Monday, November 12, 2007

The Red Herring Question: Social Skills and Schools Today

I am home again after a whirlwind tour of the mid-west.
I will have lots to say later about everything and pictures to post, too!
But I want to get an article written for the Carnival of Homeschooling and the deadline is fast approaching.

I am, as you know, working on a Ph.D. in Special Education with an emphasis in the Neurospychology of Twice-Exceptional People with ASD. And whenever I tell colleagues from around the country in gifted ed that I am homeschooling my gifted-AS kid, I get the usual question. You all know what it is. You have probably heard it many times. Shall we repeat it together?

I have taken to answering the question with a question: Are schools today a place where students actually are taught or learn appropriate social skills? The question usually causes a long silence, since it requires the original asker to actually think about her assumptions. And then I begin to hear answers with references to rudeness, bullying, lockstep age-grading, reduced recess and lunch time, silent lunches, and so forth. All of these things are barriers to social interaction in schools and social interaction is how social skills are learned. It is an amazing experience each time this happens to me. Here are educators who have questioned many assumptions about the needs of gifted learners, but still need a prompt to think about their assumptions that school is where children learn social skills.

Yesterday, I was vindicated! I went to hear Dr. Sanford Cohn, an educational psychologist specializing in the psychology of gifted children from Arizona State University discuss the issue. His talk had a provocative title. In fact, it was so provocative that I almost did not go. I was wondering if it was going to be one of those presentations that is inflammatory but not scholarly.

For the curious among you, the title was: Good Intentions, Unanticipated Consequences: Creating a Generation of Brilliant Psychopaths.

See what I mean?

Dr. Cohn sat at a table and held the mike in his hand. He did not have slides. He did not pace, bluster or entertain. His voice was even and measured, and displayed just an edge of passion. And the audience listened intently and silently. We were on the edges of our seats, leaning forward to catch every word. Because we knew that what he had to say was true and important.

He started out by discussing the requirements for learning for every child--those who are intellectually gifted and those with average and above average intelligence. And those are novelty and complexity i.e. we have to get their interest and sustain it. He then went on to discuss the disaster of the concept of inclusion--something I will discuss at length at another time--which is the idea that one teacher can differentiate curriculum for a full range of students in one classroom. At this point he condemned the PC ideas that underpin these philosophies and discussed the social consequences for, but not limited to, gifted kids.

His take-home message is that when the system refuses to use effective placement and pacing to meet the intellectual needs of any child (and remember, school is supposed to be about meeting educational needs, not social engineering), you are telling that child, "You don't matter" at the level of action, even though your words may be otherwise. And the kids see the hypocrisy. And the more educators protest otherwise, the more we look like "self-deluded fools" in the eyes of our kids. In fact, the current institutions, politcal, social and educational, that society holds up as exemplars, are overwhelming our children with hypocrisy. We have a media that devalues the individual and uses sexual overtones and imagery to sell anything. We have politicians that lie to the people with impunity. And an educational establishment that is, in effect, "educating for contempt and disdain."
In fact, said Dr. Cohn, we could not do a better job or this if we had actually set out to do this on purpose.

In this mileau, it is very difficult to teach ordinary social manners and mores. Studies of the brain--particularly the recent discovery of mirror neurons and their effect on imitation suggest that human beings do not, in general, learn to "do as I say, not as I do."

As Dr. Cohn finished his presentation, I was thinking: This is the overarching reason why I took my son out of school. There are a lot of small reasons--they could not meet his needs, give him the individual attention he needed for his AS or giftedness, etc. But over all, in the eyes of the educational establishment, my son, as an individual, is unimportant. Their social engineering goals--however poorly founded--are more important than his education. And in that environment, learning appropriate social skills--compassion and caring for others as individuals and the manners and graciousness to show it--is impossible.

The question of social skills in schools--an environment in which children are often told one thing and see another--is one that educators ought to ponder themselves before they impose it on the one million or more homeschoolers in the nation. As parents, we are taking the responsibility to place our children in environments where they will hear and see how respect, graciousness, caring and compassion are implemented in every day life.


Amie said...

Great post!

momof3feistykids said...

It sounds like Dr. Cohn's presentation was quite interesting (though it's not clear to me what it had to do with the title :-) ) I am interested in your views on inclusion. My daughter was in an inclusive PS class, labeled as both learning disabled and gifted. I have mixed feelings and opinions about the issue, and am interested in reading yours.

No Apology said...

Hello Elisheva - Good post. We're on the same wave-length today, so I linked your post to mine. I just happen to have taken my material from my favorite teacher, John Taylor Gatto, circa 1990.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Amie--I am soon heading over to your place to discovery how you and yours are doing!

Momof3--that always makes me think of 7of9 somehow--Dr. Cohn said that the title is intended to get people thinking. He tried a title that ended with "brilliant Machiavellians" but he thought that it was not entirely fair to Machiavelli, and so he kept the name. He did talk a good deal about gifted kids--and he has been involved with studies of the brilliant and evil Unabomber, as well as gifted kids in juvenile detention in three cities in the US. Ted Kaczinski was a psychopath, but most of the kids he studied are not. They are kids who have contempt and disdain for society and its rules and mores, however.

Cohn also talked about the kids in school--kids who are academically gifted---that is kids whose best area is school and they hate it just as passionately as the kids who do not do well in school.

Hi, No Apology--I lurk at your blog quite often, but have been very busy of late and so have not been commenting as much as usual. I am really glad you stopped by. JTG has become my favorite iconoclast!

christinemm said...

Totally off topic to this post---

I have nominated you for the Homeschool Blog Awards in the category of
8. ‘Live-What-You-Believe’ Homeschool Blog

Since you were away did you miss the announcement that the nominations are open? They will close later this week, go check it out if you are interested.

There has been a little controversy with some bloggers sharing negative thoughts can be found in a recent post at Principled Discovery. Since she covered it I chose not to say the same thing.

A new thing this year is each blog must get 3 nominations in the same category in order to 'qualify' for the 'finals' to be able to be voted upon to possibly win.

I doubt I'll win but I'm taking the time to nominate my favorite blogs for an award.

And today I was updating my sidebar links and added you in to my list of blogs I read regularly since I do check in on you reguarly!

Have a great day.

Summer said...

Great post! It certainly made me think. I know of at least 3 students from my class who were labeled gifted and who did outstanding work on an academic level, yet were the typical "bad kids" and held no respect for the rules or for those who enforced them. Certainly lots to think about!

Linda said...

Outstanding post. I google searched your site after you left a comment on mine and BOY am I glad I did!! I will definitely be back. (and likely be sending others your way!)