Highly Specialized Minds
A recent Newsweek article entitled You and Your Quirky Kid included the following quote from an educator who believes it's both possible and vitally important for the system to stop treating children as defective because of differences in their learning styles:
Mary-Dean Barringer, of the nonprofit learning institute All Kinds of Minds, says we put too much emphasis on the labels that others assign to our kids. "We're absolutely appalled by this diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome... These are very highly specialized minds, and to put a syndrome on it and treat it as an aberration does damage to kids and families. There are still challenges there on how to manage it, but why not call it a highly specialized mind phenomenon rather than a disorder? That label alone shapes public perception about uniqueness and quirkiness."
Ms. Barringer, a founding member of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, described in an interview with Highlights for Parents magazine how schools could create a more positive environment for all students by focusing on individual strengths, instead of singling out neurological minority groups and defining them in terms of their weaknesses:
Highlights: How would you like to see schools change to become more respectful and even appreciative of different learning styles?
Mary-Dean Barringer: I'd love to see educators in a school take an oath similar to the Hippocratic Oath that medical professionals take: "First, do no harm." Then, as a group, the faculty could examine all the policies and practices in their school to make sure that they do not inadvertently publicly humiliate children or punish them for their uniquely wired minds.
Educators need to get a working knowledge of the latest brain research and understand that each one of us has special "hard-wiring." With that understanding, teachers can begin to let go of the notion that we should all be "well-rounded" in all subjects, including foreign languages, athletics, music, and arts. Rather, teachers should look for and nurture those children who are "hard-wired" to succeed in these areas—and teach them through their passions and strengths.
That's not to say that we shouldn't have exposure to a wide range of subjects and interests, only that we should not expect the same level of proficiency from all students. We don't put this burden on adults. When we get to our adult work and personal life, we get to choose our specialties.
In her work with All Kinds of Minds, Ms. Barringer organizes seminars and training programs to enable teachers to meet their students' diverse learning needs. The organization also provides helpful resources for parents and caregivers who seek to understand more about developmental differences.
Is it possible to change the culture in our schools and in the broader society as Ms. Barringer suggests, so that all children are valued and are encouraged to use their strengths to succeed? Perhaps we should instead be asking: How much longer can our society afford not to do it?