THE BLOG
05/28/2013 05:20 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Aren't Schools for "Square Pegs" Also?

L. Todd's Rose's Square Peg should be required reading for all teachers and school reformers. Rose, who was diagnosed with ADHD, was an impulsive and disruptive high school dropout before he became a neuroscience expert at Harvard. The blurbs on the cover of Square Peg implied it was a "manifesto" for school reforms based on "Big Ideas" and "disruptive innovation," but it concludes in a balanced analysis of the positive and negative potential of technology.

Overall, I read Square Peg as more of a plea for old-fashioned educational and democratic values, embracing decency, dissent, creative insubordination, humor, and individuality, as well as a respect for science. Perhaps the biggest of its Big Ideas is "a student's ability to learn depends upon his or her emotional state, which itself depends on context." It also calls for a parent to help the child learn how to "fail well," and to "understand his or her variability."

Being an inner city teacher, I must add one qualification before enthusiastically praising Rose's call for personalized learning. He tells the story of Ben Foss, who was diagnosed with dyslexia and who is now a disability rights activist. When Foss was a child and sitting in the barber's chair, his mother respected his desire to not have a haircut, tipped the barber, and left the shop, despite being asked, "you're going to let a four-year-old tell you what to do?"

I strongly agree with the mother's answer, "It's his hair."

I strongly agree with Foss's subsequent conclusion that the purpose of education should not be teaching obedience, but that "it's to help you do what you want." I strongly disagree with his omission of the other side of the story, however. Education must also teach behaviors that keep each individual from preventing others from becoming what they want to be.

Similarly, I agree with the author's principal's actions after Rose punched a high school student who was bullying a friend. The principal gave him a one-day suspension and a discrete "thumbs-up." Had an inner city principal showed such leniency, though, it would have placed Rose and his friend in danger of retribution and contributed to a dangerous school environment.

That disclaimer aside, let's get back to the wisdom of Square Peg. Firstly, in contrast with the pseudo-science that informs the data-driven school "reform" movement, it is based on solid scientific methods. In contrast to market-driven "reformers" who want everyone to be on the same page of their standards-driven schemes, Rose benefited from teachers who encouraged dissent. In contrast to corporate reforms that use technological gimmicks, such as bogus "credit recovery" tutorials to "pass students on," Rose learned the old-fashioned way - by dealing with failure.

It is a sad irony that digital pioneers, who are themselves so creative, have funded "reforms" that have largely imposed educational monocultures, curriculum narrowing, and nonstop test prep on poor schools. (And don't get me started on the contemporary "teacher quality" movement that seems devoted to banning square pegs from the teaching profession.)

In contrast to the bubble-in accountability movement, which focuses on a narrow part of children's intellect, Rose focuses on the emotional side of learning. In contrast to "No Excuses!" "reformers" who see stress and punishment as good, Rose acknowledges that a little stress can help a person learn, but that too much stress prevents it. He gives no support to the technocrats who seek to impose the optimal amount of stress on all of our nation's students and educators.

Among the best successes described in Square Peg are mentorship and positive peer pressure. It also makes the case for high-quality pre-school for inner city kids where teachers learn to speak softly and help children feel secure. Teachers and parents must be trained to create positive feedback loops, but when they don't work, Rose advises, "try a few 'random acts of kindness.'" Build on children's strengths, he advises, but when remediation is necessary, at least help a child break free from one "cognitive unicycle" that keeps sabotaging him or her.

I especially loved Rose's advice to add "nuance to your curiosity about your child's behavior. ... Ask why he or she behaved that way in that context." Even better, never punish a child by using his "little islands of competence" [such as basketball] as "bargaining chips."

Rose does not overreach. He describes the potential of several hybrid learning technologies and the successes of a few charter schools. He also acknowledges Diane Ravitch's concern that technology will produce schools where, "the poor get computers [and] the rich will get computers and teachers."

Rose does not pull any punches in criticizing "the million dropout march," which is public education. But, neither does he resort to the blame game. Consequently, Square Peg reminds me of the great opportunity that was squandered when the contemporary school "reform" sought shortcuts in improving our complex educational system and thus made its command and control features even more brutal.

Rose seems to have the ear of several Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, however, so maybe they will heed his advice regarding our "endless variety of brains." If they read Square Peg, maybe corporate "reformers" will learn from their mistakes and stop trying to turn public schools into sped-up assembly lines preparing kids to be cogs in a Model T assembly line.

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