Organic education: John Elder Robison at TEDxCollegeofWilliam&Mary

Translator: Pei Fang Ng
Reviewer: Hannah Ximenes Well, thank you for joining us here today. We’re here in the South, you know, of all the speakers, I’m the only one to
come out here and talk to you on a bright southern spring day
in a proper southern hat. And I got me a proper southern drink too, and I’m going to leave it
up to you to consider whether it’s ice tea or whisky. (Laughter) In the past decade, the organic food movement
has really gathered steam. Books on eat like our ancestors
and cavemen diets, made the bestseller lists. Clearly, people now believe, we’ll be healthier, eating the foods humans evolved to eat
over ten and thousands of years compared to the process spun of
chemical plants and genetic engineers. Many of the strong advocates
of what we call ancestral diets, are people who are vulnerable. Folks who were asked,
said they feel healthier when they removed processed foods
from their diet, I know, I do. Others talk about getting fitter
or lowering blood pressure eating eating what our ancestors ate. But I’m not here to
talk about organic food. I’m here to talk about something else. Something new whose time
has come – organic education. Just as organic foods are grown
naturally without pesticides, organic workers are those people
who got their skills, their education, naturally from experienced teachers. That’s a subject of particular interest
to me, because I’m an autistic adult. And autism made modern school
an insurmountable challenge for me. And it’s an insurmountable challenge for thousands and thousands
of other young people with developmental differences today. Autistic people have been around forever, and for most of that time,
we’ve blended in with society. We may have been called
“eccentric”, “exceptional” or “crazy”, but we grew up and found a place
in the communities where we lived. We apprenticed ourselves out,
and learned trades, and went to work,
just like everyone else. Some of us might today
be described as “disabled” when we tend to animals without speaking. Others who were very articulate became preachers and leaders in the community. All of us seemed to find our way,
and that’s been lost, partly thanks to education today. Autistic people were invisible until modern psychology
dragged us into the limelight. Unfortunately, when they described us, they forgot to enumerate our gifts. They called us “disabled”, because
they saw what we couldn’t do, and they overlooked what we do do
better than anyone else. As much as psychology
has brought to help us, as much as psychologists have
developed therapies and techniques that have changed the lives
of people with autism for the good, there’s also one other side of that,
and we’re really only now, learning to unravel the damage that seeing ourselves
as broken and disabled has done to a generation
of autistic people. We are only now recognizing
that we are different, not less, and joining the community
of neuro-diverse humanity, people whose brains are wired differently. But we stand with all the rest of you,
just like anyone else. With all the changes in education
in the 20th century, the system has broken down
for we, neuro-diverse, even as it accommodated ever-increasing
numbers of ordinary people. Traditional master apprentice
learning has been replaced by the book-based refined education that served up in today’s
public schools and colleges. Book learning is to education,
what synthetic fertilizer is to farming. It makes education available
to anyone at low cost, but it’s not quite as good as
the original natural product. In the absence of hands-on training,
books alone are often not enough. Books are like the concentrated
chemicals in artificial fertilizers. The chemicals may make the plants grow, but they’re missing other things,
and it kills the land. With book learning only, we may get some of the facts, but we don’t learn the skills. In the absence of hands-on training, it’s just not enough, but that system, has become our principal way of teaching, and it’s what today’s students know. We still have some
hands-on learning today, like we see in the lab sessions, that support classroom
lectures and discussions. I believe we should be
using the lab concept in almost every discipline we teach, which would greatly improve education
by restoring one of its organic roots. I’ll just take a sniff here
and a little drink. Yeah, you still wonder what it is. Books alone won’t take
the place of hands-on learning, either in school or
on outside internships, especially for people who have problems
with reading and comprehension. By timing the acquisition of work skills to the ability to read
and understand books, we’ve created disability in
a large portion of the population. Just ask yourself: Where were dyslexic people 200 years ago? We’ve never heard of
dyslexics 200 years ago, but they must have existed. They weren’t disabled. Now, I’m not an opponent of books. I make a living writing them. But I realize, they’re not
a universal learning style, that’s why I record an audio version
of every print book I write. If print books aren’t actually
needed to do most jobs, we should offer alternative
ways of learning for those who do better differently. Learning a trade or job skill at the side of a master or tutor
evolved over thousands of years, and that system of education works. Automating the process with a textbook
may work for some people too, but for those of us who are different, just as kids with asthma are at risk
eating some modern foods, neuro-diverse kids are at risk
consuming a modern education. They’re at risk for failing to learn the skills required
for work in adult life. And I know, because I’m one of them,
and I failed in school. I contend that we are not just
a small part of today’s schools, kids that can be written off. We’re the canaries in a mine shaft. Our failure is showing us problems that are holding back
every student in school today, neuro-diverse and typical alike. What are the most important subjects
we’ve forgotten to teach? It’s social skills and communication. People who lack those skills
aren’t accepted by society. Just like when I was a kid, we were rude, we were obnoxious, we were freaks, we were outcasts. Neuro-diverse people are
particularly challenged in this regard. People with autism, one of the hallmarks of autism is
impaired communication ability. The result? We have a hard time getting jobs,
difficulty making friends, and difficulty fitting into
the social groups everyone else relies on
for mutual support. In centuries past, manners were one
of the first things taught to children. Manners and social deportment
were emphasized everywhere, at home, in school and in church, because they facilitate
effective communication. People today dismiss
the historic teaching of manners, but the truth is, manners were taught because we learned over thousands
of years of human history that people needed those
manners to communicate, and they had to communicate to succeed. It’s one of the things we learned
as we developed civilization, only to throw it away,
in the last century. Somehow, with the rise of
technical education, that truth has been forgotten
by mainstream America. Luckily, it’s not forgotten
in the special education world. There, we see children whose differences
create greater communication challenges, and then, we say, we’re teaching them
communication, not manners, but the goal remains the same. Schools are beginning to develop
good programs to teach communications. And I think those programs should
be offered to every single student, and improved for those
who need them the most. Educators talk a lot about STEM,
the importance of science and scientists. Geeks are famous for
poor social skills, but consider: Who makes the big money in our society? It’s the people who communicate
smoothly and effectively – smooth talking, backslapping salespeople. And indeed, the preponderance, of the most successful people in
our society are in sales and marketing. At the very top of the pinnacle,
are those people, those few, who combine STEM skills
and communication skills, and they bring us technical
communication marvels like Facebook. Truly, in our society,
those skills are gained, and that’s why it would be wise
to teach them to everyone. Then, we come back to learning by doing. Every concept we teach in school
can be taught by real-world example. You know, so often, we talk today, about learning by doing
as a trade school thing, it’s a way of teaching, lesser people, who aren’t good enough for regular school. But, think about it: if you can’t teach a subject
in a learning by doing way, what is the application of
why do we teach it at all if you can’t learn it by real example? Which would you rather do? Solve an abstract trigonometry
problem out of a book? Or, figure out the area
of an arc shaped farmer’s field? Those who argue for
teaching abstract concepts are arguing against the way
teaching has been done for the entire prior course
of known history. And yet, that’s what we’ve chosen. Look back a few hundred years
and you’ll see, that every great college was built on the concepts of tutoring,
discussion and learning by doing augmented by books
that includes this school. You learn to be a minister
at the side of a parish priest, and by studying Scripture. You learn to be a doctor by apprenticing yourself
to a medical man, Books were adjunct to teaching,
not a replacement for it. Indeed, my ancestors were stars
at this school in the 1700s. And someone like me today
could never gain admission. And I guess I have to ask: What’s wrong with that picture? Some locations are simple
while others are complex. Every person has the potential
to find his level of capability For one person, that trade may be
caring for a large garden. For another, the trade may be
being an engineer or a surgeon. But in each case, they began
with a little bit of knowledge, and hone their skills using
their hands and minds, together, with a good teacher
as a mentor and guide. Everything we do is built on a foundation
of evermore complex trade knowledge. Little kids build dams and
canals in the sand at the beach. And then they fill in
with buckets of water. Some of those kids get older, and they use that knowledge
to make irrigation systems for farms. A few learn mathematical modelling, and go on to turn those childhood play
into public water systems. Complex as the final designs may be. All of them started with simple
hands-on experimentation. My belief in the power of
vocational education is so strong that I’ve actually founded a trade school
for young people who are different. Our TCS Automotive Program
in Springfield Massachusetts combines teachers and working mechanics
to teach the automobile trade in a real commercial auto service complex. That’s backed up with
the latest special education and social skills thinking to help young people
learn real marketable skills. And that takes us to the next area
– the teaching environment. Once again, we, neuro-diverse people, I believe, are showing
the way for everyone. And it’s a path humanity has taught us for thousands of years
until quite recently. People with autism often have sharper
senses than the average person. “Sensory overload” is a common word, if you know someone with autism. We may notice the flicker
of a fluorescent light. We may be hyper-sensitive to smells. We may be overly sensitive to the textures of the chairs
and the furniture. Fluorescent lights are everywhere. They’re at our workplaces
and in our schools, shining with their green white light. No one believes
fluorescent lights are better. They’re there because they’re cheap. And that is an example of how something today in modern society is making neuro-diverse kids fail. Studies have shown that
neuro-diverse people are stressed by flickering lights, harsh noises
and other environmental insults. When that happens, we lose
the ability to concentrate. We become short-tempered, freak out. Some of us may have to leave the room. None of those things are
conducive to classroom success. Progressive schools accommodate us
with more natural environments, similar to what our ancestors knew, similar to what we have
in William and Mary before the advent of electric light. So what would you choose today? Who in his right mind
would choose to be educated in a harshly-lit, noisier,
foul-smelling place when there was a open natural alternative? Once again, special education
is showing the way to make things better for everyone. We, neuro-diverse people,
may be more sensitive, but it’s hard for me to believe that the things that trouble us
don’t affect everyone at some level. The final thing I’d like to challenge is the all-or-nothing bet
that many people make when they enter our education system. The risk is strikingly clear when we consider people
with developmental challenges. Anyone who looks at the graduation and employment
statistics for people with autism Barely half of us graduate high school. Even fewer stay in the course
to attain a college degree. When we go to work,
we get stuck on the bottom rung, if we get on the ladder at all. Here’s an example of how it happens. A parent or counselor talks to an
autistic child who is interested in cars. She is told by the adults
that the best goal for her is becoming a mechanical engineer
at a car company. So, she struggles in high school knowing
she has to get into a four year college. And once she gets into college,
she has to get that bachelor’s degree, then she’s got to go on
to graduate school, because the good design jobs
all require a graduate degree. Here’s a problem: depending on which
statistics you believe, the odds of her getting
that master’s degree are between 1:5, and 1:20. Meanwhile, high school isn’t teaching her
any practical skills as a backstop. Her high school, like most today,
is focused on test scores. She’s spending her high school years learning how to pass
college entrance exams. The whole high school is
a bet on college entrance. And once she’s in college,
it doesn’t change. The whole undergraduate
program is focused on learning the things she will need to know to get good grades in college,
meet the minimum requirements, and get into graduate school. She still isn’t learning
how to design cars. Only in graduate school
that she began to do independent work that
finally relates to cars. And hopefully, her thesis will
catch the idea of a recruiter, and her dream will be fulfilled. But what if it’s not? And it doesn’t happen 80% of the time. If I were a betting man, I would not lay a couple hundred
thousand dollars on that outcome. And that’s what the education
is going to cost. It’s an all-or-nothing bet. If she drops out anywhere in the program, her job prospects are
hardly any better than if she quits school in the 11th grade. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Instead of betting everything
on a master’s degree, we can hedge our bets every single year. When you look at that,
it makes more sense. I believe that we should add
hands-on learning opportunities at the high school and college level that teach practical skills that will
lead to a job at every single step. I believe that we should
teach people the things they need to make a living wage in high school. Boy, I’m running out of time here. So, what can you do? You can teach people
real usable work skills at every stage of the education process. You can teach people
in a comfortable environment. Make sure every high school graduate
has a basic competency in social skills. And you can help students
get organized and find their gifts. Thank you all.

5 thoughts on “Organic education: John Elder Robison at TEDxCollegeofWilliam&Mary

  1.  Georgia Tech has a maker's space, and any student in any class can use it.  As Georgia Tech goes, so goes the nation, eh?

  2. It's interesting how some careers have built in mentors and apprenticeships while in others (like mine) you are cast into the ocean to fend (and learn) on your own. We need to get back to what Mr. Robinson is advocating: less emphasis on passing tests that do nothing and more focus on learning by doing.

  3. I am homeschooling two with Learning abilities, I do not use the term dis, because we simply learn and see differently, does not make us dis abled, or unable, for their inability to acknowledge us as an asset to society, they want normal robots, we are not robots, I am thankful for the chance to home educate my children, that learn the same way I do, ….I also have a letter of refusal from the WISD in Texas for my refusal to medicate my son………. The education system is Broken…….. they have no idea the damage they do, and the extent there of.

  4. You tell 'em John! Bring back trade schools and teach what used to be called manners and is now known as social skills in school.

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