I note that the media has recently been discussing the increasing numbers of children being diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear and read the recognition that this does not mean there are necessarily ‘more’ autistic children – rather, that the medical community is becoming better educated about recognizing autism in it’s many different presentations – which can vary significantly from one person to the next.
I wonder though, about the way education is going to need to continue to change as socially we recognize the degree of difference that is present among a classroom full of children. I would suggest that with so many children experiencing autism, AD/HD, learning disabilities, dyslexia, affective disorders, etc. that the education system is past the point of being able to expect the ‘majority’ of children to have significantly similar learning styles, considering that even when they do not have any form of disability, people often have different ways of best learning new things.
My own work and research echos what John Dewey observed at the turn of the last century; if there is one way of best teaching, it is to provide mentored opportunities for a person to learn, hands on, by doing. What it means to ‘do’ will vary – writing requires opportunities to write, discuss, revise (and read others’ writing); science requires experiments; social studies means experiencing other cultures, traditions, and ways of thinking about things…some of this does happen currently yet, hands-on practices still do not make-up the majority of learning opportunities in the education system.
Think particularly of higher education; how often do we still expect people to learn by sitting in a lecture hall and listening? This is particularly true for first year classes – a student’s crucial first year often requires trying to learn in a style that fewer and fewer students are well suited to. If a student survives the entry level classes, there will be increasing opportunity for the student to gain hands-on opportunities with field work, seminars, or work shops. These opportunities are seldom available to freshmen.
It seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that as learners continue to change, the institutions responsible for educating them will also be required to adapt. Many of the students who previously were not diagnosed as autistic, were not diagnosed in part because they functioned well enough to still participate in social functions like seeking an education. As the medical community becomes more adept at recognizing that these high functioning people also live with a disability, more people who attend college will arrive with documentation that they live with a disability. Students who in the past would have had to struggle through on their own, will increasingly have documentation that they live with a disability – and will be at last eligible for the accommodations they require. Those who teach or administer in the higher education realm would be well served to be increasingly prepared as these students arrive on campus.
Housing, classroom expectations, peer social interactions/support, needs for counseling – these are all areas where planning should be taking place now to facilitate the increasingly diverse student population. Meanwhile, families should be practicing routines with children which will also support their college success: taking medication, following basic social protocols when meeting new people, learning study techniques even if the student is intelligent enough to not need to study for class – these are all skills the child needs to practice at home, to support their eventual college success.
Preparation is needed on both the home front and in the institutions that educate, if we are going to assist the increasingly diverse student population in becoming educated social citizens. Failure to rise to the challenging but necessary work of adapting to the changing needs of students will have a negative impact on society. Too many bright young people are in danger of being pushed out of the current education system – it is time to reconsider business as usual. Focusing on one ‘fix-all’ answer (like technology) is also not appropriate, as there is too great a range of learning styles to assume that any one answer will be suited to all student needs.Diversity of students requires diversity of methods in teaching.