I have become a real bore at parties. (Ok. True confession: I’ve always been a bore at parties, but I’ve recently upped my game.) I can’t stop observing and commenting on the ways that our educational system lets down kids that are different-minded or out-of-sync with their peers.
If a child’s development is out-of-sync with their peers, it matters.
If it’s really out of sync it REALLY matters.
I told you: single-minded bore.
While it seems to be all I talk about some days, I hadn’t even heard the phrase “asynchronous development” until a few years ago, when my now seven-year-old son was four, and my wife and I were trying to figure out what to do about kindergarten. While we support public schools, our local one was near failing. So, we were exploring our options and had found a couple of schools we liked.
I assumed all that was required to satisfy a kid’s educational needs was supportive parents, high-quality teachers, and a school with decent resources. School is, by nature, boring. Get used to it. Whatever weaknesses a school has can be compensated for later.
I had completely forgotten my own troubled history in one of California’s best public school systems (back in the 60’s when California’s schools were the envy of the nation). Or, rather, the experience had been so mortifying that I had intentionally put it out of my mind–it was a period of esteem-challenging extended personal failure I’d still rather forget.
Then, I met Anne Beneventi. Thank goodness. After meeting my then four-year-old son as part of the application process to a local private school (an interview that turned into an extended monologue about superheroes and ninjas), she asked to speak with us and introduced us to the concept of asynchronous development and the consequences of failing to be mindful of it.
I was skeptical and told her so. She handed me a paper about the tension between socialization (conforming to the group) and being true to yourself (social development) when a child is out of sync with with their peers.
When I read it, I cried. I handed it to my wife who also teared up. I felt like the paper was written about me. My wife felt like it described her school experience.
I realized for the first time that my transformation from kindergarten-loving, gap-toothed kid to sullen eighth-grader lying under a blanket on the floor of my mother’s station wagon on the way to the lock-up ward of a local psychiatric hospital was an extreme but foreseeable consequence of unaddressed asynchronous development.
You see. Here’s the thing:
Not all kids are the same.
They don’t grow at identical rates. They don’t learn at identical rates. While most kids grow and develop at similar rates, there are outliers that develop at a very different rate from the norm. And therein lies the rub. There are kids, though quite rare, that start reading on their own at 2 or 3 or perform multi-digit multiplication and division in their head by age five.
One thing seems obvious (but apparently it’s not because most schools and most teacher training live in denial of it): when you stick a kid in a classroom based on what year the kid was born rather than on what the kid knows or can do, things can go wrong, sometimes terribly wrong, if the kid’s development is significantly out-of-sync with their classmates’.
Imagine a five-year-old who has gone from reading Hop on Pop to The Hobbit in less than a year and speaks with the vocabulary of an eleven-year-old. Or, imagine a kid the same age who is teaching him or herself algebra and geometry while their classmates are learning to add and subtract single-digit numbers. When these kids try to communicate with their age-mates about the subjects of their greatest enthusiasm, they are often greeted by bewildered looks and blank stares.
In the majority of school districts, these kids will be trapped for years in classrooms that have nothing to offer them. While their classmates are getting the opportunity to learn, they are denied the opportunity. They are stuck filling out worksheets far below their skill level. They are stuck sitting in classes for hours a day watching other kids get a chance to learn.
Not only are they bored, but they are surrounded by classmates that don’t relate to them or share their interests or passions — classmates may find them freakish or weird which in turn may make them think of themselves as freakish and weird. They may try to fit in by hiding who they are, and if they do, since who they are isn’t going to go away, they may eventually find themselves in crisis.
A child does not have to be as out-of-sync as the aforementioned kids for a host of negative consequences to kick in…eventually. A child need be only just out-of-sync enough that the classroom does not engage them, just out-of-sync enough that school is a daily bore. In some ways, such kids are the most at-risk. Their asynchrony goes unnoticed, and everything seems fine until suddenly it’s not. These consequences are largely avoidable by acknowledging that these kids exist and have the same right to learn as their more-typical age-mates.
On Minds On Fire, I’ll be looking at asynchronous learners, their needs and how to meet those needs from a variety of perspectives as well as looking at related topics in neuroscience, pedagogy, psychology, public policy and more.
Next up will be Asynchronous Learners and the Right to Learn. Stay tuned!