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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Are grading trends hurting socially awkward children?

By Katharine Beals

[This article was originally posted on The Atlantic. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.]

Eccentric children -- including those on the autism spectrum -- often have unique academic abilities. But today's teaching philosophies are making it hard for them to shine.

Children have long been graded not just for academics, but also for elements of "character" -- particularly behavior and emotional maturity. However, in the last few decades, socially eccentric children have seen their awkwardness or aloofness factored into their grades in math, language arts, and social studies. Ironically, this trend has coincided with a rise in diagnoses of autistic spectrum disorders.

For children on the autism spectrum, new social studies curricula pose a particular challenge. Once restricted to readings, worksheets, and essays on history, government, and politics, the subject increasingly requires students to reflect on their connections within their local communities. They are asked to present projects to their classmates (even in primary school), spend much of class time working in groups, and evaluate scenarios such as this one, from a worksheet for 3rd graders:

Fulfilling this assignment means reading the characters' faces, deducing the social dynamics, and assuming multiple perspectives -- tasks that amount to an informal screening test for the core social deficit of autistic spectrum disorders. Fail this assignment, and chances are you're somewhere on the spectrum.

Language arts classes, meanwhile, tend to favor books by authors like Judy Blume and Jerry Spinelli: realistic fiction starring recognizable school-aged peers in social settings. To the socially adept, these books are highly accessible. But the socially oblivious might find themselves unable to answer the reading comprehension questions, many of which require social inferences similar to those in the social studies sheet.

In writing assignments as well, today's language arts classes favor realistic fiction (often explicitly disallowing fantasy) along with personal accounts of everyday life. For the autistic child, written expression might already be difficult; assignments that presuppose an ability to articulate personal feelings or create psychologically realistic characters, dialogue, and social interactions, can be tremendously bewildering and frustrating.

Some of these writing challenges extend to today's math classes. To earn full credit on math problems, students often must verbally explain the thought processes behind their mathematical solutions. But one common characteristic among people on the autism spectrum is a nonverbal approach to mathematics, Many autistic children have mathematical skills that far exceed their verbal skills. But even when their verbal skills are on par with their math skills, they tend to solve problems nonverbally, performing much of the work rapidly and automatically in their heads. When they're asked to explain their answers, they not only might struggle to put their thoughts into words, they might have actually bypassed the thought processes that could be verbalized by their peers.

For the same reason, autistic children struggle with the kind of group work required at many schools, particularly those with smaller classrooms, better-behaved students, and better reputations. As in other subjects, math teachers assess students, in part, on their ability to cooperate with their peers. But working in math groups is challenging for autistic children, not only because of their deficient social skills, but because they can often do the math tasks entirely on their own -- and faster than their group mates can. When they're expected to help their peers, or at least to wait for them to finish, they might become impatient and irritable, or bored and tuned out. Either way, they will lose points for cooperation.

Meanwhile, the kind of challenging solo work in which mildly autistic students have excelled is becoming less and less common. Across the curriculum, the traditional essay or problem set has been upstaged by group projects and multimedia presentations. Consider, for example, how many points in this popular science evaluation rubric come from skills in oral presentation:

One might argue that the new emphasis on sociability is precisely what autistic spectrum students require. Don't they, more than anyone else, need to develop their communication and collaborative skills? And in our increasingly social 21st century, aren't these skills more important than ever before -- both for life in general, and for jobs in particular?

The problem is that the kinds of jobs that autistic students aspire to -- for example, computer programming, engineering, writing, and the visual arts -- tend not to involve the sorts of group dynamics that occur in K-12 classrooms. And the social skills training that they do indeed require are best left to trained professionals. Well-run social skills groups for children on the autism spectrum are out there -- just not in most K-12 schools.

By traditional academic standards, children with the mild form of autism currently known as Asperger's syndrome are often exceptionally gifted. They tend to have unusual numerical and spatial reasoning skills that lead to superior achievement in math and science. Many also have large vocabularies, encyclopedic knowledge, and strong analytical abilities, making them exceptional writers of social studies essays. Some have imaginations that lead to unusual creativity in fantasy or science fiction writing.

A generation ago, before current trends in K-12 education took hold, many Asperger's children would have sailed through school without being downgraded for their social deficiencies. Nowadays, even in subjects where they used to excel, their grades are declining. And so are their prospects for appropriately challenging and rewarding education -- and careers -- in the future.

Thanks to the official Asperger's diagnosis, some parents of these students have managed to secure accommodations that exempted them from many of these new requirements. But in May, when the 5th edition of America's official manual of the psychiatric disorders comes out, the syndrome won't be there. Instead of receiving an Asperger's diagnosis, those with milder symptoms will simply be classified as having an autism spectrum disorder. Some studies have suggested that under the new system, the milder cases may go unidentified -- a result that could further impede those students' ability to thrive in today's classrooms.

Either way, brightening the prospects of our official or unofficial "Aspies" isn't difficult. It means restoring traditional, academic pathways through school, and allowing them, wherever possible, to work independently. And it means leaving the social skills training -- along with the autistic spectrum screening tests -- to the professionals.

Katharine Beals is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and an adjunct professor at the Drexel University School of Education. She is the author of Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School.

Comment from Laurie Rogers: If you would like to submit a guest column on public education, please write to me at . Please limit columns to about 1,000 words, give or take a few. Columns might be edited for length, content or grammar. You may remain anonymous to the public, however I must know who you are. All decisions on guest columns are the sole right and responsibility of Laurie Rogers.


Anonymous said...

A very timely article and I hope teachers and administrators will read. Interestedly enough, in today's world of K-12 my father would be labeled Aspers as would my husband and possibly myself. It seems to be just another way to hold back bright individuals and level the field.

R. Craigen said...

This is the second time I've read this article -- first saw it in The Atlantic. It makes some very important points. I will add that mathematics tends to have been the only domain in which some of these children experience success. But the methods being aggressively promoted as "progressive" in North American classrooms tramples on that. I was one of those children. It is not only those with social disorders, but those who are strongly introverted, those who are very bright, or those who are academically slow, or who have speech impediments, who are harmed by this unnatural emphasis on social skills as the primary gateway to academic success. The main demographic who perform well under these conditions are the center group. This is a deliberately imposed recipe for academic mediocrity; a penalty for the bright, slow or socially awkward, and a magnifying glass on those who don't fit in well for any reason. It may "narrow the achievement gap", for what it's worth -- but at what cost?

Burma Williams said...

i agree strongly with R. Craigen's observations about autism and all this "socialability" requirement in schools. this is just another was to keep bright kids from shining because the mediocre feel threatened by anyone who can really think. This group of those who are afraid include especially the majority of teachers, educators, and administrators. They are afraid that we will find out that they know very little and are cheating our kids.

As to a diagnosis of autism or asbergers, that should be left to psychologists and not to untrained people like teachers, and administrators and educators.

This is just another way to label and ostracize certain students. I do believe in extra help for students who have legitmate learning problems. But labels don't help. And most school districts don't know how to help such students. They should know how, but they don't.

I have taught in the classroom in both math and physics, tutored for over 25 years, and have seen trends and junk come and go not only in math but in other areas, too. This group work crap comes from the USA's poor showing on international math tests and someome decided that we should emulate Japanese manufacturing models for teaching math. Why? Someone needed a topic for a dissertation or to be hired as an superintendent. "New ideas" is the mantra for American education. I am in favor of new ideas if they help. But just change for change's sake is stupid.

As the high school kids I tutored used to say: keep it simple stupid. KISS

Burma Williams

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to think of a professional career in which one wouldn't benefit from collaboration with one's peers. In fact, most professionals are EXPECTED to collaborate and do not sit alone to do their tasks individually.
I'm a math teacher and some of my best growth has come from the benefit of being able to bounce ideas off others, and collaborate with other math teachers on everything from unit order to strategies for teaching specific content or modifications for specific student needs, etc. on and on.
I'd think having an education in which students were able to benefit from collaboration as well as be better prepared for a professional life of cooperating with one's colleagues would not only be a valued aspect of a child's k-12 experience but an EXPECTED aspect of it.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To Unknown:

A K-12 classroom is not a "professional" setting. The abilities, opportunities, responsibilities, goals and strategies are not comparable.

There are times to learn to work collaboratively in a group, and to achieve consensus on group work. The K-12 math classroom is generally not that time. This is well-evidenced by the awful results of the last 30 years of reform math and excessive constructivism.

However, I’m always open to new information. Do you have any scientifically conducted, replicable research that shows better math outcomes from group work and collaboration than from direct instruction and practicing to mastery? If so, it would be great if you could share that. I have a wealth of evidence that shows otherwise.

Meanwhile, the point of this excellent article from Katharine Beals is to say that some children suffer especially from the K-12 emphasis on social acumen in grading. I have long thought that those children also suffer especially from excessive group work.

What is your proposition for those children? Are you thinking they should just pull up their socks and get with the program?

Anonymous said...

I would just like to add that the socially awkward child is often much more noticed for his differences in a direct instruction model when he raises his hand to ask off topic questions or make unusual/bizzare comments or observations for the entire class to hear and giggle about.

Laurie H. Rogers said...

To Anonymous:

a) The classroom environment is up to the teacher. If the teacher doesn't tolerate disrespectful behavior toward students who ask questions, then students will be less likely to engage in it.

b) Your comment suggests that socially awkward children ask bizarre questions. All children sometimes ask bizarre questions, and so do adults. All questions should be welcomed and treated with respect. Oftentimes, socially awkward children are exceptionally bright, and they ask brilliant questions no one else has thought of. In a discovery classroom, when would that child be able to ask that question? And who, in a discovery classroom, would be able to answer it? Not the classmates.

c) But if you think a discovery classroom is easier or friendlier than direct instruction classrooms, please read this article - an interview I did of my teenager, who has been in multiple discovery classrooms, and with all types of learners.

If you have research to show that a discovery classroom is easier on children, I would appreciate it if you could share it. Meanwhile, I would ask you to step away from today's education theory regarding discovery and grading, and look at their actual effect on the children.