March 13, 2016

Our educational system should enable students to learn in the way they are best to do so.

Relative to this subject, I was inspired by a great film and an op-ed piece in The New York Times.

Mapping the Brain

The film entitled Temple Grandin is based on the true story of Dr. Temple Grandin, an exceptionally accomplished scientist who was autistic. Dr. Grandin, who grew up in Boston in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, benefited from having parents who refused to follow the customary practice of institutionalizing autistic patients, and chose to help her find a life path that would enable her to be productive.

She became passionate about animal husbandry. The film, which stars Claire Danes as Dr. Grandin, Julia Ormond as her mother, Catherine O’Hara as her aunt and David Straitharn as a boarding school science teacher who saw her talent, does a superb job illustrating her wildly uneven capabilities. She had virtually no ability to think abstractly or to connect emotionally with people, but had an incredible visual sense, which enabled her to imagine a completely different way of physically managing cattle and other animals. I highly recommend the film to anyone, and I am not alone in doing so, since the Amazon viewer ratings average 4.9 out of a possible 5.

The New York Times op-ed piece, published in the February 28, 2016, issue of The New York Times entitled “What Prodigies Could Teach Us About Autism,” by Kimberly Stephens and Joanne Ruthsatz, discusses the unique capabilities of prodigies and the relationship to what they call “differently abled brains.”

The film and the op-ed piece raise a far bigger issue: to what degree does our educational system attempt to understand and adapt to the different learning capabilities of our students? Unfortunately, I believe that the answer is that it generally does a sub-standard job.

While public schools provide for “special needs” children, they have a perverse incentive to continue to categorize students as “special needs” students, even if they have a path to bringing these students forward into mainstream educational environments. The subsidies for each “special needs” child are astronomical, and actually dis-incent schools from getting students out of the program, since they lose the subsidy for that child. This is the same problem we deal with in any system in which government agencies are given bigger budgets to deal with people who are “victimized” in some way. Governments try to enlarge the population of “victims” as long as possible.

Late last year, I visited the Eagle Hill School in Fairfield, Connecticut, a private school dedicated to educating “special needs” students. What surprised me is that, in many ways, these students are educated faster and better than they would be in a public school environment by using learning tools I acquired and have used all my life:

• They are taught to use handwritten note taking to reinforce what they learn in their memories. Over my lifetime, many people have commented on my prolific note taking.

• They bring structure and recall to what they read by creating graphic diagrams and outlines, again to use visual sense to reinforce what they hear and read. I focus on structuring information. What people mistakenly believe is my “photographic memory” is a by-product of how I structure information first and then add detail to the structure. I have no special memory gift. I enhance my memory by the way I learn the subject matter, structure it, and illustrate it graphically to reinforce it.

• They are taught to recite what they are writing in order to use their auditory senses to reinforce their knowledge. I do the same thing when I am hand writing notes. In fact, when I am in a conversation with someone, I often repeat back to them what they have told me, for two reasons: o To insure that I have accurately understood it; and o To reinforce it in my memory.

• They are taught to highlight the most important points by using underlining, magic markers, symbols, and other tools to insure that the most important insights are given greater emphasis than everything else they are learning. I do the same thing. I highlight and underline what I read on the page, and I use highlighting freely when I am reading books on Kindle for the Mac.

• They are taught to go online and find videos to reinforce a subject. I do the same thing. I look at YouTube videos of all kinds, including TED Talks, tutorials, and even animations, to reinforce or even to do basic learning on a subject.

The note-taking learning tools are not solely for “special needs” students, and I did not invent them. They have been around for decades in some form or another. In fact, one of the most well-established and successful systems is called the Cornell Notes system and it was invented in the 1950’s by a professor named Walter Pauk, an education professor at Cornell University:

Two of the biggest life lessons I learned along the way, both of which have profoundly influenced my leadership philosophy are that (i) everyone is educable to a far greater degree than professional teachers and educators may believe; and (ii) everyone has a unique set of skills and a unique body of knowledge that enables him or her to be successful at something in life. Leaders succeed most when they engage every employee in the tasks most tailored to his or her skills and passions.

In an ESPN documentary some years ago on one of the greatest figure skaters of all time, Peggy Fleming, who won the gold medal at the 1968 Olympics, Ms. Fleming was asked about the secret of her success. Her answer was wonderful and profound. She said that she believes that every human being has a destiny and a path that can maximize his or her potential. She said that she was lucky enough to find her path at age 3 and that her parents supported her efforts from that point forward.

Our education system has gotten too far away from that simple goal and has focused too much on test score performance, global competitiveness, getting students “into the right colleges,” and making them fit some standard model of excellence. Some students do not belong in a college or university, an insight entrepreneur Peter Thiel has enthusiastically embraced, and others have very specialized talents that should be nurtured.

Many educational philosophers talk or write about the importance of having every individual be broadly educated, as opposed to simply mastering a specific skill or body of knowledge. I agree with the importance of broad learning and skill acquisition, to enable someone to participate most fully and richly in what America and the world have to offer. However, being successful in one activity, whether it is an academic subject, mastery of a musical instrument, success in a sport, or even success in a game like chess (a path we took with our son James) is a foundation on which adults can build in helping students gain the confidence to learn broadly.

We need to celebrate and nurture the “differently abled brains” we have in abundance in this country and around the world!