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The New Paradigm for Education

Why do ADHD/ADD rates keep rising each year? Is the condition becoming better understood medically or are patients being misdiagnosed and simply abusing the system? What’s behind the rise of ADHD?

Sir Ken Robinson considers this new ADHD trend to be a “Fictitious Modern Epidemic”. He argues that while ADHD may be a real condition, it is currently being over-diagnosed to treat children underperforming among rigid, “one-size-fits-all” educational systems. Why does the system simply assume that children of the same age are all in the same level?

When I moved to the USA, at the age of 10, I didn’t speak English and the school system placed me in regular English classes rather then ESL. Shouldn’t there be a test we are obliged to take before being placed in the system? In Switzerland, according to my father, all the students take a standardized test around the age of 8 and are then placed in the right level (honors/standard). So how should we change our system? And will changing it truly affect this “Plague of ADHD”.

On top of the educational system there are other factors causing the rise in ADHD diagnosis. Social media and online videos are huge contributing factors among children and adults today. We spend so much time on sites such as Facebook, twitter, YouTube, Hulu and Netflix that it’s challenging to focus. I sometimes turn off the wireless Internet in order to fully concentrate on my work. So is technology helping cause ADHD?

While I agree with Sir Ken Robinson that children are often misdiagnosed, I believe that ADHD is under diagnosed as well, particularly among adults. A more rigorous system is clearly needed for diagnosing the disorder. And we evidently need to somehow change our educational systems.

14 comments to The New Paradigm for Education

  • vtj205

    As a side note, I highly recommend you watch this video that I wrote my post about. It was an animation adapted from a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson. I’ve watched a few of his videos on TED talk and I find him to be very inspirational and humorous at the same time. Here’s a link to the video:

  • Sarah Rothberg

    While I haven’t read this essay, this is a topic that I’ve worked with in the past (particularly during my assistantship with a Professor at Berkeley for a Literature and Disability class) and am super interested in. I think one of the most enlightening opinions I encountered at that time (though, unfortunately I can’t attribute it, because I don’t remember the source) was that yes, for whatever reason it’s ultimately true that more and more young people are not able to focus in traditional school environments, but that’s fine because the real issue is that our teaching methods are pathetically out-dated.

    In part, I do think that the rise in ADHD has to do with a rise in diagnosis, which I believe relies in two factors: 1. Awareness about the condition among both doctors and patients (/ their families) leads to more diagnoses, some well-justified and some potentially excessive and 2. (I think, sadly) a huge push from pharmacutical companies (i’m sure a lot of us out there know at least a dozen people out there who conveniently have an excess of Aderoll all the time for some reason).

    However, I also think that the kind of constant stimulation this generation has grown up with may cause, if not ADHD in a “true medical sense” (if that is anything, i’m not a doctor) something that mirrors its behavioral manifestations, making it maybe just as difficult for a student who maybe doesn’t “have” the condition to pay attention.

    Essentially, no matter what’s going on here as far as diagnosis/empirical rise in the condition, static teaching methods are clearly not going to be effective to students who are learning so rapidly (if not like, algebra, how to flick a bird) through interactive tech.

  • Sam Slover

    Interesting thoughts Vanessa and Sarah.

    I agree that our outdated one-size-fits-all approach to learning is a big reason for problems with focus. While certain kids thrive under the structured way we do school, many other’s become disengaged because it’s just not a great fit for how they learn. It’s clear that we need more personalized options when it comes to learning, but that’s incredibly difficult in school systems that thrive on standardization (for practical reasons). I do think technology can play a big role in solving this problem, and more and more schools are interested in allowing their kids to learn in their own way using new tech, apps, etc. (however, standardization of what tech can be used for what is still a humongous problem no one has solved.. ITP to the rescue? ;)).

    All that said, I also think the over-diagnosis of ADHD is a problem of people wanting life to be easier than it actually is. Life is meant to be hard! It’s not easy having to focus on work all the time. We all struggle with it. I believe a part of being human is overcoming these challenges, and while some people do have a legitimate chemical issue in their brain (and medication is suitable for them), many more should work through it the old-fashioned way with true grit.

  • Xuedi "Chen"

    I agree that a large part of the problem lies in over diagnosis. I don’t know about other countries, but there ADD/ADHD just doesn’t exist in China and their educational system is very rigorously standardized. Every student takes standardized tests at every level. Your scores determine the quality of the schools (middle school, high school and college) you can get into. Your test scores basically determines your future. (Perhaps that’s their way of addressing more personalized learning options.) Because of that the competition is fierce, people want to do well and get into the best schools so they are forced to concentrate and work hard.
    I realize this is also an effect of the “tiger moms” phenomenon, which is why I tend to think a large part of problem is with the parents. Raising a child is HARD work and maybe some parents are not well prepared for that time investment and it can be detrimental to a child’s growth. Sometimes I feel like I have hints of ADD, I definitely remember not being able to concentrate on homework as a kid… but I think my mom may have “beaten” some of it out of me 😛
    As for technology… I don’t think technology in general is causing problems. When used correctly, its tools are invaluable to education. But I do think having 24/7 access to the internet is terrible! Let’s face it, we’re all guilty of looking one thing up on google and then going off on a tangent and snapping out of it hours later. Does that mean we all have ADD?

  • Ben Kauffman

    If anyone is interested, Michel Foucault, a modern French philosopher, makes a super compelling argument about the the “scientification” or “medicalization” of power (my horribly mangled terms, not his!). He posits that creating new and ever growing categories of medical problems (he focuses on psychiatric diagnoses) can be an instrument of power for the established regime or group in power.

    In this case, if you take a system like education, the tendency to overdiagnose ADHD and put children on powerful drugs or shuttle them into an alternative learning tracks could be seen as means of controlling people or maintaining power in a certain way.

    This isn’t to say that ADHD doesn’t exist (I believe it does), only that its over-diagnosis could reflect certain dynamics in our society.

  • sjg447

    This may sound crazy, but a major factor in my hesitation regarding having children (despite the fact that my brother and sisters have given me thirteen nieces and nephews) is total disgust with the current American education system combined with almost no hope for finding a better alternative at present. I went to grade school before the craze of diagnosing children with attention disorders, but there’s almost no question that I would have been heavily medicated. Instead, I spent most of my time sitting in the corner, standing in the hallway or in the principal’s office because the whole system (a Texas school district, by the way) could not have been more poorly suited to a person like me (very high IQ, but difficulty with interpersonal interactions). Even aside from that, the whole formula is frustrating—stealing a massive chunk of children’s lives to make them miserable, uncomfortable and barely teaching them anything at all in the process. It’s all so awful I can’t even imagine forcing one of my children to do it. I’d feel evil.

  • wm709

    This is an interesting topic and everyone raises some good points. In my last program i did a paper on the effects of technology on creativity and while trying to counter its (many) positive impacts, i found some opposing arguments. The Telegraph published an article a while back on “How the Internet is Making us Stupid”, which gathered some scientific and psychological opinion on how our use of technology is affecting our concentration levels and ability to multitask not just behaviourly, but neurologically. Here is an excerpt:

    “The pioneering neuroscientist Michael Merzenich believes our brains are being “massively remodelled” by our ever-intensifying use of the web and related media. In the 1970s and 1980s, Mr Merzenich, now a professor emeritus at the University of California in San Francisco, conducted a famous series of experiments that revealed how extensively and quickly neural circuits change in response to experience. In a conversation late last year, he said that he was profoundly worried about the cognitive consequences of the constant distractions and interruptions the internet bombards us with. The long-term effect on the quality of our intellectual lives, he said, could be “deadly”. ”

    Some of these opinions are still speculative because research has not been done over an extensive period of time, but it’s interesting to see the parallels in the rise of ADD with increase in technology devices – perhaps there is a link? Or maybe we are just finding another new type of label!

    Here is a link to the full article :

  • I don’t want to make a big deal of it but I truly disagree with these lines from our colleague Sam Slover: “Life is meant to be hard! It’s not easy having to focus on work all the time. We all struggle with it.”
    Although I understand his point criticizing the over-diagnosis of ADHD, I think that’s a more complex problem. This “Life is meant to be hard” is behind the standards of our old institutional’s views. Hardness can’t be like a “filter”.

    The same author of this essay tell us in another essay this story:

    “(…) Gillian and I had lunch one day, and I said, “How did you get to be a dancer?” She told me that when she was at school, she was really hopeless. She couldn’t concentrate; she was always fidgeting. The school wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a learning disorder.” I think now they’d say she had ADHD. But this was the 1930s, and ADHD hadn’t been invented at this point. It wasn’t an available condition. People weren’t aware they could have that.

    So Gillian’s mother took her to see this specialist. She sat on her hands for 20 minutes while her mother talked to this man about all the problems Gillian was having at school: She was disturbing people, and her homework was always late, and so on. In the end, the doctor sat next to Gillian and said, “Gillian, I’ve listened to all these things that your mother’s told me. I need now to speak to her privately. Wait here — we’ll be back. We won’t be very long.”

    As they went out of the room, he turned on the radio sitting on his desk. When they got out of the room, he said to her mother, “Just stand and watch her.” The minute they left, she was on her feet, moving to the music. They watched for a few minutes, and he turned to her mother and said, “You know, Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick. She’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.”

    I asked, “What happened?” and Gillian said, “She did. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was. We walked into this room, and it was full of people like me. People who had to move to think.” Who had to move to think.

    She eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School and had a wonderful career at the Royal Ballet and became a soloist. She later moved on, founded her own company, and met Andrew Lloyd Webber. She’s been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, she’s given pleasure to millions, and she’s probably a multimillionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.”

    Take the “life is meant to be hard” point is somehow to stick with the standards.
    I agree with Sarah’s points trying to give some inputs to think a little deeper about these dieseases. We’re facing a time with very huge changes in our behavior as individuals, as a community, as a society. Some of these questions here are related to this struggle.

    I don’t know exactly what “life is meant to be”, although I love to see all the variety of efforts in this question. Life is meant to be many things. We can choose ours and then try to make sure everyone else can also have the same ability to choose. And I believe technology can be a great tool for that too.

  • Sam Slover

    Before I respond to Vitor, Ben – thanks for reminding me of that Foucault argument! It’s scary to think what this mass use of prescription drugs for ADHD could be doing to reinforce our culture and its institutions. It certainly seems to be a means of codifying a certain status quo “way of being” that is the backbone of our traditional/powerful institutions.

    Vitor Freire, I get what you’re saying, but maybe I should clarify what I meant (and I actually think we agree on the core point, which is that people need to find their own character and way of being through a difficult process of self-discovery (which I see as a gritty process of struggle and hard work)). What I meant is that figuring out who you are, what your purpose is, and how you fit in to this world is NOT supposed to easy or necessarily fun. It should be a tough process that can be marked by struggle, suffering, and yes, lots of hard work. I don’t necessarily mean hard work in the sense of sitting at a desk and staring at a book (what you call “sticking with the standards”). Dancers have to work hard too… first to struggle against the “standard” system, figure out who they are and that they thrive more as a dancer, and then to put in the hours of becoming a master of dance themselves. I do not believe hard work has a specific “way of being.” When I say “Life is meant to be hard” I mean that too often in modern society, we look at people struggling with work and focus as a bad thing. So we take the easy way out and say “lets just get them right through medication.” What I think has happened in our culture, is that in a quest to solve every problem imaginable and encourage uniformity, we shun the process of struggle and hard work that is actually quite beneficial for humans.

    This reminds me of one of my favorite dialogues from the move Little Miss Sunshine, where Dwayne (the teenager) talks to Frank (played by Steve Carrel) about his struggle with high school:

    Dwayne: I wish I could just sleep until I was eighteen and skip all this crap-high school and everything-just skip it.
    Frank: Do you know who Marcel Proust is?
    Dwayne: He’s the guy you teach.
    Frank: Yeah. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he’s also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he uh… he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, Those were the best years of his life, ’cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn’t learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you’re 18… Ah, think of the suffering you’re gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-those are your prime suffering years. You don’t get better suffering than that.

    My problem is with how damn sensitive we are to struggle and suffering as a modern society! So again, I do think rather than “solve it” through medication, we should let most kids struggle through their focus issues and figure it out on their own (it’s character building — maybe they are miserable and then figure out that dancing is their true way of being, or maybe they become an accountant and just stay miserable; either way, this is what being human is). This is what I mean by life is hard work.

  • Esteban

    I was diagnosed with ADHD. I refuse to take the medication on the grounds that I do not want to succumb to a dependence on a drug and that I can achieve the same results with behavioral modification. I do struggle form time to time but it comes down to a matter of discipline. I have to take away all the distractions around me and really focus. That begins with identifying what triggers my ADHD. Sometimes it can be loud noises, crowded places, or the actual material itself. I’ve developed a regime that helps me cope with it. I’m doing better than I ever have.

    I do agree that doctors are over diagnosing children with all sorts of maladies, including ADD/ADHD. It’s becoming a real problem in our society, this idea that we are helpless and this absolution of blame and responsibility. Too often we look for a way to pass off our accountability. As Xuedi pointed out, ADD is seldomly diagnosed in China and it churns out an incredible number of children wit high math and reading skills. I’m sure there is a baseline for real ADD occurrences, but hyperactivity and inability to pay attention isn’t it. That’s just called being a kid. Good parenting is needed along with good teachers.

  • Sam Slover

    oh wow, this site has been hit by spammers! (but how… there is a log-in process… maybe we need the dreaded captchas?)

    Thanks for sharing your experience Esteban.

  • vtj205

    Thanks everyone for your replies. It was really interesting to read through them and see your different views on the topic. Xuedi, you brought up a very good point about how in China ADD/ADHD simply doesn’t exist and their educational system is extremely rigorous. I feel like many countries, for instance Switzerland, have a similar system and if it works there we can make it work here as well without the need of excessively medicating children.

  • Nancy

    Good, thoughtful discussion. Just to throw in a thought or two and a question. When the American Public School system was set up after the civil war, the purpose (stated in black and white) was Americanization. There were millions coming to these shores. And what you went to school for were the 3R’s (readin’,’riting’, ‘rithmetic)..those were the things you couldn’t learn by watching your parents (blacksmith, dry goods, mom etc.). Gradually over the years, work has become separated from the home, and schools have been asked to teach more and more stuff. But the basic factory-style organization hasn’t changed ( 9 year olds go here, 12 year olds go there.) People who didn’t fit in, could find work without a lot of education. (NOw I’ll skip a lot of history…..) So here we are, when you can’t make a good living without more schooling, there are huge distractions from the media and streets about things to do with your time…women’s liberation comes and the best and brightest gals can get good paying careers in jobs other than teaching….the world has changed, but schools haven’t. If George Washington came back today, the only things he might recognize would be his church and school.

    And now we have committed (at least on paper) to educate all our kids: black and white, girls and boys, abled and disabled, etc. Both parents working usually. Overcrowding in cities and the financially able opting out of the system, an aging population that doesn’t want to pay school taxes……it’s an endless list

    So.. my question, if you could change 1 or 2 things only about our early education, what would it be? It’s a system, think of the ‘small gear’ that would make the biggest change.

  • rsm397

    Reading these comments is truly a fascinating reflection on the diversity of our backgrounds and unique experiences informing our opinions on this subject.

    From issues about teacher/student responsibility, to psychological and, some might argue, genetic factors contributing to the rising numbers of ADD/ADHD diagnoses — I find it poignant that the discussion itself has become an example of the myriad of ways we can teach each other simply by sharing our individual opinions.

    But Nancy raises a very interesting point by focusing the discussion on the fundamental purpose of the educational system as it was first devised; Americanizing the US population. The underlying problem that we face seems to be just that — a system geared towards generating an homogeneous culture, equipped with basic skills determined by national-level standards.

    There are two fundamental changes that I feel are most needed in US public schools:
    1. Recognition of Visual and Auditory Literacy — understanding that all six senses are forms of communication as opposed to simply reading and writing.
    2. Eliminate standardized testing at the national level

    While my own background is very diverse in terms of the educational philosophies I have experienced, the International Baccalaureate Program is one of the simplest and least expensive ways to counteract some of the most basic problems within the public school system, including smaller class sizes, exposure to both the arts and sciences, student driven coursework, and diverse grading assessments that rarely (if at all) use multiple choice testing.

    Intended for students who wish to study abroad, the IB Program designs curriculums for every subject that meet an international standard and test with both open-ended essay questions and oral exams. In history classes, for example, instead of reading excerpts from a standardized textbook, students are invited to read and compare chapters addressing the same topic from books by authors of contradictory perspectives. IB students are exposed to various perspectives from international authors, textbooks, historical papers and personal accountings so students develop critical thinking skills and can learn to assess for themselves what they believe to be true based on research and analysis.

    The result is that students become critical thinkers and are highly engaged with course material. Rather than memorizing facts for a standardized test, students can and decide to earn certificates or full degrees in a declared focus of their choosing and complete a thesis paper on a topic that they are interested in exploring.

    In summary, I think implementing the International Baccalaureate Program in all public schools would solve many of the basic problems negatively effecting teachers and students in the US. The program is already successfully integrated within public schools nation-wide.