Normal Sucks: Author Jonathan Mooney on How Schools Fail Kids with Learning Differences

I’m a big fan of Jonathan Mooney’s neurodiversity advocacy. So much of the work of neurodiversity and disability advocacy is getting folks to reframe from the medical and deficit models to the social model. Mooney is good at this reframing.

Here are some selected quotes from a recent interview with Mooney at Longreads where he shares his journey through school and reframes deficiency as difference.

Reframe these states of being that have been labelled deficiencies or pathologies as human differences.

The ultimate thing we should be fighting for is to not have to pathologize yourself to get your individual needs met. Something’s wrong with a system that requires parents and children to say, “I am sick or defective.”

We need to have universally designed systems designed around the reality of human variance opposed to the myth of human sameness.

We privilege some brains over other brains. We privilege some bodies over other bodies. And that gets embedded in our institutions.

There is conscious and unconscious bias about people with a whole continuum of atypical brains and bodies. And when we judge someone’s intelligence based on their spelling and we rule out their capacities as a human being because of their bad handwriting…,we are participating in a subtle and yet very powerful form of institutionalized ableism.

Accommodation is fundamentally about not changing the person but changing the environment around the person.

It’s going to be not fixing what’s wrong with them that changes their life, it’s gonna be building on, celebrating, and scaling what’s right with them.

When we say that somebody “overcame” dyslexia, cerebral palsy, whatever it is, we imply that that state of being is inherently deficient and it’s a problem inside of them.

I didn’t overcome dyslexia; I overcame dysteachia.

It’s not a problem in the person; it’s not a problem with the difference; it’s a problem in the interaction between a difference and a context built for the myth that we should all be the same.

Elevate ableism as one of the injustices of our world.

I’m tremendously optimistic about the broad cultural movement around equity, diversity, and inclusion. And I think we need to hold on to that as a culture. And we need to demand that that core philosophical and ethical commitment to having a world that doesn’t just work for some, but works for all, starts to come into our systems and we to some real difference in our systems. I think we have to fight for that. It ain’t going to happen on its own.

Source: Normal Sucks: Author Jonathan Mooney on How Schools Fail Kids with Learning Differences

Mooney is an engaging and inspiring talker. Give the entire episode a listen.

More from Jonathan Mooney:

Neurodiversity, the social model of disability, intersectionality, and equity literacy are necessary professional development.

As my neurodivergent and disabled family navigates healthcare, school, and life, I wish over and over that the professionals we interact with knew something about neurodiversity, the social model of disability, intersectionality, and equity literacy. We spend so much time educating folks in hopes they’ll gain the framing needed to see our family.

These are essential frameworks that every professional should be conversant in. In my experience, corporate harassment and discrimination training doesn’t really go into any of these. Wishing it did. Let’s bake them into our annual training and our company cultures. Let’s bake them into the curriculum for everyone. Those wanting to do ethical, inclusive, and informed work need to do the work of obtaining these tools.

Here’s my attempt at an introductory primer that got some good feedback on Twitter this week:

Design is Tested at the Edges: Intersectionality, The Social Model of Disability, and Design for Real Life

Further, we need MESH in our schools, our companies, and our professional development:

View at Medium.com

We all need these lenses and tools. Start baking them in so that the most marginalized and vulnerable people don’t have to provide free emotional labor and education over and over and over. It’s exhausting.

For “All means all” to actually apply to neurodivergent and disabled and marginalized kids, public educators need these tools.

To avoid building behaviorism and bias into our systems, tech workers need these tools.

Everyone working with other people need these tools.

Design for Neurological Pluralism with Caves, Campfires, and Watering Holes

In creating such a system, today’s educators go back to the best of our roots in the earliest teachers who understood that learning occurs in many spaces, from caves to campfires to watering holes. The tools we use and the curriculum we learn shift across time.

Source: Timeless Learning – How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

Futurist David Thornburg identifies three archetypal learning spaces— the campfire, cave, and watering hole—that schools can use as physical spaces and virtual spaces for student and adult learning

The campfire is a space where people gather to learn from an expert. In the days of yore, wise elders passed down insights through storytelling, and in doing so replicated culture for the next generation. In today’s schools, the experts are not only teachers and guest speakers, but also students who are empowered to share their learning with peers and other teachers.

The watering hole is an informal space where peers can share information and discoveries, acting as both learner and teacher simultaneously. This shared space can serve as an incubator for ideas and can promote a sense of shared culture.

The cave is a private space where an individual can think, reflect, and transform learning from external knowledge to internal belief. Schools across Australia had both posters and places to encourage this private individual time.

It was here that we first came across the idea of cave, campfire, and watering hole. She explained that as she planned the school’s new facility, they would use Thornburg’s concepts. She noted that one of the ways she experiments with the cave concept is to take desks and chairs and place them in corners and crevices that are off the main floor of the library. Inevitably, she finds these spaces occupied and even coveted by students and teachers in search of quiet and reflection. These isolated study spots are excellent examples of cave zones.

The classroom demonstrates how a campfire space to the rear conjoins with a comfortable watering hole space where students can easily move around and work next to each other in a social way. The students also created a cave-type environment by reconfiguring the removable furniture.

Source: Australia’s Campfires, Caves, and Watering Holes: Educators on ISTE’s Australian Study Tour Discovered How to Create New Learning and Teaching Environments where Curriculum and Instructional Tools Meet the Digital Age, UNCG NC DOCKS (North Carolina Digital Online Collection of Knowledge and Scholarship)

The campfire…

There is a sacred quality to teaching as storytelling, and this activity took place in sacred places, typically around the fire. The focal point of the flame, the sounds of the night, all provide backdrop to the storyteller who shares wisdom with students who, in their turn, become storytellers to the next generation. In this manner, culture replicates itself through the DNA of myth. The often tangential nature of storytelling, its use of metaphor, its indirect attack on a topic, all combine to make storytelling an effective way to address topics that might be too confrontational to address head on. Story crafts its own helix around a topic. As Robert Frost said, “We sit in the circle and suppose, while the truth sits in the center and knows.”

And so, from an archetypal perspective, the campfire represents an important aspect of the learning community. It does not stand alone, however.

The watering hole…

Just as campfires resonate deeply across space and time, watering holes have an equal status in the pantheon of learning places. Virtually every hominid on the planet has, a one time in its historical existence, needed to gather at a central source for water. During these trips to the watering hole, people shared information with their neighbors – those within their own village, as well as those from neighboring village, and travelers on their way to or from a distant village. The watering hole became a place where we learned from our peers – where we shared the news of the day. This informal setting for learning provided a different kind of learning community from that of the shaman or troubadour who regaled us from the podium of the campfire. The learning at the watering hole was less formal. It was peer teaching, a sharing of the rumors, news, gossip, dreams and discoveries that drive us forward. Each participant at the watering hole is both learner and teacher at the same time.

The cave…

The learning community of the campfire brought us in contact with experts, and that of the watering hole brought us in contact with peers. There is one other primordial learning environment of great importance: the cave — where we came in contact with ourselves.

Through legends and artifacts we know that, throughout the planet, learners have needed, on occasion, to isolate themselves from others in order to gain special insights. Whether these periods of isolation took place in the forest, or in caves, whether they were the subject of great ritual, or just casual encounters with personal insight, the importance of having time alone with one’s thoughts has been known for millennia.

Learners have long gathered around campfires, watering holes, and have isolated themselves in the seclusion of caves. They have experienced all these learning environments in balance and, if the balance is offset, learning suffered.

Source: Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century

There are three archetypal learning spaces:

  • The Campfire
  • The Cave
  • The Watering hole

The campfire, is a space where people gather to learn from an expert. It can be used for teacher to student and more importantly for peer to peer instruction.

The watering hole is a space for shared culture. It is an informal area, where students can share in collaborative learning experiences.

The cave is a private space, where students can find that much needed alone time useful for reflection on their learning or just to recharge. (a necessary space for those students with Aspergers).

Source: Campfires, Caves and Watering holes | Libraries, Youth and the Digital Age

Instead of making containers for children, Bosch creates magnets, each with an evocative name inspired by futurist David Thornburg’s ideas about learning communities. “The show-off,” for example, is that blue, stepped mountain, a space where teachers and students can explain their work to an audience of their peers, and the whole school can gather. “The cave” has the opposite purpose: a red, carpeted nook under the mountain to get away from it all, have a private conversation or a private moment. Concentration niches, also coded red, provide private work space, while a child looking for interaction might head to “the watering hole,” adjacent to more benches for two, or to the village of tables for small-group work. The last two magnets are “the campfire” and “the laboratory.” The second is self-explanatory, a zone of metal-topped tables ready for hands-on science or cooking experiments on the working set of appliances. The former represents the tightest of groups, a seminar discussion in the round. Bosch updates the Harkness Table (or its hexagonal offspring) as an organic archipelago with three lobes and two cutouts. Kids can arrange themselves around the perimeter or draw closer around a lobe, even sit themselves within one of the cutouts, like a prairie dog, for the full frontier effect. They can move—which, if you are a fidgety child, feels like a godsend—and array themselves on the floor, on a lounge chair, or, indeed, at a desk, depending on what suits them best. The physical autonomy relates to a degree of educational autonomy as well: Students in a class are not all learning together all the time, facing a teacher at the front of a classroom with walls—that’s what time in the show-off is meant for. Instead, they are working on individual assignments, as well as longer-term projects, in various smaller groupings, at their own pace.

Bosch’s first school intervention was structured as a provocation: In 2010, she convinced Vittra, a Swedish education company, to let her office do a six-week takeover of a school of 750 students, serving ages six to sixteen. She and her staff moved in, and every morning the teachers would walk by the design team’s temporary office and Bosch would give them a task. “We had bought this very cheap carpet and cut it out in organic forms,” she says, by way of example. “We would give each teacher a roll of carpet and tell them to set the kids out on group work in the building. They could freely go wherever they wanted with a little carpet, in small groups doing some kind of assignment, and come back after forty-five minutes.” The children colonized the whole school: the halls, the gym, outdoors, but the kids were respectful of one another’s carpets, stepping around other groups and speaking quietly. “It took away the fear of letting them move freely,” Bosch says. That became the campfire.

On another day, Bosch’s team got permission to turn off the harsh overhead lighting and gave each classroom five small table lamps, provided by IKEA. The teachers put the lamps on the tables, put the tables in groups, and, according to Bosch, the kids’ levels of concentration completely changed. That became the cave.

Source: The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids: Alexandra Lange: Bloomsbury Publishing

Like Cavendish, I’m autistic. I relate to much of his personal life. He needed his bubble, his cave, his sensory and social cocoon. He also needed, occasionally, the company of a small set of his Royal Society peers. The Royal Society Monday Club was his campfire, his place where he could lurk at the edges and socialize with a small group on his terms.

Cavendish was very uncomfortable in the public eye. He formed an alliance with Charles Blagden, an extroverted and outgoing Monday Club peer, whereby Blagden introduced Cavendish and his ideas to wider audiences. Blagden brought Cavendish to the creative commons, to the watering holes of science and naturalism.

My cave, campfire, and watering hole moods map to the red, yellow, and green of interaction badges (aka color communication badges). The three-level communication flow used at my company and other distributed companies reflects the progressive sociality of cave, campfire, and watering hole contexts and red, yellow, green interaction moods. These triptych reductions are a useful starting place when designing for neurological pluralism. When we design for pluralism, we design for real life, for the actuality of humanity.

Source: Classroom UX: Designing for Pluralism

First, and make no mistake here, all three sacred learning spaces will have analogs in cyberspace. If they don’t, then cyberspace will cease to exist as a domain of interaction among humans. Those using the new media will create their own analogs for these learning places, even if they are not designed into the system.

Source: Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century

Pay less for furniture now - what’s at Ikea? What’s on Wayfair? - and build the resources you need to react to changing student tastes in space - whether you are building caves, campfires, or especially those watering holes.

Source: The 2019 Subtraction Pledge – Ira David Socol – Medium

See also,