Stepping Up To The Plate

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Last Saturday, I made my professional debut at the AT&T Park, celebrated home of the San Francisco Giants baseball team. At 10.00 am I was sitting by the dugout in the bright morning sunshine, waiting to be called onto the famous field. An excited crowd of several thousand people was buzzing with anticipation. As I looked out across the manicured green diamond, it was a moment to reflect on the improbable turns our lives can take. I was born in England. I live in Los Angeles. I don’t play baseball and I don’t understand it. Yet here I was, about to be center stage at the hallowed scene of so many World Series triumphs. (Should it really be called the World Series when there are no other countries involved?)

Fortunately, I wasn’t there to pitch balls but to pitch ideas, as a guest speaker for the annual conference of an extraordinary gathering of parents, students and educators. Parents Education Network is a broad coalition of students and adults that aims to facilitate educational success for students with learning differences (LD). Founded in 2003, PEN has become the Bay Area’s premier grass roots resource for parents, professionals and students dealing with learning issues.

PEN convenes conferences, lectures and workshops that bring local and national practitioners to speak to parents and educators. It runs SAFE Voices, a group for LD teens, with volunteers from local educational and psychological professionals. It also runs school advocacy and support groups, which train parent volunteers in local schools to liaise with the administration and to network with other parents to discuss common issues.

In 2009, PEN students launched the Education Revolution, a full day of workshops, conversations and events day dedicated “to understanding each child’s individuality in learning as the basis for creating new educational environments”. With characteristic ambition and energy, EdRev has been held each year at the Giants’ Stadium and it gets bigger every year too. This year’s event also included a fascinating keynote from Dr L Todd Rose of the Harvard Graduate School of Education on “the emerging new science of the individual and its implications for education, the workforce, and society.” Dr Rose and I developed similar themes.

One of the deep problems of the standards and testing movement is that it promotes a very narrow view of ability in schools and a culture of conformity. The fact is that all students are different. Like you and me, they all have different talents, different interests and different ways of learning. Individual achievement is not marked by so much conformity as by diversity. People with ‘learning differences’ may well have other strengths and talents that standardized education completely overlooks. Discovering our real abilities is at the heart of creating our best lives. And we do create our lives.

As I sat near the dugout, I thought about how my own life had been shaped by the teachers I met, the mentors I’ve had and how my own path to the Giants’ stadium had been shaped by the interests I’d evolved over my life and the passions that I’ve discovered myself and that others have encouraged in me. Every life is a process of improvisation between our talents and dispositions and the opportunities we take or turn away from.

At the PEN event, I met students and parents with remarkable stories of achievement as they’ve learnt to overcome the narrow view of learning that dominates education. This view creates problems for all students, including those who actually succeed in the current system. PEN’s campaign has important implications not only for students with recognized learning differences, but for understanding the diversity and individuality of all students. It’s a campaign we should all be waging. Wherever we are, we should step up to the plate.