I have recently had the pleasure of doing something I haven't had the opportunity to do in a very long time - reading two books back to back, and taking some beautiful rural walks between chapters so as to have the proper time to reflect on the themes being explicated within. Both books were related in topic but were otherwise very different works, and yet there were significant points of contrapuntal motion between both where the themes and narratives moved melodically in relation to one another that it gave me pause to want to briefly share my thoughts on both books side by side.
The first book is 'A Boy Made of Blocks' by Keith Stuart, a work of fiction about a boy, Sam, who is on the autism spectrum, and his father, Alex, who at first has difficulty relating to Sam and in understanding autism and the role he plays in supporting his son. While a work of fiction, the book has been forged out of the authors real life experiences in raising a son on the autism spectrum. Keith Stuart is the video game editor for The Guardian, and just over a year ago he wrote a very powerful piece titled, 'Minecraft's creator will always be a hero to me, he gave my autistic son a voice'. It the article, Keith explains the power that Minecraft had for his son and the way it allowed Keith to connect to his son, to hear his son be passionately excited about something for the first time in how eager he was to relate his experiences in Minecraft, and the way it allowed his son to relate to and play with others. This is something that is obviously very close to my own realm of interest as well, as I have dedicated a lot of time in my school and in working with other schools around the world on understanding the power that Minecraft has for children on the autism spectrum (and, as I always say, certainly it has had a powerful impact on most children everywhere, however there is no denying the ubiquitous field of influence the game has had on children on the autism spectrum in homes and classrooms the world over. When I presented to the United Nations in Shanghai last year, it was one of the key topics of conversation that was universally understood as being at the forefront of the minds of children on the spectrum everywhere, even after it had faded from such intense interest in the minds of many others).
There are some tremendous key ideas and moments that rise out of 'A Boy Made of Blocks', and the trajectory that the book takes with regards to how Minecraft becomes a powerful tool for Alex to finally connect with his son in a significant way. There are moments when Alex relates his own difficulties in being a father, as he watches other dads at the park playing with their sons, while he just sits and watches his son Sam play at a distance, he reflects that 'play doesn't come easy to me'. Later he is at home and sitting with Sam, and he gets some Lego out for Sam to build, which is then built and quickly put to the side, and then Alex gets some superhero toys and creates a simple little pretend play scenario with the toys that he acts out, which Sam enjoys at first, but then both he and Sam lose interest and momentum and just put the toys aside and don't really know what to do next. This is a keenly observed consideration that I have certainly felt myself as a father at times who isn't quite sure how to best be playful, and one that is related to me a lot from other parents both at school and in broader social realms. We know how important play is to our children, but there is a part of us that finds it hard at times to give ourselves over to a pure state of play that dives head first into unabashed fantasy and fruitful denial of the practical realities surrounding us. This is something that Alex finds very difficult in the story, compounded in his words by the challenges of parenting a child on the autism spectrum, 'It's like parenthood with the volume control turned up to eleven. Parenthood Max'.
There is a scene where Alex is at a bookstore to buy some books on understanding autism better, and at the same time he sees a How To Play Minecraft book on the bench, which he decides to get as well as Sam has just started taking an intense interest in the game. As the story progresses and Alex and Sam begin playing together in Minecraft, and Alex begins to see just how powerful a parenting force it is to be able to follow your child's lead and meet them at their own level of interest, Alex realises just how much he is learning about his son through playing Minecraft with him and just how much Sam reveals about how much he understands about his dad. At the end of the book, not to give the entire narrative away, there is a beautiful and funny moment where Alex looks at the books he bought at the bookstore, a now very well read Minecraft book and mostly untouched autism books, and he reflects how because of learning how to play with his son through Minecraft he never actually had need for the autism books. There is a powerful statement here about how at the heart of much autism pedagogy is the guiding sentiment of simply getting to know the child - if you can get to know your child, or student, by sitting down and playing with them, you will learn more than a hundred articles on autism theory. I can think of so many classrooms I have been in that tick every box in terms of autism pedagogy, they have all the visual timetables in place, the social stories, the emotional regulation strategies, but there is a distinct lack of personal relation to the children, there are not the free, unstructured opportunities to follow a child's lead and engage with moments of unfettered play, and in those classrooms there is something missing with regards to how the children are understood and responded to. In contrast, there are many other classrooms I have been in that perhaps miss a few of the key environmental supports I would consider a classroom should implement for best autism education support, and yet there is a tone of warm playfulness that celebrates the special interests of students and loves indulging what all the children are passionate about exploring, and it is in these classrooms that I witness the most reduced instances of challenging behaviours, because the teachers know the children so well, have such a close dialogue with the families.
This too is undoubtedly one of the most prominent themes that run through the book I read directly after this, a tremendously powerful non-fiction work by Jarlath O'Brien titled 'Don't Send Him In Tomorrow'. Jarlath is Head Teacher of Carwarden House Community School, a special school in England for young people between the ages of 11 to 19 with a statement or Education, Health & Care Plan (EHCP) of special educational needs. Students at the school have a wide range of needs including moderate learning difficulties, autism, Down syndrome, speech, language and communication needs and other conditions associated with learning difficulties. In many ways, Jarlath's school very much reminds me of my school, so much as I understand about it from Jarlath's book and from his posts on Twitter and his blog, certainly in relation to our High School classes that we have just opened across the past three years. In 'Don't Send Him In Tomorrow', many wise and well reasoned considerations are given as to the nature of understanding challenging behaviours as communicating a need, to the way in which a culture of understanding and implementing this sort of positive behaviour support is upheld and implemented by staff, to unpacking interpretations of inclusion and the very real and important functional skills that students need to acquire in order to lead as independent and enjoyable lives as possible. The book certainly too explores much in the way of diagnosing and providing proactive responses to difficult structural matters that frame the education system in England, but for me the most powerful sentiments expressed in the book were connected to the ideas of how we genuinely connect with and understand the lives and the individualised needs of our students.
As Jarlath states in the book with regards to understanding behaviour as a form of communication, in that children and young people will behave in a way that represents a projection of what they need and what they are seeking, we as educators need to be responsive to how we are open to interpreting these behaviours in the appropriate way. Rather than seeing a child as being rude, we instead see a social skill deficit that requires us to explicitly teach a skill to address this deficit. Rather than seeing a child as being attention seeking or a violent troublemaker or as being randomly explosive, we instead see an emotional regulation and a sensory need that requires us to interpret these needs in a manner that allows us to connect with the right professionals and the right strategies to implement appropriate supports. Jarlath wisely draws consideration here to the manner in which special schools should aim to open their doors more to other educators in order to share these experiences, and it is a truth that we often forget when we are faced with the particular educational space we engage with each day in special education: the children and young people we work with and the varied world of behaviours and learning needs that we experience and work with each day are very, very different to the daily educational experiences of most teachers and those who guide educational policy. To help share our experiences and the lessons to be learned within, an open door policy where we actively invite other schools and those related to the education of our young people into special schools where they can soak up what it truly means to understand the lives and the individualised needs of our students. With regards to 'A Boy Made of Blocks', there is a need here to open the Minecraft manual and sit down with our students, truly taking the time to open a window into their lives, rather than simply learning about them from a few numbers on a page or some half-considered notions of what Special Education is.
There is a section in the book where Jarlath reflects on some rather esoteric strategies in a school that are being used to support emotional regulation and behaviour support, but they are so specific and disconnected from the language and actions of the bigger world outside of school that there is a significant lack of opportunities for students to experience real-world implementation of these strategies. This is a point well worth considering, and is a point worth expanding on further - when we implement strategies to support our students to understand and manage their social and emotional needs, we need to make sure these strategies are readily transferable to real, practical life outside the walls of school. Take my own passion for emotional regulation programs such as The Zones of Regulation, I have a lot of time for this program as I feel it uses an extremely simple and readily understood framework of using four colours to represent four different emotional states, and then provides opportunities for students to reflect on personal strategies they can implement when they feel they are in one of these zones. It is a personal, readily generalised program of support that does not utilise too specific behavioural responses or systems of language that do not correlate with life outside of the classroom. This taps into a few considerations for me: one of which, is that teachers are often seeking out specific programs to address social and emotional needs, or executive functioning needs, or behavioural needs, and so on, and yet very often the best response is this: there is a not a specific program out there to help you teach social/emotional/etc skills, the best response is to get to know the child and develop strategies that correlate with their own individual needs and can be readily put into action and generalised. I believe a lot of teachers can have a severe lack of faith in their own ability to develop and implement a perfectly wonderful social skills program in their classroom based on how they know their children and what they understand about the social needs of life. While I have just raised my own praise for The Zones of Regulation program above, I say too that it is never a case of simply taking a program like this and implementing it without significant modification or reimagining in our classrooms - the best programs are the ones that you can take the seed of, and plant in your own garden to be treated and pruned and structured in a way that responds to your own situation. Take a random search on Pinterest for Zones of Regulation resources and you'll see a world of personalised strategies that are nowhere to be seen within the official Zones guidebook, but rather have been constructed based on the individual students the educators are working with, and with a view to how these strategies will find life outside of the closed system of school.
There is another consideration here too with regards to esoteric strategies that find difficulty in being generalised outside of the classroom, and that is with regards to the notion of what we value in special education, both in terms of frameworks such as positive behaviour support, but also in terms of what we feel a good, functional education should consist of in terms of students becoming independent and successful adults, and how this relates to notions of inclusion. Jarlath and I share very similar views on this I feel - he states a number of times across his book how much Mainstream Education could learn from Special Education, with regards to ideas stated above such as the manner in which Mainstream Educators and policy makers understand the value of what occurs in Special Education environments not just for students who are deemed to have special education needs, but for these students as children and young people, to remove the diagnosis for a moment and see the powerful real-world impact that the particular approaches taken by special educators can have on raising and preparing our children and young people for adult life. The amount of time we spend on teaching emotional regulation and social skills, for example, on the way we utilise the national curriculum in such a way as to render it functionally useful and visibly relevant to actual lived experiences. There is something very powerful to be celebrated and understood here - in my short essay book, 'Kindness Savant Will Pixelate', I make the brash assertion that Special Education could be considered Education 2.0, a more evolved form of Mainstream Education, one that massages that pulsing heart at the centre of education in a way that pumps blood to the areas of active and creative utility and implementation rather than to pipelines of antique pedagogical dreams that have never found life.
One of the thoughts I have been having for quite some time is that for students in Special Education, the idea of eventual Mainstream integration or transition has long been upheld as the highest marker of success: finally, the child has overcome their special education needs and they can integrate into a Mainstream classroom. But this idea is very deceptive, as it draws a false correlation between a child finding personal success and for that success to somehow be associated with being a participant in a Mainstream classroom. How many students are anonymously getting by in Mainstream classrooms, what Jarlath refers to as 'Grey Men', that is, in military terms they are not at the front of the pack, nor are they lagging behind, they just know how to stay anonymously in the grey fog of the middle ground. This is surely not a goal for any student written into an Individualised Education Plan: the goal for this student is to acquire enough self-regulation skills so as to be able to transition out of a Special Education setting and into a Mainstream Education setting where they have less opportunity to continue explicitly addressing their personal learning and life needs but nonetheless are able to run at a pace that doesn't warrant significant cause for concern or focus in the bustling landscape of their new school. Sure, I'm being a bit of a cynic here and perhaps am doing a major disservice to those students who transition out of Special Education settings and flourish in Mainstream Education, but to take that point of my comments here is to miss the key message, which is that Mainstream Education in my view is not a hallmark for student success, it is not the final goal that students in Special Education settings should aim for - the final goal that students everywhere should aim for is personal, independent success that provides quality of life in a manner most resonant with what they are seeking in life. My consideration here is that there is a lesson here that Special Education can teach to the Mainstream by virtue of the manner in which Special Education needs to shine a light so intensely on what quality of life and personal success mean in a world that is primarily composed of not just Mainstream Education but more importantly of Mainstream Society. In a world of Mainstream Society, it is we in Special Education who are seen as the esoteric ones, the ones who need to bolt on accessibility options onto the sides of Mainstream Buildings and Mainstream Footpaths, the students who need to philosophically reconfigure attitudes of Mainstream Behaviour Responses and of the idea of what Inclusion is and Normal is. And if any of this is coming across as tired and finger wagging in a furrowed brow manner that belies the incredible joy and free creative kaleidoscopic manner with which I soak up the opportunity to work in Special Education and alongside my sisters and brothers in Mainstream Education, please do not take it in this manner, but rather as a focusing of Schopenhauer's Telescope.
Arthur Schopenhauer is that wonderful German philosopher who gave us such incredible thoughts as 'All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident', and 'Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.' He also gave us the notion of considering a telescope, and how we might do well to consider our current situation in life with the benefit of hindsight, of being able to position ourselves fifty years into the future and to hold a telescope up to our eyes that could look back from the future towards our current situation, and to understand how the decisions we make now will impact on our life fifty years into the future. Say we were to do this with regards to education as we enact in our classrooms and as it is framed in educational policy - if we were to travel fifty years into the future with Schopenhauer's Telescope and were to focus it back now on 2016, what decisions are we making now that will bring about the sort of reality we would like to see in fifty years hence? I sometimes reflect on some of the students I work with or see in home settings, and I think, the education system we we know it in 2016 is not ready for you yet. Perhaps in 2116, or 2216, it might be ready, perhaps the classroom walls will not be so solid as they are right now, perhaps there will be fluid movement between home and community and mentoring opportunities that will better suit the individual needs of so many. In this way, I am suggesting that educational Inclusion as we know it is not up to the needs of so many of our children and young people, which I believe is the same sentiment that Jarlath considers in 'Don't Send Him In Tomorrow'. Jarlath makes the salient point about the many varied behavioural, medical, existential and other life needs that his students have that can not in any way be considered for Inclusion as we know it. My consideration, which I don't know if this is shared my Jarlath or not, is that I feel that Inclusion could be achieved in the future, in two hundred years with Schopenhauer's Telescope in hand perhaps, with a view that school and education as we know it would need to change in major ways, in ways that ascribe much more to the tenets of Universal Design - necessary for some, useful for all. At this stage, I would suggest that Inclusion is useful for some, a false marker of success for some, and out-of-reach for some. When Inclusion in society and in education is able to bring to life a reality of being truly accessible and useful for all, with designs in place that are necessary for the accessibility of some and are useful for every individual citizen out there, we will be living in a very different world with a very different perspective on what education is.
In 'A Boy Made of Blocks', little Sam has great difficulty at a school before eventually finding happiness in an environment with peers who he has formed genuine friendships with through his love of Minecraft. In 'Don't Send Him In Tomorrow', Jarlath relates the experiences of a family who found terrible social isolation in the community before being welcomed by the understanding that his Special School provided them. The warm heart at the centre of all of my thoughts above and within the pages of these two wonderful books is surely that of the way in which we take the time to understand the individual lives and lived experiences of those we have the privilege to encounter. To echo Schopenhauer again, we need to make sure we don't take the limits of our own field of vision for the limits of the world, which I whole-heartedly acknowledge with my passion for Special Education. I would also like to echo the idea that Sam brings to life in 'A Boy Made of Blocks' with the Minecraft worlds that he constructs, in that with regards to bringing about the sort of educational and societal futures that better reflect the value of what Special Education brings to the world, it might be a case of If you build it, they will come.