Is Attention Deficit Disorder a *Real* Issue?

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September 30, 2013 by jeliwobble

Some time ago, I watched the following animated lecture given by Sir Ken Robinson to the RSA (Royal Society for the Arts, Culture and Commerce) and it struck home hard to me.

As an educator, I was often stuck between a rock and a hard place. I tried very hard to make my classroom a creative, engaging, fun place to be, where learning was arrived upon, rather than prescribed. In doing so, it wasn’t always possible for everyone to access the learning outcomes, for all the facts to be disseminated, and for all parents (and teaching managers) to be happy with what went on in my classroom. So, there were classes where ‘engaging, fun’ lessons weren’t possible, times that I couldn’t be the educator that I wanted to be, and kids who I undoubtedly ‘lost’ because I couldn’t teach them the way that they needed to be taught.

It is a fact that modern education systems are inappropriate for about 25% of the cohort we’re trying to teach. It’s not the children who are failing, it’s the system which is failing them. Why do we insist on trying to continue to teach them in a didactic classroom, trying to fill their heads with facts and figures, so they can pass a bunch of tests, so they can go and do a fairly meaningless degree, just to get into a white collar job where their degree isn’t worth the paper it’s written on? This system was failing a long time before the 21st Century rolled round.

The school I first worked in was amazing. The head was one of those forward-thinking types who was well before her time. Our cohort was ‘sink estate’; social housing, single parent families, supported largely by government benefits. There were *a lot* of behavioural issues. This was a little while before AD(H)D was something that was regularly diagnosed and medicated in the UK. Instead, the head dealt with the behavioural issues by offering the students who had the worst time in a didactic classroom, time out from those classrooms. Instead of forcing the kids to do academic stuff, she reduced their timetable to English, Maths, a short science course, food tech or design tech, and either a language or a humanities subject. The rest of the timetable was devoted to work experience, day release to the local community college for courses not available in a normal school environment like beauty or car mechanics, and a stint at the local agricultural college with work in the school gardens when they got back. They also ran a school restaurant where they planned, bought, cooked and served the meals to the staff on a Friday. The kids thrived. Even those who were consistently poorly behaved in the few academic classes they were mandated by government (unfortunately) to take, actively enjoyed other parts of their school life enough that the poor behaviour was less than it could have been. The parents adored the head and were so fully supportive of the school, I would get phone calls to thank me for putting their child in detention and asked if there was anything they could do at home to support what we were doing in school.#

As a parent, I am the owner of a ‘behaviourally challenged’ 6-year-old boy. I have had him ‘assessed’ and academically there is absolutely nothing wrong with him, everything is age-appropriate or better. He’s bright, social and empathetic. He just can’t keep his arse on a chair or do what he is told, when he is told. The assessment diagnosed a ‘mild attention deficit’. I personally diagnosed a bored little boy who would prefer to be playing with his cars or on a computer game than holding a pencil or learning to read. I am assuming that his behaviour will probably get more extreme as he moves further up the academic tree because he doesn’t learn by someone standing in front of him, telling him stuff. Oh, he hears that stuff, he just doesn’t compute it. No, my son has to actually *do* the stuff to learn the stuff (he’s a kinaesthetic learner). He has to break something to learn that if he plays with it inappropriately, it’s going to get broken. No matter how many times you tell him that it’s going to happen, until it does, he doesn’t learn it.

And he’s creatively stubborn with his learning opportunities. If you stop him from doing something that will hurt him or break something or is challengingly inappropriate (such as running when you’re supposed to be walking or climbing the wrong way up something), he *will* find a way to do it, regardless. Once he has it in his head to test his theory, he *has* to perform his experiment!

These attributes may well have been useful in a less technological era. Consistently testing boundaries meant that boundaries expanded, knowledge was gained from places where knowledge may not have even been thought to be found, and innovation was constant. But, in a modern academic forum, if you’re unable to keep your mind on the artificial track set out for you, learn those facts and figures so that you can regurgitate them on test day, then you won’t achieve anything.

So, in diagnosing ADD, are we simply diagnosing an issue that only matters because of the inappropriate and artificial way we are teaching our young people, as Sir Ken says, labelling people for life with a ‘disorder’ that is, in fact, a genetically useful attribute? Should it not be more about diagnosing the problems with our education system rather than diagnosing problems in those accessing that education system?

Having seen the issue from both sides of the fence, I am with Sir Ken on this one.


#The day the governors saw fit to forcibly retire her was the beginning of the end for that school. Despite many years of huge value added, the year after she retired (and consequently half the staff left) was the worst for the school in terms of results on record. The school never recovered, ended up in special measures and being taken over by a local academy conglomerate.

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2 thoughts on “Is Attention Deficit Disorder a *Real* Issue?

  1. ADD is definitely real, but I don’t think every squirrely child has ADD. I also don’t think every medicated child needs the medication – for a large amount of ailments, not just ADD, but that’s my own personal anti-meds stance. To me meds are last resort, you try lifestyle changes first. I have a wandering mind. I rarely pay attention to what is said in a classroom or a meeting, even though I try. I simply can’t keep it there for long, it all turns into blah blah blah as I play with something that was said my mind makes connections and applications on the first part while the speaker goes on and on. I have taught many people, from preschool age through Granny age, and I have seen only 3 people over my 15 years of teaching that I would say had a medical issue with attention or hyperactivity that was resolved with medication. All of the others, in my opinion, were choosing to act that way and reinforced to act that way by either the school, parents, or both. And yes I agree that our education system can trigger this in many children, it is simply not how we are wired to learn as humans, to sit there all day and absorb fact after fact. And yet we still teach this way most often. I believe that anyone can learn anything, given the right method and right amount of time for that person. Each brain is individual and needs to make connections in a unique pattern. Alternative education has an amazing way of making connections to those we can’t reach in a typical lecture format and gets them excited to learn, and gets them on the way to being a valuable part of society. We should be empowering kids, not labeling and teaching them they can’t learn, when the truth is the system doesn’t want to take the time or money to help them learn. I could go on and on, very good post!

    • jeliwobble says:

      I think that’s really my point. You *should* let your mind go off and do other things; that’s how great thoughts are thought!

      ADD may well be an important part of how intelligent people think. We should be teaching kids that their tangential thoughts are as important as their straight line thoughts.

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