Before retiring from paid work I was involved in training and supporting educators in the use of technology to enhance learning. An important issue was to ensure that technology was designed and used in such a way that it did not disadvantage people with disabilities and special needs. One way to promote this was to point out that if one ensured that the technology was accessible to everyone then this potentially benefited everyone, not just those with particular needs. This is because making the tools and materials of learning more accessible increases the flexibility with which each individual can interact with these resources.
I was reminded of this when I read a report of a recent interview Melanie Sykes gave to the Guardian. Sykes said:
"… I now know the education system wasn’t set up in a way that I was able to function there. It crowbars you into a certain way of thinking and being, and if you don’t fit the bill you get left behind. That’s why we need to tear down the education system and rebuild it, so it suits everyone… Learning shouldn’t be just sitting in a classroom and being forced to learn algebra or French when your brain doesn’t work like that. What a waste of your childhood. I can’t read a number that’s over five digits, and there’s no way that doing an hour of maths every day for five years would have changed that.”
Although this was said in the context of Sykes' diagnosis of autism, I suggest that the principle I outlined in my first paragraph also applies here. The lack of flexibility in the curriculum, the "crowbarring into a certain way of thinking and being", does not only disadvantage those with autism, but potentially disadvantages just about everyone. The (allegedly) neurotypical brain might, to quote Sykes again, "not be typical at all. So the system that supports those types of brains isn’t necessarily what should be the norm.”
But the reality is that the way our education system works does reinforce the illusion of the neurotypical brain. So it is little wonder that "if you don’t fit the bill you get left behind." To give but one example, consider the following, from the UK Government's statutory guidance for the National curriculum in England: mathematics programmes of study:
"The expectation is that the majority of pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace."
This statement is just nonsense. It is evident to anyone with experience of how young people learn that the majority of pupils most certainly do NOT - in any meaningful way -"move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace." We all have very, very different ways of relating to the world, and our education system should surely be rebuilt to both acknowledge and celebrate this.
Image: : Demolition of Netherhall Lower School - 23 by John Sutton, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons