Changing the Educational System for the Good of Different Brains

By Bob Sornson, Ph.D.


One-size-fits-all instruction eats neurodiverse students for lunch

When seeking personalized learning for a student with unique learning needs, you may confront educators who don’t understand learning differences, refuse to differentiate based on need, fail to follow written plans for instruction, or create bureaucratic obstacles and barriers for your child. Once and a while you find heroes, women and men who go way beyond the norm and stick out their necks to serve a student with different learning needs.

You work your way through the system, standing up for your rights when needed, and thanking those who lend a hand. But challenging the system can be a long and perplexing process. Often unquestioned along the way are the underlying assumptions of the system.

The system is designed so that all students of the same age will follow, and be tested, on a standard curriculum. We teach a unit, it lasts two weeks; we give a grade, and then move onto the next unit. Kids are sorted by age into grades. Each grade has a long list of standards to “cover”. Curriculum plans, curriculum maps, and pacing guides are devised to ensure that all the content is covered for every student. District assessment systems and state assessment systems add pressure for teachers to cover the assigned content.

Standard curriculum is “covered”, tests are given, and students are sorted into winners and losers. And repeat.

Individuals with neurodiverse learning needs, and their parents, have struggled to find ways to be successful in school. The expectation that same-age students will all learn the same content in a time-limited format makes it incredibly challenging for students with special learning needs to be successful. But neurodiverse students are not the only ones suffering under this educational design. Perhaps it is time to question the underlying assumptions of a design for learning that poorly serves a majority of students, and often crushes any opportunity for neurodiverse learners to excel.

The system of education we have been struggling to improve for decades is based on the 1840s Prussian educational system, brought to Massachusetts by Horace Mann, and adapted in the early 1900s to more closely resemble an industrial assembly line. The system is designed to “cover” standard content, test students and sort them into levels of success, and then move on to the next unit or lesson.

The expectation that same-age students will all learn the same content in a time-limited format makes it incredibly challenging for students with special learning needs to be successful.

The cover/test/sort educational system served it purposes in an agrarian and early industrial society, which was to expose students to a smattering of content and identify a small group as “academically proficient”. But this system is poorly designed to help most students fall in love with learning, identify what each student needs to learn, allow instruction and support until all basic learning skills are developed, and personalize instruction allowing each student to continue to progress at her own pace toward higher levels of learning.

Cover content, give tests, and sort students. Our existing system does this effectively, year after year, until a vast majority of our students have been sorted away from the love of learning, sorted away from the economic and social opportunities that are part of the age of innovation, technology, and learning.   Poor, minority, brain diverse, and other vulnerable students are exposed to the damage of a system that treats all kids as if they should be ready for one-size-fits-all high-pressure instruction. One-size-fits-all instruction eats neurodiverse and other vulnerable students for lunch.

Decades of school reform have unquestionably made it worse. We increased content expectations, required much more testing, and exponentially added pressure on teachers and students. We have drained much of the humanity that somehow had managed to survive by the grace of good teachers and curious learners. All that is left is a race to cover dry, personally meaningless facts and concepts that might be included on a standardized test so that some bureaucrat can pretend that our results are better than dismal.

All students are limited by standardized one-size-fits-all instruction, but it is a special catastrophe for vulnerable children who are less able to keep up with the pace of instruction.

  • By the beginning of fourth grade only 34 percent of American children are at proficient reading levels (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Only 20 percent of fourth grade children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are at proficient reading levels (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Among 12th grade students — remember that a significant group of students has already dropped out by this point — 26 percent score at or above proficient levels in math, and 38 percent are proficient or better in reading (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Among African American 12th grade students tested, 7 percent are proficient or better in math and 16 percent are proficient or better in reading (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2013)
  • Each year about a million students leave high school without a diploma

Not just students with different brains, but a majority of students are poorly served by an educational system designed for the agrarian mid-nineteenth century. It is time to call for a systems change to a personalized competency based system of learning that allows far more students to become successful learners. Such a system is based on far different design specifications which are based on considerably more accurate assumptions about human learning:

  • At the same age, all students are not alike in their experiences, rates of development, and learning readiness.
  • Some students need more time to learn a concept or skill, but are fully capable of learning well if given sufficient time.
  • All students learn better when offered instruction at a level of challenge that allows for high rates of success.
  • Students work better in a community in which they feel safe and connected to others.
  • Paying attention to the development of the whole child recognizes the importance of social-emotional intelligence and also supports academic learning.
  • Pushing kids into a frustration zone, in the name of academic rigor, causes students to disengage from learning, stop trying, and even to misbehave and disrupt the classroom.
  • Brain diversity is the norm. Expecting all students of a given age to be ready to learn the same content in the same way is an antiquated notion.
  • Pushing vulnerable children into frustration and disengagement from learning is not an acceptable outcome in the age of information and technology advancement.

“We covered it and tested it” is simply no longer a sufficient premise for a learning system that works in the 21st century. It is time for a systems change.

Author Image
Bob Sornson, Ph.D. is an award-winning author and international consultant, and is the founder of the Early Learning Foundation. He works internationally with parent organizations, school districts, and universities. His many books include The Juice Box Bully, Stand in My Shoes, Creating Classrooms Where Teachers Love to Teach, Meeting the Challenge: Using Love and Logic to Help Children Develop Attention and Behavior Skills, Over-Tested and Under-Prepared: Using Competency Based Learning to Transform Our Schools, Essential Math Skills, Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning about Empathy, The PreK-3 Essential Skill Inventories, and many other books.

Bob is a national leader calling for programs and practices which support early learning success, competency based learning, and parent engagement. Dr. Sornson’s workshops and keynote presentations are known for his storytelling, interactive style, and calls to action. He can be contacted at bob@earlylearningfoundation.com.

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