This talk by Jonathan Mooney is social model music. I include it in my primer on the social model for minds and bodies. Mooney provides necessary insight into neurodivergent learners. Every minute is worth your time. I’ve pulled quotes from the talk below, as well as a handful of quotes from the introduction to his book Learning Outside The Lines: Two Ivy League Students With Learning Disabilities And ADHD Give You The Tools For Academic Success and Educational Revolution.
Mooney’s perspective offers many takeaways. Two critical ones for me are these rules of thumb.
- agent > patient
- identity > diagnosis
Challenge our definition of where disability lies.
We’ve built an entire edifice of intervention that’s about fixing people.
It’s not their minds or bodies that truly disable them. It’s how environment reacts to those differences. That’s where disability lies. Folks don’t have disability, they experience disability in environments that aren’t accessible and inclusive.
We should spend more time talking about how we change the environment that surrounds people and not the people themselves.
I did not overcome dyslexia. I overcame dysteachia. I overcame environments that weren’t built for my brain.
It’s that narrow definition of intelligence, behavior, and motivation that is really my disability. Not dyslexia, not ADHD.
In many learning environments we think good kids sit still. The good kid is the compliant kid.
Young folks like me are given the identity of being bad.
“What is your problem?” If I had a nickel for every time I heard that word in my life.
I was given this identity that I was a problem because of a norm in the environment that good kids sit still.
Difficult children make interesting adults.
We’ve built learning environments based on the myth that appropriate and valuable human behavior is about compliance.
We have conflated reading with intelligence.
We’ve left so many brains out.
We shouldn’t be asking ourselves, “how smart am I?” We should be asking, “how am I smart?”
I had overcome not ADHD, but I had overcome the feeling of being the defective person morally because I didn’t comply to the myth that good kids are compliant.
Intrinsic motivators are drivers like autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
We’ve built most of our learning environments with sticks and carrots.
We’ve negated the power of choice and the power of letting folks craft an education that is grounded in their aspirations, their vision for themselves.
How do we build learning environments that embrace intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose?
An essential component of my journey was an identity transformation from being a patient to being an agent.
You don’t need somebody to fix you. You need somebody to fight for you, and with you, because what’s happening to you is an injustice.
It ain’t right for somebody to be marginalized for a difference.
I need to cultivate a rights based paradigm, a diversity framework, and I need to become an advocate against what is a form of discrimination and marginalization. That’s an important transformation in agency.
You gotta fight against this, you gotta be an advocate, you gotta have a voice in your education.
Consistently cultivate the language of high expectations.
Y’all know the file, right? This has been the thing that had been following me since I started special education. Those things are thick and deep. KGB got nothing on special ed.
That’s agency. That’s somebody who refuses to negate somebody’s humanity because of a label.
We spend so much time talking about the problem, we lose the person.
We spend so much time captured in this language of deficit that we lower expectations.
We’ve built this whole infrastructure about fixing folks, about turning people into passive recipients of treatment and service, of turning people into patients. But being a patient is the most disempowered place a human being can be.
We need to cultivate a sense of agency in people which is the opposite of patient hood.
The most meaningful interventions, the most meaningful people in my life were people who cultivated a sense of agency.
Real intellectuals, they don’t care how you get there, they just want you to get there.
He was gonna hold me to the highest expectations, but he was gonna give me multiple ways to meet those expectations. And that is what an agency education is all about.
How well I know something is more important than how fast I know something. We are not trying to educate a generation of Jeopardy contestants.
Accommodate, and change the environment.
Multiple ways to reach those expectations with a flexibility in the classroom that was inclusive of learning diversity.
Switch from a deficit paradigm to an asset-based strength paradigm.
When all we do is fix people, the message we give to them is that they are broken. Nobody lives a meaningful life feeling broken.
It’s essential that we cultivate that capability framework, that asset based framework.
The moment that I could switch from what’s wrong with me to what’s right with me was a significant part of my journey.
Most of my education was all about what I couldn’t do.
We spent thousands dollars, thousands of hours on trying to fix one trait, frankly, perhaps the most irrelevant trait in the world in the 21st century, and that is spelling. God bless spellchecker.
The energy gone into fixing spelling, to worrying about spelling, it’s staggering.
All week we invested time, money, and relationship capital on fixing that irrelevant trait.
We’re not doing the spelling test today. We’re ditching school and going to the zoo.
The reporter asked me, “Jonathan, give my an inspiring message about how you got to Brown University for young people.” And I said, “ditch school.” Because what we and my mom did every Friday was we spent time getting good at something. We spent time developing strength. She literally called it the “get good at something day.” We spent time being interested in the world. We spent time figuring out where my capacities were, talking about how to make my way in the world with my capacities, not my deficits, but my assets. That was a radical shift in my life.
There is research is piling up every day that shows that school, including higher education, is trying to create generalists for a world of specialists.
More than ever the world rewards specialist knowledge.
School is the only place where we ask human beings to be good at all things.
We need to challenge how we’re forcing everyone to be the same in our educational models with this ideal notion of a generalist approach to being successful. The most successful human beings aren’t good at everything, they’re good at one or two things and they scale those strengths. How do they mitigate those weaknesses? They mitigate those weaknesses the way we all do, with teams, technology, and support.
I married my spellchecker. It’s called strategic mating.
We build supportive networks, we use technology, and we build a life not about what’s wrong with us, we build a life around what’s right with us.
We have built learning environments, our culture, our communities, around the myth of normal and average. That myth of normal and average has bombarded all people with a pervasive imperative that to be okay as a human being, to be acceptable as a human, you have to strive for this mythical norm, this mythical average, which by definition does not exist.
We didn’t have the word normal in the English language until the 1860s. Normal is a product linguistically of the industrial revolution , of standardizing production, of moving in a place that’s forcing people to fit that standardized mold. Normal is a statistical concept, not a fact in the world.
Challenging that myth of normal is a philosophical imperative because we are doubling down normal.
We have a medical community that’s found a sickness for every single human difference. DSM keeps growing every single year with new ways to be defective, with new ways to be lessened.
The myth of normal is what’s broken, and the identity that, if you don’t fit it, that you are less than, that’s what’s broken. We need to reframe what we problematize, not bodies, not difference, but this pervasive imperative to be normal.
All progress, all evolution, is driven by deviations from the norms.
All evolution and progress is driven by mutations and deviations. If we lose that, if we eradicate that, we have lost our strength as a community, as a society.
Disability industrial complex is all about what people can’t do. We spend most of our time trying to fix what they can’t do. When all we do is fix people the message we give to them is that they are broken.
We have created a system that has you submit yourself, or your child, to patient hood to access the right to learn differently. The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.
Learning Outside the Lines
For centuries, the word stupid, combined with various intensifiers like bad, lazy, willful, or weak has been used to create a moral “diagnosis.” That moral diagnosis has ruined millions of lives.
Our life struggles had more to do with freeing ourselves from the institution of education than transcending our own personal weakness.
It is a loss and a crime when creativity, alternative learning skills, and an individualized education take a back seat to rote memorization, standardized testing, and the misconception that all people learn the same way.
Education is one of the most beautiful and liberating things we can pursue in our lives, but too often it is approached as a restrictive, punitive, linear, and moralistic act.
Throughout our lives, we had looked to the idea of succeeding in school to define our worth and our intelligence. In childhood, we were told we were defective goods, and to be better we had to be other than what we were.
Ultimately our diagnoses and the subsequent attempts at intervention allowed people to blame us, two powerless kids, for our failure instead of turning a critical eye toward the environment. It took us fifteen years of personal and academic struggle to stop blaming ourselves, to stop believing that we are inherently defective like “they” thought, and to come to realize how profound an effect the environment had on our inability to succeed. Only as time went on did simple interventions like the ability to get up out of our seats, the use of a spell checker, and progressive ideas like project-based learning and other modifications to the learning environment allow the pathology to slip into irrelevance and enable us to be successful. Our hard wiring is a simple cognitive difference. We all have them. But an oppressive educational environment that blames children for their failures caused us to grow up with the stigma of pathology.
Behavior becomes a social indicator of morality, marking which kids are good kids and which kids are bad, and the highest value is one of conformity, passivity, and obedience.
The underlying notion is that all kids develop at the same time in a linear, sequential manner, and if some kids cannot read early, they are not intelligent. This environment gave us an identity at a time when our personality was malleable, an identity that revolved around the teacher, the authority figure in the room. We did not question the rules and the identity handed to us. We were taught that sitting still and getting gold stars on our math homework were more important than art and ideas, and much more important than what kind of people we were and how we treated other kids.