

The groups including an ADHD student were far more likely to solve the problems than were the control groups! In fact, 14 of the 16 groups (88%) containing an ADHD student solved both problems, and none (0%) of the 6 control groups did. This result was significant . . . meaning that there is less than one chance in 10,000 that such a large difference, with this many groups, would occur by chance.

In other words, in a problem-solving setting, kids with ADHD make the group more capable, yet they show up as a "problem" within the cage of traditional schools. Gray then, as he does, dug more deeply into the ADHD research:

Taking all of the research together, the studies indicate that ADHD symptoms correspond with improved performance on tasks that involve divergent, or "out-of-the-box" thinking, but interfere with tasks that involve convergent, or "in-the-box" thinking. ADHD students generally perform poorly in school, because school involves almost entirely in-the-box thinking. In fact, thinking out of the box can get you in trouble in school.

We live in a world in which schools have arbitrarily decide that they are in the business of educating individuals in their unnatural cages, rather than humans in their natural habitat which is, after all, playing in community with one another. We have spent trillions in both treasure and hours attempting to educate individuals when history shows that problems are rarely solved by the lone wolf, no matter how much of a brainiac she is. No, problem solving, going back to the darkest reaches of our hunter-gatherer ancestry has always been, as my wife often calls it, a "group grope," each of us bringing our unique cognitive capacity to the effort.

(H)istorically, intelligence was the product of a network of minds working together, sometimes at odds with one another. And, in many if not most cases outside of school, that is still true today.

Traditional schools are indeed an anomaly historically and in the contemporary world, most similar institutionally to actual prisons: cages in which we shove all the kids, commanding them to keep their eyes on their own papers, to stay indoors, to shut up and listen, to be still in their chairs. In fact, in many regards, convicts have more freedom than our school children. This is the kind of cage I'm talking about. I paint the picture here in extremes, of course, many kids plow through just fine, some even excel, but far too many don't, and they react to their cage in completely predictable ways, what we usually call misbehavior. And all too often we blame the kids when they react to their cage with distraction, anger, rowdiness, shyness, and other strong emotions, not to mention manifestations of what we call "special needs," a population for which traditional schools simply are not a good fit, even as I acknowledge the dedicated work their teachers are doing. Just as rats -- intelligent, social animals -- can be expected to react self-destructively when confined to a cage with only food and cocaine, we can also expect intelligent, social children to react to their deprivations.

We call them disruptive or unfocused or misbehaving. We call it ADHD, autism, or label it as a syndrome or disorder, from sensory processing to, my favorite, oppositional defiant. Of course, I understand that these diagnosis have helped people, and the conventional treatments, including drugs, have helped kids live "happier" lives. I get that. It's true. But please consider that these conditions would not exist outside the cage that is traditional schooling, that the cage is, indeed, the only reason these behaviors show up as problems.

No, outside that cage it is all nothing more or less than a vital part of our collective intellect, and if we are going to solve our problems, we're going to need all of us.

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