Why common sense is becoming so uncommon

Among the many tireless mice that run on the giant wheel that is my brain, there lives a never-ending quest to discover why the U.S. educational system is so flawed. This afternoon, I've come to a few semi-conclusions while chatting with my brother, who currently teaches at a large state university and who previously taught at a large public high school where a very high number of students attend college shortly afterward.

I've been doing a lot of reading recently on nonverbal learning disorder (NLD). I have a few clients who fit the profile and are pretty impaired by it, and I know people personally who seem to have it to varying extents. In a nutshell, NLD is a neurological profile where an individual has superior verbal skills with nonverbal skills that are substantially limited in comparison. In Rondalyn Varney Whitney's book on NLDshe mentions that the number of people with NLD has grown tremendously in recent years. Whitney speculates that NLD is on the rise because children are not able to run and play unsupervised and instead spend too much time engaged in structured academic-like play and not enough time exploring and interacting.

A number of books I've read mention that NLD is most common in the upper-middle-class and upper-class demographics. Some books, although fewer, mention that the incidence in the United States is much higher than in other countries. I think that Whitney's theory about excessive structure in U.S. children's lives -- particularly affluent children's lives -- is definitely valid. I also think that, on a related note, the practices of the U.S. school system are responsible for the large number of young adults today who, although they may not have full-blown NLD, have very strong academic knowledge and a very noticeable lack of common sense.

There are three factors that are present in the U.S. school system to a much stronger extent than in European school systems and which I think contribute to individuals having NLD or NLD-like traits. (I use European school systems for comparison because this is the only other school system with which I am familiar and because the cultures are otherwise fairly similar in terms of children's daily lives.)

1. The school system in the U.S. is strongly influenced by fundamentalists who have been successful in preventing schools from teaching anything that may entail any sort of teaching of "values." This limits the extent to which class material and discussions can actually relate to modern society and students' lives.

2. The school system in the U.S. has responded to our realization that our graduates' academic skills are inferior by teaching skills earlier instead of more thoroughly or with more preparatory lessons, so that students are faced with lessons for which they are not developmentally ready. Students are forced to write before they have sufficient fine motor skills to do so naturally, and are taught to memorize arithmetic sums before they have the reasoning skills to understand what the operation actually means.

3. The school system in the U.S. is operating in a very litigious society where hands-on learning projects such as carpentry, cooking, or sports are considered to be too much of a liability until the upper grades.

Students also learn that, at least in the younger grades, approaches incorporating multiple intelligences or real-life skills are only used for students who need extra help. By the time students get to high school, this is ingrained, and students believe that the only useful part of school is academic coursework. In a typical high school, the courses that are numbered so as to count for college admissions are the ones that teach solely academic skills. I remember reading a college admissions guide that specifically said any class with "applied" in the title should not be taken and would count against me. Is it any wonder that we have so many college graduates who have passed calculus courses and don't understand how a checkbook works?

This phenomenon is even more notable in the area of courses that teach common sense such as social skills and safety. In a typical high school, any course about relationships or health or social and emotional issues is either a remedial course or is a course that is required for all students but doesn't count for anything, thereby is seen by students as useless and wasteful regardless of the content. My high school offered an English class called "Relationships," which entailed reading of (mostly contemporary) short stories and articles and discussing and writing papers examining the relationships among the characters. What a great opportunity for adolescents, who can always use a place to talk about interpersonal issues and who can really benefit from learning when a relationship is dysfunctional or abusive. This class was considered to be "not college preparatory material." Why not? My undergraduate college offered similar courses in the anthropology, philosophy and literature departments. My graduate university grants degrees in the study of interpersonal relationships. But unless you later pursue studies in these specific areas, a typical high school education will teach you that it is important to learn about courtly love but not to learn how relationships among modern common people work.

My high school also offered criminal justice courses, which were largely discussion-based and taught students about the law and how it affected them. While students could also pursue this interest further at the regional vocational center while still attending high school, the courses taught in my high school were not intended as preparation for any sort of career. These courses did not count for anything other than as an elective toward high school graduation and were also viewed as remedial classes recommended for students having a hard time passing enough classes to graduate. I can't tell you how many college graduates I have discussions with each day who could have really benefited from these classes. I speak with people all the time who think that being arrested makes a person a criminal or that it is illegal to express disagreement with the president. But since learning about the law is remedial, these college-bound folks were so lucky as to have learned instead about people being drowned or stoned or burned for being witches or adulterers. That's much more important than knowing the laws of the society in which we actually live, right?


6 comments:

EEK said...

One of my frustrations when teaching high school was that, on one hand, we were encouraged to teach "the whole student" -- not just filling their heads with knowledge so they could graduate and go to college. And then we were told how important it was for them to perform well on standardized tests so they'd get be able to graduate (my state is nearing requiring passing a test to get a high school diploma) and get into college. Yes, these are somewhat at odds, and often discussed at the same meeting.

So students have to pass tests in order to graduate and in order for schools to receive their funding. Since current funding levels aren't adequate, losing some of that money is unthinkable -- so we're basically making sure students can pass tests. I always did my best to make sure students knew how to think and didn't just know stuff, but there was only so much that could be done. Frustrating. It was amazing how often a student would say something, I'd ask "Why?" and I'd get the deer-in-the-headlights look.

EEKA does a nice job of summarizing some of the reasons this situation exists. The litigation part especially struck me; at the school where I taught we were in a pretty affluent community and, therefore, many parents were willing to threaten lawsuits over practically anything. Because of this the district would cave to parents over practically anything.

Another issue is that education is one of those professions where everyone thinks they're an expert -- they figure they went to school, so they know how to educate people. (I doubt they show up at Boeing and say, "Hey, I flew in a plane once; need any design help?") I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, other than saying parents, legislators, random nutjobs, etc., have a huge influence on something they know little about.

Anonymous said...

My son has been diagnosed as having NLD. He doesn't have Aspbergers, and has a touch of ADD, but when it comes down to it, I wonder if he should be diagnosed as just a boy.

I want to read your post on this carefully. You're the first person I've run across who even mentions this or has any idea of what it means.

--christine at (a)musings

eeka said...

:o)

I think that, like anything, it's a continuum. There are some people with NLD or other learning/developmental disabilities who are quite impaired and for whom it is appropriate to discuss much of their lives in the context of having that diagnosis. There are also people who seem to have neurology that could be viewed as PDD/NLD/ADHD or who might just be nerdy, awkward, overly intelligent, spirited, creative, what have you. I think labels are only necessary as far as when they're able to help someone. If I notice that a friend or coworker or someone seems a little awkward, I know that it would be the friendly thing to do to, say, specify what type of place it is we're going to after work and what sort of attire people wear there, because I've gathered that this person doesn't so much pick up on social things. Unfortunately, with a lot of people, you won't get anywhere unless you tell them that a particular approach works best with your kid "because he has XYZ type of disability" rather than just that it works better because of who he is. It really would benefit everyone if schools routinely worked with typical kids as they do with special kids, exploring what types of learning styles work best with them, what types of sensory input affect them in different ways, and so forth. It would be great if we had a society where it was commonplace that each person in a workplace decided how they'd structure their day, how they'd have their workspace set up, whether they'd prefer phone or e-mail communication, and so forth, instead of there being a "norm" of using the phone when scheduling a meeting and then an "accomodation" for Bob, who requests that people e-mail him because he has signficant trouble with verbal language processing or with remembering to write down meetings that are told to him verbally.

Kaleidoscope Eyes said...

NLD is a right brained based disability, it is not a "learned" or induced problem other than the fact that some of those who have it show the same signs on brain imaging as those with a right brained head injury do.

I agree that we spend far to much time appreciating strictly academics in schools these days. standardized testing is an impediment to real learning. This is something that we knew before so many people bought in the the hype that they were a good measure of what kids know. They truly are not. To quote Alfie Kohn, "The only thing a standardized test really measures is the size of the houses near the school." amen.Alfie amen.

This would be alarming information just on it's own. However, it is nearly criminal to me when we consider that a liberal arts education has now nearly been completely thrown out. Children have very little in the way of music or arts education in schools anymore since everything is geared to these "test scores." Having funding tied to such scores is absolutely wrong and discriminatory in areas were there are a high proportion of non english speaking or learning diabled populations. In effect it takes funds away from schools and districts that need them most!

Big business needs to keep it's nose out of making curriculum in our public schools. Let teachers who know best how kids learn go do it!

I have a child with a very high I.Q. and NLD. He's made nearly straight A's in school but, usually that was in spite of these new changes in education and certainly not because of them. I have long felt that my son would have done far better had the education system been allowed to focus on a whole child approach, had so much not been taken out of the schools in favour of test scores.

Standardized Tests? Children are not like widgets in a factory. No child is "standard!"

eeka said...

Hey, thanks for the great comment, Kaleidoscope Eyes!

I do think NLD mostly comes from inborn hard-wiring. But we also know that brain chemistry can be changed (both in a "good" way and in a "bad" way) by parenting, schooling, therapy, etc. I'm sure you've seen the studies regarding how people with PTSD have changed brain chemistry, which can be mostly changed back through cognitive-behavioral and other therapies.

I think that some kids start out with some NLDish wiring (and this tends to run in families, though not always...) but then develop more and more disparities when they aren't exposed to things like playing outside, being allowed to express themselves through arts, and so forth. Most of the "treatments" for helping these kids to resynchronize involve a ton of hands-on activity, which kids are getting less and less of due to the educational system as well as the sorts of hobbies kids tend to have these days (video games and Latin lessons and SAT prep rather than running around and climbing and jumping like we did when I was a kid).

I've also worked with a couple kids for whom NLD traits seem to run in the family, but are also unknowingly encouraged by parents. I have a kid whose parent seems to have quite a lot of these traits, though is a more well-rounded and functional person than the child. The parent expresses glee at how the child uses tons of big words and can read so well, except that the kid isn't using the big words accurately, doesn't understand everything read, can't summarize something read, and can't tone down the big words if talking to someone who isn't intimately familiar with the middle ages or whatever the latest obsession is. I think both the child and parent are kind of "wired funny," but the parent has unknowingly done the kid a disservice by encouraging only one part of the brain (since the parent will also get very into the intellectual stuff and loves that the kid is interested in it).

This parent is seeing and understanding how the things I'm doing with the kid (sensory stuff, breaking things into steps, learning to describe a game without taking 45 minutes to explain every detail, running and climbing) are helpful. The parent is also really smart and understands my explanations of how certain sensory activities help to organize the kid's brain. But the parent had been so happy that the kid was reading all the time and so intellectual, and probably wouldn't have thought to encourage the kid to run and climb.

So yeah, this kid is definitely wired this way, but could have developed in a more balanced sort of way if someone had pushed the gross-motor and sensory stuff earlier on.

Norma said...

I was diagnosed with Non Verbal Reasoning Skills learning Defficit in 1982 as a Junior at the University of Vermont. I was an honor student, but sought out evaluation when my history prof noted a big discrepency between performance and knowledge. I spent every waking hour studying so that I would not fail at anything. K-12 education was horrific for me. In 1999, my almost 3 year old son was diagnosed with Non Verbal Learning Disability at Dartmouth Hitchock in NH. In 2006 (during 4th grade), my daughter was diagnosed with multible learning disabilities with NLD being the "umbrella". I have four children, 2 daughters are considered gifted. My son has an average IQ and my daughter has a very high IQ. I think what we are seeing is that a low incident disability (less then 1% of those 10% who are disabled)is now more understood by educators and therefor being correctly diagnosed as NLD as opposed to ADD. It was amazing to get my sons diagnosis so young, and then remember my own diagnosis as a young adult. Because of my children, I have been given the gift of understaning exactly what it was that caused me so much trama. I worked so hard and could never figure out how to please educators and peers. I am hopeful that we have been able to lessen for my childdren some of the damage that I endured during my formal education by cruel teachers and peers. I strongly suggest that anyone interested in this subject begin by reading "The Source For Non Verbal Learning Disorders" by Sue Thompson.
Norma Manning
Vernon, VT