Tuesday, May 30, 2023

That Is Flat-Out Cruel

Not long ago, I was asked to observe a two-year-old who was, according to his teachers, disruptive in class. When we were outdoors, I saw a curious, outgoing, physically active preschooler going about his business. When we were indoors, I saw a curious, outgoing, physically active preschooler whose curiosity was suppressed by a limited, fairly bare-bones environment where his outgoing-ness and physical activity showed up as a problem for the teachers. And that was essentially my on-the-spot "report": if you want to change his behavior indoors, then change his indoor environment.

I could tell his teachers were doubtful. After all, most of the other kids were "just fine" with things they way they were.

Later in the day, a young man with a clipboard removed the boy from the classroom. When I asked what was going on, I was told that this was the boy's occupational therapist. In other words, the poor boy already had a diagnosis based on his non-standardized behavior. Now, it's quite possible that there was something else going on that I hadn't observed, but I assure you that his behavior would not have raised an eyebrow in any school in which I've worked. Of course, I've never worked in a standard school, but rather ones that operate based on what decades of research tell us about young children, learning, and development: there is nothing standard about any of them.

Perhaps the greatest cruelty inflicted on children by standard schools is the unscientific notion that this child or that child is "falling behind." Falling behind is not a psychological or developmental concept. It is a notion that emerges, not from research on how humans learn, but rather statistics, based upon the manufacturing concept of standardization.

The idea of falling behind, for instance, is based on standardized tests. Test-makers identify a narrow range of things to measure, administer their test to a bunch of kids who are all the same age, then use their average score as their "standard." This means that approximately half the kids are above average while the rest are below average, or behind. They adjust their ranges so that a pre-determined percentage of the kids test as being up to standards. It has nothing to do with what they know or don't know, what they can do or can't do, but rather where they sit in relationship to a statistical average. 

Non-standardized children, like the two-year-old I observed, are identified as problems. Children whose genius lies in the infinite array of non-tested areas are labeled deficient. There is no psychological of developmental basis for connecting these standards to age. My own daughter said her first word at three months old. She was talking in full sentences by five months. Had there been a standardized test for that, she would have been identified as "gifted." She did not crawl, however, until her first birthday and wasn't walking until she was closer to two. On that standardized test, she would have been "behind." We performed no special interventions nor did we provide extra instruction, yet today she is an adult who walks and talks like all the other adults.

Clinical psychologist and author Naomi Fisher recently wrote, "Imagine that I decided that speed of running up the stairs is an important skill, and I tested thousands of 6-year-olds on it. I could create norms for that age group, and now I can identify 6-year-olds who are behind in stair-running. I can offer them extra stair-running . . . I can tell their parents that they need to do special exercises to catch them up. I can create a lot of worry about their deficiencies . . . The more things that you assess, the more likely it is that you'll find areas where a child is significantly different from the average."

Maybe none of this would matter if educators, schools, and districts used these averages as one data point in an ongoing process of improving themselves, but that's emphatically not how they are used. Instead, these averages, these standards, have become goals in and of themselves, while non-average, or non-standard, are problems, both for the individual child as well as the teacher, school, and district. Parents are called in and told that their child is "behind." That is flat-out cruel.

Now we have a child labeled as deficient, which too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of each child being allowed to play, develop, and learn according to their own unique timetable, these deficient children are subjected to extra stair-running. It's cruel because it tells their parents that their child is deficient because they are not average. It tells children that there is something wrong with them because they are not standard. It's cruel because it is, quite simply, fear mongering.

This whole concept of age-standards or grade-standards, of "falling behind," is a deeply flawed cruelty disguised as science. It makes us define anything outside the narrow norm as a deficiency that needs to be fixed at all costs. Maybe we've always, secretly or not-so-secretly, sought to standardize our children, to make them all fit perfectly into the egg carton, but count me out.

Instead of hunting out deficiencies, what if we dedicated ourselves to identifying what makes each child non-standard, what sparks their curiosity, what motivates them? What if the goal was schools that preserve and support each child's unique genius, where behind doesn't exist? What if we didn't cut down the tall poppies in the name of average, standard, and uniform, and instead made natural habitats in which each child got the soil and sun they need to grow into the best version of themselves, no matter what the other poppies were doing? Maybe we'll discover that they aren't a poppy at all. What if we simply envisioned schools as places that adapted to the actual non-standardized children, rather than the other way around?


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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