Paradox of Students’ “Deficits” As Society’s Strengths

179897674_ee402474d9_bThe Economist article, “In praise of misfits,” lays out the business-related benefits of what the author  calls “creatives,” “anti-social geeks,” “oddball quants,” and “rule-breaking entrepreneurs.” While the entire article is well worth the read, we have pulled out a few quotes to help frame the idea that we should work tirelessly to help our school system to support these “misfits.”

Rather than treat their uniquenesses as deficits, we would do well to build on their actionable strengths and affinities — qualities that are proving to shape our present, and will surely impact our future.

From the article:

Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues.


Similar traits are common in the upper reaches of finance. The quants have taken over from the preppies. The hero of Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short”, Michael Burry, a hedge-fund manager, is a loner who wrote a stockmarket blog as a hobby while he was studying to be a doctor. He attracted so much attention from money managers that he quit medicine to start his own hedge fund, Scion Capital.

The article goes on,

Entrepreneurs also display a striking number of mental oddities. Julie Login of Cass Business School surveyed a group of entrepreneurs and found that 35% of them said that they suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10% of the population as a whole and 1% of professional managers. Prominent dyslexics include the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM and IKEA, not to mention more recent successes such as Charles Schwab (the founder of a stockbroker), Richard Branson (the Virgin Group), John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs (Apple).

All that said, however, there must be balance between the “creatives” and what the article refers to as, “The Organisation Man,” or the “‘well-rounded’ executives.” The writer goes on to explain,

Where does that leave the old-fashioned organisation man? He will do just fine. The more companies hire brilliant mavericks, the more they need sensible managers to keep the company grounded. Someone has to ensure that dull but necessary tasks are done. Someone has to charm customers (and perhaps lawmakers). This task is best done by those who don’t give the impression that they think normal people are stupid.

All of this hints at the need for the real career-ready skill of knowing simply how to get along — to not just tolerate differences, but to appreciate and leverage these differences as opportunities to innovate and become more than the sum of our parts. Our learning communities can be (and already are) incubators of the social relationships that, in part, define a student’s path beyond graduations, for better or for worse.

What if we were so bold as to decide that each student is a learner, learning changes lives,  learning happens in different ways, and learning empowers, and therefore we need to ensure that each student feels the work of schooling matters to them and that their strengths and affinities are not only valued, but embraced and employed as essential to the success of the community?

Do we need to wait until these “misfits” graduate and enter the workforce to change the following?

Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties.

Because, after all,

. . . these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s actually cool to be a geek.”

We, as educators and advocates of all students, have the power to change this trend. There is no need for students to wait until adulthood to find that their strengths matter, and no research suggests this is in the best interest of students, especially those “creatives, oddballs, and/or square pegs among us.

Photo Credit: BrittneyBush via Compfight cc

Brief Review of L. Todd Rose’s “Square Peg”

“Behavior isn’t something someone ‘has.’ Rather, it emerges from the interaction of a person’s biology, past experiences, and immediate context.”

L. Todd Rose, from his book, Square Peg

6301560117_fa8f4c16b9_bFor students with learning differences schools can be (and often are) incredibly trying places. Imagine being a kid who wants to do well — motivated, eager to please, and enjoys interacting with other students — but struggles with attention and working memory. Rather than reep the joys of learning, the student finds herself labeled, removed from her classmates and made to do the things she struggles with for a significant portion of the day. Other subjects, like PE, Art, the Humanities, are sidelined, even though they may be areas of strength for her. Her resulting behavioral expression of the dissonance between her and her learning environment is seen as misbehavior and disciplinary actions follow.

At the end of a day, month, year, or decade, what has she concluded about her “smarts” or her potential as a student? More importantly, what is her assessment of her value as a human? What does she see when she looks at herself through the lens of a school experience that focused, almost solely, on her deficits?

w_2115_smallerL. Todd Rose, co-founder and president of Project Variability, offers a glimpse of a similar experience in his part-memoir part-neuro-education book, Square Peg. His story goes something like this:

  • Classic case of boy with ADHD
  • Struggles in school — discipline, academics, friends
  • Suspended, fails, becomes wholly disenfranchised
  • Drops out
  • Works minimum wage job to support wife and baby
  • Ends up on the faculty at Harvard (after a lot of hard work)

In the telling of this incredible journey, he shares insights from his experiences and from research into the needs, challenges, and value of the “Square Pegs” in our lives. The anecdotally academic weaving together of personal tales and studies from the field of neuro-education (he teaches Educational Neuroscience at Harvard Graduate School of Education) creates numerous access points for a compelling narrative arc as well as enlightening examples of applied theory. In short, it is a book that is hard to put down.

squarepeg-8-8-VER-8While he maintains a child’s sense of wonder and fascination about his own turnaround throughout the book, he also plays the role of scholar, unpacking the theories and ideas that became leverage points for capitalizing on his strengths and accommodating for his challenges. In the prologue he suggests the field of complex systems offers the best possible explanation for his story, and by proxy, the story of many others. He describes his application of complex systems as such:

To put it simply, the study of complex systems looks at how different parts of a system influence each other collectively to produce various outcomes. Nowadays, scientists have been holding up this lens to a range of traditional disciplines, from physics to biology–and, most recently, in centers like the one in which I work: Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education program–to the study of human learning. As this effort matures, it is offering a radically new and useful way for parents and teachers to understand the often bewildering behavior of children in their charge.

Throughout the book he uses complex systems and neuroscience to flesh out four ideas to help us be “much more understanding and effective parent(s) and teacher(s)” for the square pegs in our lives. But in reality, the ideas apply to myriad human systems. They are:

  1. Variability is the rule: As humans, our ways of perceiving the world and reacting to what we perceive are much more diverse and dynamic than we might ever have imagined.
  2. Emotions are serious stuff: Contrary to what we’ve long believed, modern neuroscience has shown that there is no such thing as purely rational thought or behavior. Parents and teachers need to learn to tune in to children’s emotional states to help them make the most of their education.
  3. Context is key: People often behave in dramatically different ways, depending on the circumstances. Among other things, this suggests that we unfairly prejudice children by labeling them with a disorder, when they’d be perfectly fine in a different environment.
  4. Feedback loops determine long-term success or failure: Remember those flapping butterfly wings, and keep in mind that small changes in your child’s life today can make an enormous difference tomorrow.

Taken together, these four ideas create a mosaic of factors playing into students’ lives, influencing and affecting their choices, decisions, and behavioral outcomes. They demonstrate that the only silver bullet is in not accepting there there is a silver bullet. No juggernaut exists for all people in all situations. Rather, we must be champions of the individual, unwavering advocates for the well being of each child, and Loraxes who speak for the square pegs.

We highly recommend this book to parents, educators, and clinicians working with square, triangular, and / or round pegs. Not only will you glimpse what the world may look like through their eyes, you will learn a bit about yourself, the science of learning, and, ultimately, the anecdotal and neurological value of caring.

Photo Credit: Mario Inoportuno via Compfight cc
Todd Rose portrait: HGSE
Square Peg Book Image: Hyperion