It probably isn't earth shattering to any reader of this blog to realize the striking similarities between the educational system in the United States and the assembly line of the industrial age -- which is, after all, the inspiration for how we educate our children. Assembly lines are valued for being efficient and efficiency is measured by how much the products they produce are alike. In fact, when we see great degrees of variety in the products of assembly lines, this signals a problem.
I could go on and on about this but here's one specific point that Senge makes that I think is invaluable to educators, parents, and students (who bear the internalized pain of being labeled stupid, slow, or failure through our mechanized approach to learning):
"What we call 'disability' is in truth a description of mismatch between educational process and person. Why not label the educational process as 'disabled,' instead of the person?
Moreover, what does it mean to an individual to be labeled as having 'a disability?' How does that label shape an individual’s sense of self through his or her lifetime? Are we losing our ability to distinguish between appreciating our differences versus seeing ourselves, mad each other, as disabled?" (Senge, p. 40)The human brain has not changed much in a very, very, very long time (insert a large number here followed by many zeroes). Humans have always learned in a variety of ways. Industrial age learning systems, built upon assembly line values, embrace skills, logic, teaching, and assessment that can be measured quickly and objectively. This favors books, lectures, and specific cognitive functioning -- like reading and writing -- while denying the importance of other diverse learning activities like playing or listening to music, making or looking at art, playing dodgeball or soccer, building a castle out of Legos, designing a blueprint, etc. Mastery of some skills is easier to measure than others. But all contribute to making us human beings and support our personal fulfillment, our curiosity about life, our wander about the world, and our endless journey to understand what it is that we have to offer this world that sets us apart from others.
A disability is only a disability to us because it rubs against the grain of how we have organized and prioritized learning. A learning disability is really nothing more than one of the many rich colors in the diverse rainbow that represents how we learn. I am making a conscious effort to use the term "learning difference" instead, although it won't make sense in most educational contexts, I realize.
Assembly line learning prevents us from being human. I see this in my children who ache mentally and physically every morning as they leave the house for school carrying their backpacks that are filled with big, heavy books -- ironic, as I sit here looking at my paper free desk on which I work full-time and am a doctoral student. They're immersed in the most active, creative, dynamic, interconnected, society ever and, still, they are organized into groups of 30 kids all of similar age, situated in rows at small desks, expected to sit still and quiet for hours at a time, do what their teacher says, and demonstrate the skills listed on that unit's checklist before it's time for the conveyor belt to move on to the next unit. And then come home and do an hour of homework.
Today's young people are reflecting on how they learn more than any generation before. They are observing when things work and when things don't. The things that had been undiscussable about education for generations are now becoming part of conversations. "Mom, why can't we learn on iPads instead of carry five books?" "Mom, why do we need to use paper and pencil for everything at school when we never use them outside of school?" "Mom, why can't I move around at school?" "Mom, why do my teachers think recess is a privilege? Don't they know we're kids and we have to run around a little bit?" I believe our technological society -- the infusion of videos, audio books, phones that provide access to taking photos and videos, and the ease of sharing content online -- is creating a generation of students who, without realizing it, are more engaged in metacognition. They are thinking about how they learn -- and it's the significant gap between how they learn outside of school and how they learn in the classroom that triggers this reflection.
In a century when divergent thinking is needed more than ever, we continue to strip away creativity as a core skill, in favor of producing sameness. How different would education be if this value were flipped? How different would classrooms look? How differently would online learning be valued -- and different would an online class look? How much more would gaming be valued in education (including college, by the way)? And how differently would kids feel about their contributions if they were valued for their uniqueness, rather than their conformity? Who would rise to the top and succeed? And how would this change the future of our society? And who is going to show us the way?