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Reinventing Our Schools

by Thom Hartmann

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This article by Thom Hartmann was prompted by an article in the New York Times science section (October 31, 2000) that clearly laid out what have become the two dominant world-views of ADD/ADHD. 

The article, entitled "Making a Plus from the Deficit in ADD" (and available on the web at http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/31/science/31ADD.html), opens with the story of Michael Zane, the founder of the Kryptonite Bike LockThom Hartmann Corporation, who categorically says that, "I don't think I could have been as successful without it [ADHD]."

Psychologist Lynn Weiss is quoted saying, "I am so glad I have ADD!" because it gives her special skills and strengths.

Later in the article psychologist Russell Barkley is quoted as saying that the "trend" of trying to find useful or good things about ADD is "dangerous."  There's nothing of value in ADD/ADHD, he says (and has said in other publications, including an editorial citing "a failure in the evolution" as the cause for ADHD).

These are the two worldviews -- it's a difference or a disease/failure.

My take on it, which is best detailed in a book that just came out last month ("Thom Hartmann's Complete Guide to ADHD") is that it's a "context disorder." 

Left-handedness is another, for example.  If a left-handed person were put in a room with nothing but right-handed-required tools, she would have a problem "succeeding."  In the years when my parents were in school, it was common to tie the left arm of left-handed children to their bodies, so they'd be "forced to learn to be normal" and use their right hands.  Enormous psychological wounding was done in the name of enforcing "normalcy."

Similarly, I believe our assembly-line-like schools, where everybody is expected to learn the same material, in the same way, at the same time and speed, can be incredibly wounding for any children who are "different" in their learning style. 

Gifted children, kinesthetic learners, ADD/ADHD children -- a whole gamut of "non-standard-factory- issue" kids are daily wounded by our schools, leading us to the point where in just the few minutes you've taken to read this email, the odds are at least one schoolchild in America has committed suicide.

Unwittingly, our schools have become an institution that is often the greatest agent of wounding for these children, which is why Underwood Books incorporated the entire manuscript of my unpublished book "A Parent's Guide To Reinventing Our Schools" into the new "Thom Hartmann's Complete Guide" book (as the "Education" section).  (You can find more information about this topic in my "online rants" from my webpage.)

There are huge individual variations in children and adults. For us to try to put any group into a neat little box and categorically state that they are of less function (and thus, implicitly, of less value) than "the rest of us" is to diminish all of our humanity.

Waking Kids Up In School

The most common theory about what’s wrong with our schools is that there’s something wrong with our kids.  It’s rarely stated straight-out like that, and, in fact, usually is never stated out-loud in political debates that seem to center on standards, funding, staffing, and other peripheral issues. But when you look at what’s really happening in the schools and what’s being done with kids, it’s quickly apparent that this is the primary theory being played out.

It’s a theory particularly in favor with the medical, educational, and pharmacological establishments, and explanations range from neurological disorders such as ADD to the effect of too much television- watching. Whatever the mechanism, though, most of these theories boil down to one basic conclusion: today’s kids don’t have self-discipline and can’t control themselves — they lack what’s known in psychological circles as “executive function.”

This assumption leads to a whole range of “solutions.” 

Medicate them to re-balance their neurotransmitters and thus activate their self-control centers. Use point systems to give them incentives for appropriate behavior. Put them on additive-free diets, throw out the TV, give them food supplements, or chiropractic adjustments. Discipline them more severely, perhaps even including spankings or whippings.  Put them in highly structured, very quiet classrooms with few distractions.

What all of these assume is that there is some failure of inhibition on the part of the child: some inability of an unknown but presumed master-center within the brain, whose job is supposed to be to assume and maintain control.

But what if the real problem was the exact opposite of that?

Consider: any parent will agree that ADHD kids have no problem learning video games. They have no problem concentrating on them. They have no problem paying attention to them.  The same goes for skateboarding, dancing, hanging out with friends, and a thousand other things that kids do outside of the classroom.  Or learning to walk and speak, which are highly complex activities, with multiple levels of structure.

To use the analogy of food and eating, what if the problem is that our ADHD kids are always “hungry”?

For example, if we took 100 adults and split them into two groups, and 50 of them ate every day, all they wanted, for two weeks, while the other 50 fasted on only water, would we see a difference in behavior between the two groups if they were both presented with tables covered with food?  Of course! And would that difference be the result of the fasting group having “poor inhibitory mechanisms?”  No reasoning person would think so.

So what if our kids are “getting fed” in all the things that they enjoy doing, but not “getting fed” in school? What if what we’re looking at here is not a failure of self-control, but an over-intensity of hunger?  That the problem is not the Executive Ego hand from above, but the viscerally craving Id from below?

The Hunger for Aliveness 

When looking at psychological models such as Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs or Freud’s notion of the ego and its collateral parts, one question escapes answer. 

Why do people take risks? 

Why do skydivers jump out of airplanes?  Why do people seek out the most dangerous and difficult mountains to climb? Why do speeders drive so fast?  Why do people experiment with drugs or have sexual affairs?  Why does roller-coaster ridership go up whenever there’s a fatal accident on one? Why do people leave secure jobs to start up businesses?

If you were to ask one of those skydivers or mountain climbers why they take the risks they do, you’d probably hear an answer along the lines of: “When I do that, I feel the most totally and completely alive.”

Apparently, to judge from the hundreds of thousands of testimonies in life and literature of people who take risks or live high-stimulation lives, the need to feel alive is a very real and important need. 

Yet some people seem not to experience this need as strongly as others. Some take risks only rarely, keep the same job for 40 years, live in the same house, and prefer a life of quiet and predictable stability. This spectrum of behavior, from risk-seeking to risk-avoiding (or novelty-seeking to novelty-avoiding), shows us that there is a spectrum of “hunger” among people for “the experience of aliveness.”

This is what I believe many of our school-misfit children are experiencing: the need for aliveness. It’s a real and visceral and powerful need, and one that isn’t being met in the classroom. So they misbehave, act out, become the class clown, or give up altogether — all as ways of getting this primordial need met.

Low-stimulation Classrooms

Understanding this tells and shows us why the conventional wisdom of putting such kids into highly structured and very quiet, no-distraction “special classrooms” or “resource rooms” doesn’t work. In such an environment, they only become more hungry for the stimulation which evokes the feeling of aliveness they crave.

It explains why stimulant drugs — which chemically induce a stimulating experience that’s internally and neurologically similar to riding in a roller coaster — have the effect of calming these kids down.  Their need for stimulation is being met, albeit chemically. 

It explains why kids who “can’t learn and can’t focus” can become experts at multi-level video games or complex skateboarding tasks: those are filled with stimulation, causing them to feel very much alive.

It explains why there are so many bright people who never were able to complete high school, yet “unconventional” private schools or home-schooling parents are so often able to educate the very kids the public schools have given up on.

It explains why many kids who struggled with the boredom of primary school are able to do well in college, where they can pick and choose for themselves the most stimulating and exciting topics and teachers.

It explains why both types of ADD — the “dreamy, inattentive” form most often seen in girls and the “hyperactive” form most often seen in boys — are identical in their root causes.  While boys are obtaining their stimulation from manipulating the world (as they’re taught to do by our culture), girls more often get their stimulation internally, by having raging conversations in their own minds or creating exciting fantasy worlds into which they can escape.

It explains why the “failure of executive function” explanation is a misguided view of symptom and not cause, and why so many of the “therapies/solutions” suggested by proponents of that model don’t work over the long-term, and why even when they do work they often leave children wounded.

And it explains a large part of why threats of expulsion, point systems, or resource rooms with one-on-one instruction do seem to work for a short time — they’re stimulating. (Although it’s a stimulation that fades quickly once the negative consequence is experienced: like the junkie with his heroin, ever-increasingly-larger doses are necessary to produce the same result.)

Dr. John Ratey of the Harvard Medical School often refers to “the sleepy cortex” of learning-disabled, and, particularly, hyperactive or ADD children.  “They need arousal,” he said in a seminar we taught together in Jerusalem.  “They need stimulation to keep their brains awake and functioning.”

High-stimulation Classrooms

Viewed from this perspective, we can see why the character Robin Williams played in Dead Poet’s Society was able to captivate and motivate an entire classroom full of jaded and bored kids with something as seemingly arcane as 18th century poetry. Williams’ character was, himself, “on fire” for the topic, and that enthusiasm came across to his kids in the form of a wildly stimulating teacher and classroom.

It also explains the mechanism of the “on fire” principle: when a child is interested in something, he finds it stimulating, almost regardless of what it is. No point system, threats of expulsion, medication, or time-outs will ever come even close to the power to capture a child’s interest that’s contained in these two simple concepts: “fire” (interest/enthusiasm) and stimulation.

Let me know what topics you'd like to see me cover in future issues of this online newsletter.  I'll be in the Middle East the next few weeks and then London over Thanksgiving, but hope to get a new issue out in January. 

Best regards,
Thom Hartmann

This newsletter is copyright 2000 by Thom Hartmann, all rights reserved.  Feel free, however, to pass it along to others, so long as this paragraph is attached. 

More information and this newsletter's opt-in button are available at Thom Hartmann's site

For More Information 

If you are interested in issues about ADD/ADHD, you may want to read "Attention Deficit Disorder in Children: Developmental, Parenting and Treatment Issues" by Pam Wright.

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