Being out of sync with the world can make school work hard. I think back to the time I was a teenager homeschooling through a correspondence type program where I had to fax my test and assignments to a teacher far away. I hated multiple choice tests so I wrote commentary all through my social studies multiple choice test, explaining why none of the answers were entirely correct. That particular teacher agreed that I could just write essays instead. I was relieved. Essays I could understand.
I watched this past month as one of my kids struggled with an assignment. His class at school was studying biodiversity, and how life forms are categorized. The teacher had assigned them to work in pairs and create their own categories to separate these little alien cards she had given them. As the teacher explained it to me later, the exercise was about learning that everything can be broken down into categories and subcategories. The teacher is a really nice person and I’m sure a very good teacher. I’m sure the exercise was a great one for some of the students. But I want to write about why it didn’t work for my child. I want to write about it, because I want to try to capture the glimpses into how a mind can work differently.
The first thing I heard about the exercise involved my child complaining that his partner thought size should be the defining feature for the aliens, when he was convinced that the numbers of eyes was more relevant because that would probably involve more genetic variation than size. So instantly the goal of the assignment ends up shifting. For this one child the assignment is no longer just about breaking things down into categories, it’s about working with a partner. That’s a really important lesson to learn, but what is the best step? Just going with the partner’s ideas was going to be impossible for my child because to him that would feel like academic dishonesty. You either do the assignment with the best of one’s knowledge about genetics or you don’t do the assignment. So the next option is to try to convince the other child to go with his idea. How does that work? My child doesn’t know the issue completely. He can’t explain the genetics of eyes. He has a vague notion that it has something to do with the evolution of the body plan shared by diverse creatures. A creature who breaks out of that body plan must be more genetically different than one that is simply a larger or smaller variation of a similar animal. But he has only a very short time to explain it and since understanding the evolution of body plans isn’t a part of the class assignment, how could he even get an audience for his ideas?
“Just go with your partner’s ideas for the sake of peace.” “Don’t worry about it so much.” “Don’t over think it.” Those are all easy things to say, but I can understand why this particular child can’t take that particular advice. I understand his confusion. I remember sitting on the couch in the house I grew up in, explaining similar stories to my mom. I understand confusion. Why shouldn’t he be trying to apply what he knows to the topic at hand? Except doing so is disruptive to the teamwork and to the classroom. Also, when he’s upset he lacks the words to explain it all. He doesn’t understand why others are having such a hard time understanding what he’s saying.
The assignment is to practice dividing things into categories and subcategories. My son can do that easily. Eventually he did it on his own but by then the assignment itself is just a demonstration of something he already knows. Class time has been wasted. He’s frustrated and I expect his classmates are frustrated with him.
I know that teamwork is important for jobs. I know that negotiation skills are important, and patience, and such. I know it is important also to learn to watch for what a teacher or boss want to hear, regardless of what one feels about the topic. But those take time, maturity and patience. Adults struggle with these issues. I’m not sure to what extent I want to prioritize the lesson of “don’t understand it, just do it” and anything more than that takes more time than he had at school.
As I write this, I think about the things I do want to teach my kids. I want to teach them to ask additional questions to clarify assignments. I want to teach them to say “X really matters to me. How much does it matter to you? Maybe you could make the decision about Y?” I want to teach them to say things like “I don’t understand the purpose of this” but to know that if they have to do that multiple times a day, they’re probably in the wrong location.
I flunked a comparative religion unit in a correspondence course back when I was a teenager. The issue was that the correspondence course gave a basic summary of the five main world religions and asked me to write “brief notes” on each. If the assignment had been to write an essay I could have done fine. If the assignment had been to write a summary suitable for sharing with someone who knows nothing about the religions, I would have done fine. But the assignment was to write brief notes, and my experience with notes was that one writes what is new so that one can remember it later. So I wrote brief notes about the things in the course material that were new to me. Very little in the course material was new to me. I had already ready quite a bit about all five major religions as well as attended a week-long intensive course with my mom. My notes were maybe one or two sentences per religion. Looking back it should have been obvious to me that I was miss interpreting the assignment, but at the time I didn’t ask myself “ok, how are they going to be marking this assignment?” So I flunked.
I don’t think we’re neurotypical here. We are over-thinkers extraordinaire. I think we’re a little out of sync with the world. Being out of sync isn’t bad, but it makes school assignments a little hard to do at times. The difficulty understanding things is part of why I don’t think just giving kids who finish quickly extra work makes adequate provisions for gifted children in a classroom. Gifted kids won’t always finish quick. They won’t always look cooperative and bright. Sometimes, they’re just out of sync.