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Organic Education: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Is it time to return to the ways of learning that served our ancestors?

In the past decade the organic food movement really gathered steam. Books on eating like our ancestors and cave man diets made the bestseller lists. Clearly, people now believe that we’d be healthier eating the foods humans evolved to eat over tens of thousands of years, compared to the processed spawn of chemical plants and genetic engineers.

Many of the strongest advocates of what we call “ancestral diets” are the people who are vulnerable. Folks with asthma say they feel healthier when they remove processed foods from their diet. Others talk about getting fitter, or lowering blood pressure eating what our ancestors ate.

But I’m not here to talk about organic food. I’m here to talk about something else; something new whose time has come—organic education. Just as organic foods are grown naturally, without pesticides, organic workers are those who get their skills naturally, from experienced teachers. That’s a subject of particular interest to me, because I’m an autistic adult and autism made modern school an insurmountable challenge for me.

Autistic people have been around forever, and for most of that time, we blended in with society. We may have been called eccentric, exceptional, or even crazy, but we grew up and found a place in the communities where we lived. We apprenticed ourselves and learned a trade and went to work, like everyone else.

Autistic people were invisible until modern psychology dragged us into the limelight. They helped us see our challenges in today’s world, but that had some unintended consequences. Unfortunately, when they described us, they forgot to enumerate our gifts. They called us disabled because they saw what we couldn’t do, and they overlooked what we do better than anyone else. We’re only now unraveling the damage that’s done to a generation of autistic people. We’re recognizing that we’re different—not less—and joining the community of neurodiverse humanity—people whose brains are wired differently.

With all the changes in education in the twentieth century the system has broken down for the neurodiverse even as it’s accommodated “ordinary people” in greater numbers than ever before. Traditional master/apprentice learning has been replaced by the book-based “refined education” that’s served up by today’s public schools and colleges.

Book learning is to education what synthetic fertilizer is to farming. It makes education available to anyone at low cost, but it’s not quite as good as the original, natural product. In the absence of hands-on training, books are often not enough. Yet that marginal system has become our principal way of teaching. It’s what todays students know.

We still have some hands on learning today, in the lab sessions that support classroom lectures and discussion. I believe we should be using the lab concept in almost every discipline we teach. We’d significantly improve education by restoring one of its organic roots.

Books alone won’t take the place of hands on learning—either in school or in outside internships—especially for people who have problems with reading and comprehension. By tying the acquisition of work skills to the ability to read and understand, we’ve created disability in a large portion of the population.

Now, I’m not an opponent of books—I’ve made a living writing them! I just realize they’re not a universal learning style. That’s why I record an audio version of every print book I write. If print books aren’t actually needed to do most jobs we should offer alternative ways of learning for those who do better differently.

Learning a trade or job skill at the side of a master or tutor evolved over thousands of years and it works. Automating the process with a textbook may work for some people too, but for those of us who are different . . . .

Just as kids with asthma are at risk eating some modern foods, neurodiverse kids are at risk consuming a modern education. They are at risk for failing to learn the skills required for work and adult life. I know because I’m one of them. And I contend that we are not just a small part of today’s schools; we are like the canaries in the mineshaft . . . our failure is showing us problems that are holding back every student in school—neurodiverse and typical alike.

One of the most important subjects we’ve forgotten to teach is social skills—communication. People who lack social skills aren’t accepted by society. And neurodiverse people are particularly challenged in this regard. The result: we have a hard time getting jobs, and difficulty making friends and fitting into the social groups we rely on for mutual support.

In centuries past, manners were one of the first things taught to children. Manners and social deportment were emphasized everywhere – at home, in school, and in church—because they facilitate effective communication. People today dismiss the historic teaching of manners, but the truth is, manners were taught because people needed them to communicate, and they had to communicate to succeed. It’s one of the teachings man learned over thousands of years, only to abandon in modern times.

Somehow, with the rise of “technical education” that truth has been forgotten by the mainstream. Fortunately, it’s not forgotten in the special ed world. There we see children whose differences create greater challenges. Then we say we’re teaching communication, not manners, but the goal remains the same. Schools are beginning to develop good programs to teach communication and manners. I think those programs should be offered to every student, and improved for those who need it most.

Educators talk a lot about STEM and the importance of science and scientists. Geeks are famous for poor social skills. But consider who makes the big money in our society. It’s people who communicate smoothly and effectively, and a preponderance of them are in sales or marketing work. At the very top of it all—combining STEM skills and communication skills—are the people who create things like Facebook. Truly, in our society, social/communication skills are king. That’s why we’d be wise to teach them to everyone.

Then we come back to learning by doing. Every concept we teach in school can be taught by real world examples. Which would you rather do—solve an abstract trigonometry problem from the textbook or figure out the area of an odd shaped farmer’s field? Those who argue for teaching abstract concepts are arguing against the way teaching was done for the entire prior course of known history.

Look back a few hundred years and you’ll see that every great college was built on the concepts of tutoring, discussion, and learning by doing, augmented by books. You learned to be a minister at the side of a parish priest, and by studying scripture. You learned to be a doctor by apprenticing yourself to a medical man and reading pharmacopoeia. Books were an adjunct to teaching, not a replacement for it.

Some vocations are simple while others are complex. Every person has the potential to find his level of capability and satisfaction in a trade. One may be challenged caring for a large garden. Another may become an engineer, or surgeon. In each case, they began with a little bit of knowledge and honed their skills using hands and minds together, with a teacher as a guide.

Everything we do is built on a foundation of ever more complex trade knowledge. Kids build dams and canals in the beach sand, and fill them with buckets of water. Some get older, and use that knowledge to make irrigation canals. A few learn mathematical modeling and go on to design public water systems. Complex as the final design may be, it started with simple hands-on experimentation.

My belief in the power of vocational education is so strong that I actually co-founded a trade school for young people who are different. Our TCS Automotive Program—in Springfield MA—combines teachers and working mechanics to teach the automobile trades in a real commercial auto service complex. That’s backed up with the latest special education and social skills thinking to help young people learn real marketable skills.

Then we have the teaching environment. Once again, the neurodiverse are showing the way for everyone, and it’s a path humanity trod for thousands of years until quite recently.

People with autism often have sharper senses than the average person. For example, we may notice the flicker of fluorescent lights. Fluorescent lights are everywhere in our workplaces and schools, shining that cold greenish-white light. No one believes they are better; they are there because they are cheap. They are also helping some of us fail.

Studies have shown that neurodiverse people are stressed by flickering lights, harsh noises, and other environmental insults. When that happens, we lose the ability to concentrate, or become short tempered. Some of us may have to leave the room for more peaceful surroundings. None of those things are conducive to classroom success.

Progressive schools accommodate us with more natural environments—similar to what our ancestors knew. We talk about this as if it’s a way to accommodate people with disabilities. But who in his right mind would choose to be in a harshly lit, noisy, or foul smelling place when there was an open, natural alternative? Once again, special ed shows the way to make things better for everyone. We neurodiverse people may be more sensitive, but it’s hard to believe everyone’s not affected at some level.

The final thing I’d like to challenge is the all-or-nothing bet many people make, when they enter our education system. The risk is strikingly clear when we consider people with developmental challenges.

Anyone who looks at the graduation and employment statistics for people with autism is bound to be disappointed or frightened. Barely half of us graduate high school. Even fewer stay the course to attain a college degree. When we go to work, we tend to get stuck on the bottom rung, if we get onto the ladder at all.

Here’s an example of how it happens. A parent or counselor talks to an autistic child who’s interested in cars.

She’s told by the adults that the best goal for her is becoming a mechanical engineer at a car company. So she struggles with high school, knowing she has to get into a four-year college. And once she gets the bachelor’s, she’ll go on to grad school because the good design jobs all require a graduate degree

Here’s the problem. Depending on whose statistics you believe, the odds of getting that master’s degree are between one in five and one in twenty. Meanwhile, high school is not teaching her any practical skills. Her high school—like most today—is focused on test scores. She’s spending the high school years learning how to pass college entrance exams.

Once she’s in college, she’s going to take core courses in many subjects, most of which have nothing to do with car design. However, all are needed to get into grad school, which is the whole point of the four-year program.

Only in grad school does she begin doing independent work that actually relates to cars. Hopefully, her master’s thesis catches the eye of a recruiter and her dream is fulfilled. But what if it’s not?

If I were a betting man, I would not lay a couple hundred grand—the typical cost of that education—on that outcome. Why? Because it is an all or nothing bet. If she drops out anywhere in the program her job prospects are little better than if she just quit high school in eleventh grade. That is the hard truth.

It does not have to be that way.

Instead of betting all on the master’s degree, we could hedge our bets every single year. When you look at the statistics that seems to make a lot more sense. Here’s what I’d propose.

Add more hands-on learning opportunities at both the high school and college level. Teach practical skills in high school, more social skills, and change the college admission standards to reflect that rebalancing. Encourage teens to find their gifts and interests early, and teach skills that relate to those interests every year.

Keep this as a goal: If a student goes on to college, great. But send them out of high school with solid job skills no matter what. Ensure every high school graduate has what he or she needs to earn a livable wage, even without continuing in school.

Let’s build up our community college system, which is the closest thing we have to hands on learning in college today. By moving more students through community college on the way to a four-year degree we teach even more real life skills, and increase the odds of a student who can make a living, whether he continues on or not.

Finally, let’s build support and transition programs in our four year schools and our grad schools, to help students who are different fit in and find their gifts. Primary and secondary schools are already very good at finding our disabilities. Let’s make high school and college the place people go to find their gifts

We’re actually taking our own first steps in that direction, right here. I’m proud to be part of William and Mary, home to the first neurodiversity program at a major American university.

By teaching neurodiversity we believe we will broaden the understanding of our entire student population. We hope to prepare tomorrow’s graduates to support neurodiverse people through their careers in in psychology, medicine, government, education, and the law.

We also recognize a large but as-yet-unidentified neurodiverse population right here in our school. With what we know of prevalence and the range of neurodiverse conditions William & Mary may be home to 1,000 neurodiverse students. We want to support them more effectively, and we want to build a sense of pride and community because they are special people and part of a special program.

William & Mary is the perfect place to begin this revolution. When colleges were just beginning, the great institutions taught specialties like philosophy or theology hands-on alongside what we now call a liberal arts education.

At a high school level, we're following this path at the TCS Auto Program in Springfield, MA, as we teach the auto trade to special ed students in the midst of an actual working auto repair complex. That's the modern-day equivalent of apprenticing in the blacksmith's shop!

So what can you do? Push your schools to discuss these key ideas:

  • Teach people real usable work skills at every step of the education process—in high school, college, and grad school. Make sure tomorrow’s students have the skills to live whenever they step off the education bus. Don’t bet everything on that final degree because a graduate education just is not for everyone.
  • Teach people in a comfortable environment, with real examples, and things they can handle and understand with the guidance of teachers.
  • Make sure every high school graduate has a basic competency in social and communication skills. For those on the edge, that’s going mean more than any other current core skill.
  • Help students get organized and find their true gifts. When we’re doing what we love the behavioral problems that plague todays schools go away.

Let’s get a conversation going, just like the organic food people have done, and let’s make tomorrow’s education system work for everyone.

Thanks for reading,

John Elder Robison

Want to watch this talk instead of reading? It's part of the 2014 William & Mary TEDx series, and you can see it here

John Elder Robison is an autistic adult, and the bestselling author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, and Raising Cubby. He’s a founder of the TCS Auto Program - a high school program in Springfield, MA, and he's Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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