Neurodiversity – Have we been here before?

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The growing emergence of the value of neurodiversity (differences in how we learn) in our schools appears to mirror society’s changing perceptions of cultural diversity in the 1960’s – at least in the Australian political landscape. If this is true, do we really need to follow the same 50 year learning path? As we are dealing with the concept of diversity, albeit in a different form, would reflection on those lessons not save us a few decades?

It has always been a case of dominant and peripheral groups, identified through a lens of culture. Moving from assimilation up to and through the 1960s – absorbing the peripheral groups into the unbending dominant group as the deficit-based objective of the times. The 1970’s saw a shift to pluralism, where peripheral groups were hoped to exist alongside the dominant group, often described as a salad bowl – existing together, enhancing each other while maintaining identity as the equity-based objective. The 1980’s and beyond saw a growing recognition of the resilient nature of cultural identity and the benefits of reciprocal impact. Economic rationalism took over from here – diversity would give a nation a competitive edge. We shouldn’t just celebrate diversity; we should foster it.

If the perspective is ‘neurological’ instead of ‘cultural’, dealing with this diversity in the classroom by moving straight to the celebration and fostering stage seems to make sense. Let’s not take decades to realize the value that neurodiversity adds to the classroom. As Armstrong states in Neurodiversity in the Classroom (2012, ASCD), a starting point should be an ‘inventory of strengths, interests and capabilities’ (p.9) of every student, rather than ‘a focus on deficit, disorder and dysfunction’ (p.9) in a few on the periphery – a necessary paradigm shift. I just hope it doesn’t take us decades.

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Emerging paths in a garden project

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Like many projects in school, it is not often possible at the beginning to see where a project’s path will take you. In it’s third year, our MS garden beds are now surrounded by an expanding chicken run, incorporating a modest citrus orchard inside with the chickens; papayas circle outside. On the edge, an area is being cleared for a long-awaited gaga ball pit – gardens are not just for eggs, vegetables and fruit. A student is installing an automated irrigation system for his MYP personal project. A team of MS students tend the chickens daily. Volunteers – parents and students – tend the garden after school.

When we first planted the vegetables, we never expected to start a mini-orchard. When we started the mini-orchard, we never expected to raise chickens. When we raised chickens, we never expected to incorporate gaga ball. You can see the pattern. What’s next?

It seems that the lesson learned is that at the start of a project we should expect the unexpected – each step enabling us in unforeseen ways. Plan as much as you can, but follow the paths as they present themselves.

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Braking the tyranny of the inbox

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As a school principal, communicating effectively and maintaining a presence in classrooms are both vital parts of the role. You can’t ignore either. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to tumble into the email abyss. Some parts of your day are planned, many are not. In between the unforeseen incidents, accidents and excitements there are corridors of time where a choice is offered – the classroom or the email. With hundreds of emails pouring in everyday, the classroom can easily become the casualty.

Sailors of old spoke of the tyranny of distance, the unrelenting passage of time as the endless journey stretches out before you, helpless – no matter how far you travel, the end seems no nearer. These sailors of old would have understood a full inbox.

I need at least 60-90 minutes per day to clear my inbox, responding to pressing requests, urgent matters and sending my own contributions to our collective inbox-quandary. I had been finding that only one such block was presenting itself each day, so I have taken my laptop into the classroom to tackle the email, rotating each day. I work quite a lot at the kitchen table at home and it feels just like this. It has been allowing me to connect more to the classroom for greater periods of time and has freed my office up as a collaborative planning space. The best thing, however, has been the chance to chat with students during the journey. This has finally broken the tyranny of my inbox.

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Reserving judgement – one of life’s truths

We receive small lessons everyday.

The surf contest that my school’s surf team was competing in today was canceled for safety reasons due to a high surf advisory, but the swell was slow coming in. Even in the dark before sunrise this morning, we could tell that the surf was going to be worth the early rise. The only problem with the perfect waves of Makaha on a morning like this would be the crowd; who crowd for good reason. As first light revealed how good it actually was, we paddled out into a very small group of surfers. Something wasn’t right. It should have been packed, yet wasn’t.

After an hour of beautiful waves on this warm winter morning, judges’ tents magically appeared on the beach and a loudspeaker, breaking the tranquil silence, ordered us out of the water. We were annoyed. We were just getting started. Our minds were focused on the mystery contest and the disruption to our morning it had caused.

It wasn’t until we had left the water and noticed the commotion on the beach that we realized the reason why there was such a small crowd in the surf was because of the contest (only the school section had been canceled) – local surfers had stayed away, as they knew the water would be cleared. There was also a Christmas parade happening unbeknown to us. It was only because we left the water when we did that we passed the police road block that was to isolate this end of the island for three hours – there was only one road out. We made it through with 15 minutes to spare.

So it seems that after initially blaming the contest for ruining our morning, we had much to thank it for – a beautiful hour of uncrowded surfing and also a smooth trip home – so it was lucky we reserved judgment, or at least altered judgement after some thought. We never know what will come of things – an important reminder of one of life’s truths.

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Education: What’s changed?

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That the classroom today is a very different place than it was thirty years ago is clear. As so many things have remained familiar, it’s hard to see exactly what this shift has encompassed. In many ways, we have simply added more elements to create a more complex relationship between the school and the child. Education has always been interested in ‘content’ and ‘mind’. This focused interest predominantly on the school. More recently, we have added ‘process’ and ‘heart’ into the mix. The focus turns to the child. This is what has made education interesting of late.
As we now promise our families to make learning relevant and engaging, and promise to create specific types of learners, the stakes have been raised. We even promise to treat each child as an individual learner, and involve each in the process of learning. Although the shift is slow in some corners, these extra elements have pervaded all recent educational thought in some manner. Better late than never, however I wish I had not missed it as a child.

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