I would have to agree that America's public schools are not particularly shining examples of how to bring out the best in young people. Although thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers, aides, and administrators, a good number of schools end up teaching little more than obedience and conformity. Research by the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development concluded, "Many large middle grade schools function as mills that contain and process endless streams of students. Within them are masses of anonymous youth.... Such settings virtually guarantee that the intellectual and emotional needs of youth will go unmet." 21
One of the most penetrating critics of contemporary schooling is New York State's 1991 teacher of the year, John Gatto. "The school bell rings," he says, "and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to a different cell, where he learns that man and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.... It is absurd and antilife to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class.... It is absurd and antilife to be part of a system that compels you to listen to a stranger reading poetry when you want to learn to construct buildings, or to sit with a stranger discussing the construction of buildings when you want to read poetry. It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your youth, in an institution that allows you no
For the entire school day, students are under constant surveillance. They have no private time or private space. Many teachers do their best to be humane, but pupils are typically expected to sit still for hour upon hour, and to do whatever they are told. This is not only totally unnatural, and profoundly frustrating for children; it also inhibits learning. Human beings are programmed by millions of years of evolution to develop by moving, touching, and being involved in life's tasks.
There are alternative approaches to learning which involve children as active participants and do not produce boredom and restlessness. An example is the classroom of Wendy Borton, an elementary school teacher in the Shoreline District's Room Nine Program in Seattle, Washington. To teach her ten- to twelve-year-old youngsters about government, she got them involved with an issue that was relevant to their lives. In September 1992, when a bill to ban corporal punishment in the state's public schools was to be introduced (for the ninth year in a row), the students began researching the issue, reading and discussing articles both in support of corporal punishment and opposed to it.23
They learned that it was legal to inflict physical punishment on schoolchildren that would be considered too severe for prisoners in the state penitentiary. They learned that when an adult hits another adult, it is usually called "assault" and is a crime, but when an adult hits a child, it is usually called "discipline" and is often considered acceptable. They learned that the spanking of pupils by teachers is illegal in every European country, and that in Sweden, television spots advise children of their right not to be spanked. They learned that among the world's industrialized countries, only the United States and South Africa have persevered in the practice.24
The surgeon general has pleaded for a reduction in spanking as a matter of public health, saying such a shift would decrease the cultural acceptance of violence. Yet in 1993, a poll of primary-care doctors published in the AMA Joumal found that 70 percent of family practitioners and 59 percent of pediatricians still supported corporal punishment.25
After thorough discussions and many heated debates, during which their teacher remained steadfastly neutral and allowed the youngsters to come to their own conclusions, the class decided that corporal punishment should not be allowed in schools.
On February 2, 1993, four students from the class traveled to Olym pie to testify before the state House Education Committee. Saying that "schools are for learning, not hitting," the youngsters urged that the bill be passed. At the conclusion of the children's testimony, the comnlittee~s chairperson congratulated them on their excellent presentation.
The bill passed the house, but faced a much tougher battle in the Senate, where it had been soundly defeated in previous years. On March 19, 1993, four different students made the trip to Olympia, this time to testify before the Senate Education Committee. When the senators asked them what teachers could do to maintain order if the option of corporal punishment were removed, the kids showed they had done their homework. One observer recalls: "The students presented several productive, nonviolent ways in which their school deals with behavior problems, including behavior contracts based on agreements among teachers, students, and parents; loss of privileges when contracts are broken, and rewards for achieving contract goals; instruction in creative conflict resolution; and allowing students to help set classroom policy by establishing rules and the consequences for breaking them."
On April 6, 1993, the Senate passed the measure abolishing corporal punishment. Governor Mike Lowry subsequently signed it into law.
Every Child is Special--Every Child is Unique
Some pupils who are labeled as "hyperactive" may simply have a different learning style than the one dictated by the school environment. Thomas Armstrong, author of Awakening YOUT Child's Natural Genius, notes: "Research has found that most of the children at risk for ADHD labeling are actually quite good at paying attention.... They often possess superior'incidental attention' abilities. They pay attention to everything except what they are 'supposed to be' paying attention to. In the classroom, they hear Joey tell Suzy about what happened to Billy during recess. They see the funny drawings that Ed made on the chalkboard before the beginning of class-drawings the teacher has not yet noticed. They observe their own inner thoughts, including daydreams.... Is this sort of attentional style truly a disorder? Probably not. After all, infants and toddlers engage in some of the most powerful learning they will ever experience in their lives They master the complex tasks of walking and talking by letting their attention be drawn to points of interest and by absorbing knowledge in incidental ways. Millions of years of evolution may have endowed the human being with this inborn drive toward spontaneous exploration, curiosity, and the need for variety and novelty, so that a person would have the lifelong capacity to search out new possibilities-a decided asset when outer conditions change and new forms of adaptation are required. And children labeled ADHD may be carriers of this special trait."76
Some children labeled hyperactive are multiscanners. These children are adept at what anthropologist Jules Henry called polyphasic learning-absorbing information through several channels at once.27 Paying attention to many things at the same time is natural for them, and in many environments would be a great asset. But not in a classroom where "central-task" learning requires them to pay attention to one thing at a time. Their natural learning styles do not involve organizing their experience in a linear way, and they can easily feel bewildered when asked to do so. Yet, when exposed to integrated thematic instruction programs (including the use of art, music, field trips, and other multisensory approaches), these children often emerge as not only capable, but brilliant, imaginative, and creative.28
A dreamy child may be destined to a career as an artist or inventor. Asking such a child to be as detail oriented as someone whose future lies in accounting is like asking everyone to wear the same size shoes.
In this regard, a particular child comes to mind, by the name of Alva. His teacher was a minister, and an observer left us this record of their interaction: "The minister, of course, taught by rote, a method from which Alva was inclined to disassociate himself. He alternated between letting his mind travel to distant places and putting his body in perpetual motion in his seat. The Reverend, finding him inattentive and unruly, swished his cane. Alva, afraid and out of place, held up a few weeks, and then ran away from school."79
It is fortunate that young Alva lived some years ago, before the medicalization of childhood was under way. His full name, by the way, was Thomas Alva Edison, and today, he would almost certainly be diagnosed with ADHD and given Ritalin. If he had been, we might still be reading by kerosene lamps.
Ritalin helps children to conform to externally imposed Naples and regulations But I have serious questions about drugging children to make them more obedient to authority. What happens to those young people \vEose special destiny lies in being innovators, who carry it within themsel~ es to challenge abuses of power in order to help create a better world?
What if young Martin Luther King, Jr., had been drugged as a child? Would the world have ever been touched by his dream, and had the op portunity to make it come true? What if young Rosa Parks had been sub jected to such treatment? Would she have grown into the woman who had the courage to keep her seat on the bus that auspicious day in Alabama? Young Thomas Paine was quite a rebel as a child. If he had been subjected to Ritalin, there might not even be a United States. If a young William Shakespeare had found himself in the hands of modern medicine, I doubt that the world would ever have heard him remind us, "To shine own self be true."
I'm not saying that the children diagnosed ADHD are all potential Thoreaus, marching to a different and higher drummer. I recognize that some of these children may benefit from medication, and I sympathize with teachers who must cope with certain young people who seem prenaturally gifted at bringing chaos into a classroom. But I also know that some of these youngsters come from very difficult home situations, and act out at school the pain they carry. Tragically, some of these children are the very ones the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect was referring to in the recent statement, "Every year, hundreds of thousands of children are starved, abandoned, burned and severely beaten, raped, and sodomized, berated and belittled."
Some children are rebellious because within them there is creative genius that has yet to find its expression. Others misbehave because they have been badly ill treated. And others who have difficulties in school are simply youngsters whose unique neurological functioning and natural learning styles are incompatible with an authoritarian school system. For one reason or another, many of the children who are diagnosed as having ADHD are poorly suited to the mass production assembly line system of education. When these youngsters are permitted to make more choices about their learning activities, and to feel a sense of control over their learning processes, the results can be stunning.~°
"The wildest colts," said the Greek philosopher Themistocles, "make the best horses."
Alternatives to Drugs
I see great importance in respecting young people and providing them an
environment in which they can express themselves as they learn, because
I believe that is the best way to raise them to be self-reliant and self-respecting We awaken in our children the same attitude toward themselves that we hold toward them.
When my son, Ocean, was five, we moved to Victoria, British Columbia, so that he could attend an experimental alternative public school called Sundance Elementary School. There, the school day was divided into periods, during each of which the students could choose from six different activities ranging from physical play to art to a range of academics. Instead of grading the students, the teachers had ongoing discussions and dialogues with the children to help them set their own goals and evaluate themselves. Parental involvement was high. Remarkably, there seemed to be no drop-off in academic achievement among the youngsters, though not all learned at the same pace.