Learning to be “Normal”: Playing the Education Game

This video is one I find my mind constantly wandering back to. Its content makes connections that cross disciplines and curiosities and conversation. It calls for a systems-thinking sort of change. For me, it’s a summary of the way I’ve learned to think– an approach uncommon in the “game” of our left-brained US Education system.

Reading Francois Ewald’s work titled “Norms, Discipline, and the Law,” I found myself again thinking of the broken expectations of education as I underlined sentences defining bio-power (disciplines of the body and attempts to regulate the population developed in Western societies) and norm (a measurement and a means of producing a common standard) and discipline (concerned with the body and its training to create a homogeneous social space) and risk (a category of understanding depending on the way danger is analyzed.)

In my mind, biopower became the harsh words of a teacher–telling a student to sit still and finish an assignment because the concepts covered within its black lines would be “on the test.” The norm became the little girl who sat at attention throughout her 12 years of schooling–scribbling away at notes and memorizing spelling words and finishing math problems in organized columns. Discipline involved homework assignments listed in notebooks and crossed off, time outs for children who refuse to “cooperate,” and an early separation of the “advanced” children from the “average” and the “struggling.” Risk morphed in my head into the common references to Learning Disabilities, the loss of focus for an entire Digital Generation, and the growing achievement gap. I thought of skewed expectations, the new necessity of college for a “good job,” and the need for American students and youth to constantly fit the “norm” while simultaneously finding ways to “stand out.”

Because there are so many possibilities for a conversation of societal norms (even when you narrow the discussion to Education in the US,) I will pick only one specific issue for the sake of clarity and sanity in this post. As the RSA video above depicts, the concept of an “epidemic” of ADHD is one that fascinates me.

In a culture where social norms have rapidly shifted toward multitasking, constant “screen time,” and exposure to more than 3,000 advertisements a day, why do we still hold the same traditional expectations for education? Why do we continue to ask children to sit still and memorize and “learn for the test” when that standardized test does not assess what they will be asked to do when they finally reach the “real world?” Why are we content changing the concept of the “norm” for everyday behaviors but reluctant to adjust a broken system of education? What needs to happen so that we might recognize that this generation of students is fundamentally different from any generation before it, and find a way to balance the past with the future–ceasing to anesthetize it by over-diagnosing “abnormal” disorders like ADHD in the name of creating a more controllable and predictable sea of obedient students? What if the hyperactive student is actually the new “normal?” How do we adapt the system to fit the children who fill it? Is there a way to meet the needs of all children at once–catering to a charter school or Montessori model?

These questions do not have clear or immediate answers. They are questions I’ve been asking and circumnavigating for years now.

When it comes to ADHD, I wholeheartedly believe that there are many cases in which children should be medicated. However, I also believe that the solution to medicate is often arrived at too hastily and as more of an “easy” way to control a child and to push him or her toward a societal conception of “normalcy.”

According to http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html,  Rates of ADHD diagnosis increased an average of 3% per year from 1997 to 2006 [Read article Adobe PDF file] and an average of 5.5% per year from 2003 to 2007. Is this a matter of increased awareness of a “disorder”, or of efforts to assure the largest number of normal or average students as possible? Are diagnoses and medication a way for us to compartmentalize and make sense of what doesn’t fit into society’s boxes and frames? Or are they the answer to happiness and success in a paradoxical culture where fitting in is as important as standing out? As Ewald discusses in his article, “‘man’ appears in the qualities that can be attributed to him, which have taken on lives of their own: size, weight, or strength. The characteristics of a particular individual are lost in the midst of those of many other individuals” (144). For children with ADHD and their worried parents, test scores become the qualities of attribution and judgement. They are compared to a statistical “norm.”

How might we redefine normal?

Just for fun, (now that I’ve gone on and on about ADHD and education) here is a list of the other concepts of “normal” I was reminded of while reading this complex essay by Ewald:

  • In countries like Ireland (where Catholicism and religion bears so much weight) could being unreligious be a form of the “abnormal?”
  • On the other end of the education spectrum, how are children characterized as “special” or “advanced” in the US favored for being “abnormal?”
  • Prison and Rehabilitation:  Is it possible for the “abnormal” criminals who are incarcerated to return to our culture’s definition of “normalcy?”
  • The “Green” movement: How can we change the expectations for everyday “normal” behaviors in order to become more sustainable?
  • How have expectations for marriage and family changed in the past several decades to develop a new concept of “normal?” Will the “traditional” ideas of marriage always persist in some form or another?
  • US Political Parties: Our politics are incredibly partisan–always divided into extremes (just look at the current primary process.) And yet, we are constantly wooed by allusions to the “average” or “normal.” (i.e. Joe the Plumber in the 2008 campaign.)
  • Reality TV: How have carefully staged “reality” shows changed our conceptions of what is normal?
  • Ewald argues that there can be no society without norms, codes, common standards of measurement, and basic principles of communication. How has recent technological development changed our social norms and communication? Do we have new needs now than before? What do we need to change to meet these needs? (Think of the Occupy Wallstreet movement…)
  • Overscheduling and Time Poverty: Is control of time a norm in our society? How are we trained to fulfill this norm?
  • We judge people (as Ewald points out) on their ability to produce “normal” syntax and grammar. However, one region’s concept of “normal” might be very different from another. Should we develop one universal “normal” language to prevent this discrimination, or maintain the rich diversity of words and languages and accents?
  • Standardized tests as a way in which “individual performance is measured and that allows individuals to be classified and placed in a hierarchy” (158). How much measuring of normalcy is necessary for a functional society, and how much is detrimental? Where is the line?
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This entry was posted in Education in the U.S., Sociology SP635 at NUI Galway: The Abnormal.. Bookmark the permalink.

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