Beating ‘Compliance Acquiescence Disorder’ in school

The first piece I published by David Bernstein, in which he talked about how schools fail kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, obviously tapped a nerve out there because it got a lot of response. Here’s another post from Bernstein, a nonprofit executive who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., and has two sons, ages 7 and 15, who have ADHD.

By David Bernstein

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a friend of mine and, as usual, the discussion turned to our kids. “It’s still a battle every night with my 15-year old-son to do his homework,” she said. “We’ve tried everything, from meds for the ADHD to an executive coach for his executive functioning issues,” she confided. “It’s so easy with my 13-year-old daughter. She does exactly what she is supposed to do and gets all A’s and B’s (I can’t relate).”

“Which of your two children,” I asked, “do you think is more likely to do great things?”

“My son for sure,” she said, without hesitation. “He’s very motivated to work on whatever he finds interesting, he’s highly creative and he has many interests. My daughter just focuses on what she’s supposed to do at the moment.”

Then why, I wondered, was she spending all of her time, resources and emotional energy trying to fix her son rather than trying to inspire her daughter? What’s wrong with this picture?

Our school system has long treated kids like her son as deviants for not fitting into the cookie cutter program or being on the prescribed timeframe for development, but has showered praise on children with what Norm Diamond, an Oregon educator, mockingly called “Compliance Acquiescent Disorder (CAD).

” A person with CAD, said Diamond, “defers to authority,” “actively obeys rules,” “fails to argue back,” “knuckles under instead of mobilizing others in support,” “stays restrained when outrage is warranted.”

While Diamond invoked CAD as a spoof of other recently invented diagnoses supposedly afflicting children, the problem of excessive compliance is no joke.

America and, indeed, the entire Western world, are moving from an industrial economy to what many refer to as a post-industrial age. Our modern education system was developed to meet the needs of an industrial economy. Whereas the industrial economy demanded workers who would serve as cogs in the wheel of industry, the post-industrial economy requires workers who can be innovative and create real value.

According to Tony Wagner, noted author and Innovation education fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard University, “Business leaders, in particular, say that we need many more young people who can create innovations. The school system, however, is teaching just the opposite. By the time they are 6 ½ years old they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions.”

Marketing guru Seth Godin stated in his manifesto on education reform that “If you do a job where someone tells you exactly what to do, he will find someone cheaper than you to do it. And yet our schools are churning out kids who are stuck looking for jobs where the boss tells them exactly what to do.”

It seems obvious that the value system of compliance that undergirds industrialized education must be replaced with a new value system that emphasizes risk taking, challenging the status quo, and critical thinking.

I recently came across the stated values of my second grader’s Montgomery County elementary school, which are posted everywhere and reinforced with children and their parents. They are “responsibility, engagement, respect and caring.” These are all values that I want for my child (except for “engagement,” which is not a value, but rather an exhortation that kids should pay attention, no matter what’s going on in their brains and how interesting the lesson).

But all of these are values of compliance — of reconciling a child to the system. They are necessary but not sufficient for the new economy and a just society. None of them bespeak critical thinking or challenging conventional wisdom, the very ingredients of innovation and creativity. Educational reformer Alfie Kohn stated that “I’d be thrilled to send my children to a school whose walls featured variations of the timeless reminder to “Question Authority,” not in a snarky, rude way, but in the pursuit of genuine learning.

The bigger challenge for educators and parents is not contending with the kids with alternative learning styles who place a strain on the system, but inspiring those who don’t.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · October 4, 2012