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Diversity and Acceptance: Being Less Wrong

Keith Sgrillo's picture

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I decided on this mini project after a conversation with Paul about a particular author we (I can assume) found to be quite engaging, humanistic, and enlightening.  The author is Oliver Sacks who has written many wonderful books.  The discussion we had was on Mr. Sacks' ability to bring a rather clinical discussion to an audience in such a way that allows the audience to be engaged without feeling a condescension.  He was able to discuss very specific ideas concerning differentiated brains in a way that was empathetic, humane, and empowering for those with whom he shared the experiences with.  Based on the spirit and ideas of this institute, I was inspired by a quote from a conversation between Mr. Sacks and one of his subjects, Dr. P.:

“Well Mr. Sacks,” he said to me.  “You find me an interesting case, I perceive.  Can you tell me what you find wrong, make recommendations?”

“I can’t tell you what I find wrong,”  I replied, “but I’ll say what I find right.  You are a wonderful musician, and music is your life.  What I would prescribe, in a case such as yours, is a life which consists entirely of music…” (Sacks, 1998, p.18 ¶ 3-4).      

I believe this type of reconciliation between subject and teacher is profound in many ways.  The tender nature with which Mr. Sacks approached an individual who recognizes a difference, but perceives it as a problem, is the hallmark of someone who themselves is trying to get it less wrong.  This idea that disability is not really the issue, but something deeper than just being less able than others is profound.  It is less right to look at someone as being disabled and to prescribe a “fix” for the problem, rather than being less wrong and suggesting a reliance on their strengths and embracing the difference.  This is the truest sense of teaching and learning.  In essence, Sacks has established an understanding of how to truly reach an individual and to truly understand what diversity is.  In order to truly provide the appropriate resources for a person to be successful, one must truly identify the diversity within.


In this educational world of authoritative knowledge and standards, standardized testing, and buzz words such as differentiated instruction, formative assessment, and so forth, it is critical that the human service that we provide is directed at the humans we are providing it for.  Even with all the bureaucratic, institutionalized, seemingly rigid ideologies that have infiltrated education today, it is still possible to identify and reach those we work so closely with in a humanistic way to get it less wrong.  As Sacks did with Dr. P., it is crucial that we are able to find that common ground that we can reach to communicate with our students in order to establish a co-constructive communication that allows both to feel value as well as express value for one another. 

Another motivation for writing this was the time spent in this institute with a group of colleagues who represented not only such a large group of diverse teachers, but diverse learners as well.  What I feel I was able to ascertain from such engagements with them is the drive to be better, to get it less wrong, and to establish relationships with people aside from and in many cases separate from content alone.  Each expressed concern with the future of education, practices, students, relationships with them, and most of all, just being human.  The Brain, Science, and Inquiry-Based Education institute allowed us to discuss many topics from reality, to social stratification, even to wine tasting in a pressure and judgment free environment.  These topics were not viewed or discussed as topics for debate, but rather as topics for diversity and enlightenment. It was not the purpose of this learning environment to enforce finite and concrete understandings of these ideas, but to allow an individual to develop their own sense of understanding and to share it, free of discrimination, to better the whole group. That is the essence of education. 


 With that all being said, I have become particularly aware of some of my own thoughts and ideas concerning the practices and concepts I use in my classroom.  There are three areas of interest that I will be focusing on for this project based mostly on my own experiences and curiosity of them and their role on education.  I feel that these three, if not in practice but in theory, have major impact on the learning environment.  The areas of focus include deviance, disability, and communication.  I am not interested in them and independent topics, but also as interacting forces that must contend with each other in the regular course of a school day and in the contexts with which we define the. 









Sacks, O. (1998). The Man who mistook his wife for a hat. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc.



Keith Sgrillo's picture

Terminology and Context

What I find very interesting, and part of the motivation for this project, was not what he (Sacks) stated explicitly but seemed to me to be bubbling underneath, is that there is almost this "socially subconscious" idea that "disabilities" are almost a form of deviance.  That these people, albeit unwillingly, are deviant from the rest of society and therefore a sub-population of society and it is o.k. to keep them there because they are not like us. If their bodies are physically ill adapted for our environment, then so must be their ideas and contributions. And I feel that Sacks went further to take this to the psychological level as well.  I'd go farther to say that in a strange twist of irony, and I hope I can illustrate this clearly, that society tends to accept the thoughts of the deviants from the deviated group.  Those that, yeah they look and act like the others in their group, but they seem to think differently (more or less they are viewed like a novelty).  So it is kind of triangular in a sense.  Unless it is of profound proportions, these ideas are not accepted. Therefore, they are often neglected, as I see it, as being valuable and necessary.  I think from my perspective, Steven Hawking would be a good illustration of what I am talking about.  Society tends to see him as this great over achiever because of his physical "disability."  But why should his mind be any less great than anyone else's or, for that matter, have the potential to be greater?  He is not a great achiever because he has overcome, or should I say solely because of that, but because he possesses something innate that would have been there regardless.  What’s more, he is remarkable because he offered innovation and change of thought and found a way to do that. 

 I think that it is critical that we pay specific attention to those who experience our constructed reality from a perspective that is at a disadvantage living in it. It is my feeling that these are the individuals who contribute truly innovative and positive changes to the world.  The goal I think is to develop communication among people who fit many categories and perspectives to broaden the scope of understanding in contrast to trying to get all groups to conform to a single/similar perspective.  In my opinion, this is where terms like deviance, disability, and disadvantaged come from. 


Paul Grobstein's picture

Co-construction in Sachs, classrooms, and beyond

You assume correctly.  Delighted to be identified as someone who shares your admiration for Sachs.  For exactly the reasons you specify: Sachs has a distinctive ability to see difference, rather than deficiency/disability, and to embrace it as an opportunity to become "less wrong" himself.  To put it slighly differently, Sachs looks at others primarily in terms of what they offer to help Sachs himself reach new understandings.  And that not only makes a better understander/appreciator of others but also makes his own life richer. 

I share as well your sense that this is directly relevant to the classroom.  Working with our students "to establish a co-constructive communication that allows both to feel value as well as express value for one another" seems to me very much what is needed to engage all students more effectively in the educational process.  And I think something along these lines is relevant as well in a variety of additional social/cultural contexts.  See, for example, Cultures of Ability