We first met educator Thomas Armstrong in the summer of 1990, when he was a keynote presenter at our annual Edu-K conference, The Spirit of the Child. He caught our attention when he began his presentation, “Addressing the Giftedness in All Learners,” by introducing two major forces that shape personality: remembering and adaptation.
Dr. Armstrong spoke of the continual balance that occurs between the need to preserve one’s personality—to stay awake to one’s inner spirit, uniqueness, and sense of self, which he calls remembering, and the need to acclimate oneself to social and cultural expectations—to look ahead, fit in, and forget the world of the child, which he calls adaptation. He reminded us of the curiosity, flexibility, wonder, and novelty of children—“the architects of evolution,” and the importance of acknowledging their innate abilities—a theme that runs strongly through our own Edu-K work. Armstrong pointed out that most learning approaches are top-heavy in requiring that learners adapt and change, and need to balance this by staying open to children’s natural genius.
“It seems that, in education more than in any other area, I can see this happening—this incessant demand on adaptation and this forgetfulness about who the child truly is,” said Dr. Armstrong. He described the tremendous neuroplasticity of the infant, the extraordinary rate of dendrite connections that occur before the age of two years, and the uncommitted nature of the cerebral cortex (with little specialization of the right and left brain hemispheres) in the young child.1 He quoted Neil Closeman as saying, “Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods,” and discouraged us from supporting our preschools as “paper factories.”
In his talk, Thomas Armstrong awakened us to alternative approaches in public education, starting with a look at Scandinavian countries that offer a wider grace period for learning math and language. In New Zealand, a country scoring the highest literacy ratings, “learning disabilities” are not recognized, he said, and integrated theme structures that honor children’s diversity are packed into elementary programs.
In Dr. Armstrong’s own research with thirty students from fourteen different states who’d been labeled as learning disabled, he discovered a surprising lack of validity in the tools used for measuring learning disabilities. He found the learners in his study to be bright and creative, with high levels of musical, mechanical, kinesthetic, and verbal literacy. Their wide range of unusual gifts and achievements included gymnastics and athletic skills, musical fluency, storytelling and narrative abilities, and talent with art and design.
Dr. Armstrong realized that his own preparation for teaching a Special Ed program had focused only on students’ difficulties and offered no tools for discovering their gifts. The assessment tools used measured only linguistic skills needed in our current classrooms, omitting any support or acknowledgment for other skills that might be even more critical to life success.
Armstrong described the skills that are actually measured and accredited in the classroom as “test-taking giftedness, worksheet giftedness, schoolroom giftedness, and logic/mathematics giftedness.” School, he said, has become a preparation for school, instead of a preparation for a full life.
Thomas Armstrong has gone on to become the Executive Director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, and an award-winning author and speaker. He has written fifteen books, and is perhaps most well-known for interpreting the work of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences. Today, fourteen years after Armstrong gave this presentation, the American educational system is still seeking an approach that balances adaptation with an honoring of children’s natural genius.
1Ways to notice and honor hemispheric specialization are taught in the Optimal Brain Organization course; see in particular the X-Span Balance to Access the Resource State (of giftedness). For more about Edu-K’s approach to cultivating diversity of intelligence, see Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life, and Visioncircles: Eight Circles of Perceptual Development.
© 2013 by Paul and Gail Dennison. All rights reserved.
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