Imagine a school, just for one moment… where you walked into the door of the school….and the very first questionnaire would contain the questions: “What do you love to do?” What is your favourite thing in life? What are you good at? What would make you smile? How would life/school be if you could do the things that you love to do?
Imagine a school whose curriculum catered for those kinds of questions…and designed a pedagogical program that is individual to your child, based on the answers to those questions?
It is then that we could abandon English, Maths, Science, etc. in the way that it is taught now, where we just deliver buckets of information that has no relevance to kids. Alternatively, let’s say a child’s interest is cooking; what if we were to inspire them to want to learn for example they will want to learn to read because by reading they can gain more information from recipe books. They will want to learn about measurement because this knowledge will help them to become a better chef. They will want to learn about money because they will want to go shopping to purchase their ingredients. They will want to learn about science in the context of how cooking and science interrelate. They will want to learn to write, because they will want to write their own recipes.
It really is that simple, because the teacher becomes a catalyst and mentor in assisting their students to acquire the information that is relevant to them. From this one area of interest the teacher’s role will be to open up a way to educational content based on their interests.
We can include history, by looking at the evolving nature of food; we can look at geography by exploring foods around the world; we can expand on the science and technology by looking at molecular gastronomy and this new thing of being experimental with cooking; we can look at health and the body (biology) by exploring how food is digested. What are calories/kilojules? What foods are good for us? How the body needs food, brain food etc. I could easily create a curriculum based on a child’s interest in food that could last at least a year…and the beauty of this is that the student’s themselves will become the investigators, the enquirers, the creators of their own curriculum.
So what makes this different to schools as we know them? The difference is that we are using a child’s interests and abilities to create the curriculum and therefore learning experiences and outcomes. The desire to learn increases exponentially when there is a motivation to learn. Let’s go back to the cooking example; if the student wants to be a better chef, they have no choice but to incorporate all that learning into their experiences, but the brilliance is they want to learn and most of the time are not even aware they are learning because they are doing something they love to do!
I can hear the objections already… but how can we do this for every child? I don’t see this model as being any more difficult than trying to contain and teach a classroom full of children who don’t give a crap about what you are teaching them. I don’t see this model as being any more difficult than having to deal with constant behaviour issues because the students are bored with the lesson content. I don’t see this model as being any more difficult than dealing with constant resistance because the lessons have no relevance to them.
There may be some initial extra work and effort in setting this kind of educational model up, but eventually the teacher’s role will become exactly what it is meant to be; that of a facilitator for learning; a mentor or coach for your student’s educational future; and the provider of an educational environment where a student centred and student driven model exists. Kids will want to learn and therefore behaviour issues will be minimized; they will be excited and motivated by the content, so there will be less catching up on those who haven’t done the work; and the learning and knowledge derived will be a springboard for future learning. I also think this kind of education system will be significantly reliant upon IT and the use of technology, including the internet, YouTube, Google etc. This is where students can truly become independent learners by utilizing the world wide web to assist their journey of acquiring knowledge on their subject of interest. They can explore you tube for how to videos, information videos, reference videos etc. Google is an amazing tool where you can literally travel the world via cyberspace and one piece of knowledge leads to the next etc. I believe wholeheartedly that we need to fully integrate technology in our day to day classroom life as this is the way of the world. Every type of industry is now heavily reliant upon technology and kids need to be prepared for this.
Also, this generation’s child is already technology ready by the time they get to school, as there are very few five year old children who have not used a computer, an iPhone, iPad, Wii, Nintendo DS etc.
However, they get to school and are presented with an environment that is more suited to the 19th century and we wonder why they resist.
I question whether we really need to insist that children who have problems writing learn to write using pencil and paper….some kids just have terrible handwriting, or have dysgraphia, especially those with some learning differences. There is an extremely strong link between children with autism and dysgraphia (problems with handwriting) and yet we continue, year in and year out ‘teaching’ them to ‘write the alphabet’…. when all this does is discourage and hinders the desire to want to write. If this is a problem, hand them an iPad, or Laptop. Let your students with dysgraphia issues type their answers and use the technology to write. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how they write, as long as they do. Again, I hear the objections "But don’t they need to learn to write?"
The only thing we really need to know how to write is our name, address, phone numbers and a signature, but even then this could still be done technologically and with the iPad students can use their fingers to create a signature. At the end of the day, do we want our children to experience success? Or do we want to continue to focus on what they can’t do? I believe we need to focus on what children can do and are good at as a platform to scaffold their learning.
A classroom shouldn’t have walls or boundaries; seats or aisles that ‘contain’ students; classrooms should be constantly movable, constantly malleable, constantly changing as the children’s needs are changing (and for our student’s with autism, this may mean not changing at all). We may continue to hear the voices of resistance saying “ohh but they are not learning their abc's, or times tables, or not learning the way we did when we were at school." Or... "if they learn to use a calculator they won’t be able to learn to do it in their head”. This is because these kids can’t learn the way we did; and nor should they. They are in a different world; they are in a technologically rich world, and they have learned to take short cuts, they even short cut the English language, they look for the easiest way possible and then do it.
Why do we want our students to do things the long way just because that is the way we learned? Should be go back to horse and buggy because that was a way of travelling once upon a time? No, we evolved and now use very efficient cars. It is the same with education. This generation’s child has learned a much more efficient way of doing and learning is part of that.
We can no longer expect that schools can supply students with all that they need to learn as our world has expanded so incredibly. What is more important is that our education system provide students with a way to learn what Is relevant to them and what they can specialize in.
In other words we need to cater to their individual gifts and talents.
So, how does this all fit into the world of ‘autism’ as this blog is essentially about my views on autism? I believe wholeheartedly that one of the things that ‘autism’ and our children with ‘autism’ have taught us is how they can focus on one area of expertise and excel. They have also taught us that by developing their specific talents and abilities that they can achieve their potential. Children with ‘autism’ have no choice but to learn this way; what makes them quirky and different and unique is mostly what also makes them special and brilliant. Their specific obsession is the clue to their talent and to get the most out of them, this is what we must focus on. I contend that they have provided us with a model for the future of education as much of what I’ve learned about pedagogical theory comes from what I’ve learned about
autism and this is no exception.
It just makes so much sense and means that we can provide our children with a way to specialize their educational learning around what makes them “tick”. Again, I hear the voice of contention saying “ohh, but we don’t know what they may become”. I strongly disagree, because a child who is musically minded at 7 is always going to have that talent and ability, it is just that we almost beat it out of them by insisting ‘music’ isn't as important as learning about algorithms. Seriously in my 50 years of being I don’t believe I’ve ever used algorithms, but I sure as hell listen to, enjoy and express myself via music every day. We love to put children into little boxes that we think are more acceptable to society and I know for certain that autism in all its mystery and contention refuses to allow itself to be put into any societal box. Autism and its clients basically say F*&^ you to anything that contains, molds or demands that they fit into what is expected or desired.
In fact the majority of our children from this generation say the same thing.
So, the future of education rests upon us all to allow the changes to occur; to let go of past models being superior; and recognizing our clientele and knowing that the current model does not assist this generation to achieve their full potential. Education, in my view should shine a light on talents, gifts and abilities and make a pathway possible to achieve their goals, aspirations and potential. Our children should be excited to attend school and an environment where they can’t wait to explore more about what they are passionate about. Ultimately education should be where everyone is able to express their individuality in the most productive and fruitful way possible.