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ADHD and Education: A New Take on Personalized Learning

As this year’s election silliness mercifully raged to a close earlier in the week (well, kind of), I teased you with the promise of a blog post on ADHD as it relates to customized education and personalized learning. I then proceeded to torture you with a discussion about yet another interpretation of this year’s education survey data. It must not have been too bad, though, because you’re back for more. And I intend to fulfill my promise.

Our discussion of ADHD’s relationship with education reform begins with a fascinating New York Times article by Dr. Richard Friedman, a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at Cornell. Friedman starts out by stating a fact well known by many in the education world: The rates of diagnosis and treatment of ADHD have risen sharply over the years. According to Friedman, it is now the most prevalent psychiatric disorder among American children between the ages of 4 and 17, affecting in the neighborhood of 11% of that population at some point. Friedman points out that this has led many people to wonder whether ADHD is a real disease:

… [Y]ou may wonder whether something that affects so many people can really be a disease … And for a good reason. Recent neuroscience research shows that people with ADHD are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that had, until relatively recently, a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with the rest of us, they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and understimulating.

Friedman argues that ADHD is less of a “disease” and more of a biological difference in brain structure. In fact, he believes that difference may well have given you a leg up back in the day—by which he means the stone age. But who cares? If you’re anything like me, nobody you know spends much time pondering how successful he or she would have been as a caveman or cavewoman. If they do, you should be concerned. Highly concerned.

Fortunately, Friedman only briefly lingers on cavemen before extrapolating his point into the modern era, arguing that ADHD-related traits could actually be strengths in the right environments. More specifically, he looks at the results of new (and complicated) research into the brains of adults who have recovered from ADHD and makes an argument about what that research might mean for kids and education:

… [W]e should do everything we can to help young people with ADHD. select situations — whether schools now or professions later on — that are a better fit for their novelty-seeking behavior, just the way adults seem to self-select jobs in which they are more likely to succeed.

In school, these curious, experience-seeking kids would most likely do better in small classes that emphasize hands-on-learning, self-paced computer assignments and tasks that build specific skills.

Friedman doesn’t argue that kids with ADHD shouldn’t be treated medically. Instead, he sees a more flexible, personalized education as a potentially important part of the treatment equation.

While such an approach undoubtedly poses a challenge for teachers who must daily contend with a wide range of learning needs, many of the tools required to provide this type of education are already available. As Thomas Arnett at the Clayton Christensen Institute points out in a recent post, the growth and development of online and blended learning provides some exciting opportunities for teachers to provide a customized education for each of their students—including those with ADHD.

More personalized education? I’m in. I’ll leave the brain talk to the professionals.