This week, Dr. Gil Tippy returns to talk about how Good Autism Education is just Good Education. His new book chapter will appear in the same upcoming book that we heard Dr. Gerry Costa talk about a few weeks ago. Dr. Tippy is a clincal psychologist, practicing in Sonoma County, California, a consultant, and a writer. We heard about his project, Dirty Hands Developmental Alliance in 2019, which will pick up again after the pandemic. He’s was the founder and clinical director of the Rebecca School and Shrub Oak Academy, and these days he’s mostly thinking about education and the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model, and where it stands in the world.

Good Autism Education is just Good Education

by Affect Autism |

Dr. Tippy Loves Teachers

Dr. Tippy loves teachers. His family is filled with teachers and he was a classroom teacher for many years. He’s taught in all different settings and now consults to different schools all over the world everyday where he sees wonderful teachers. Most are kind-hearted people who are there to do good. Almost always it’s because the teacher is wonderful, not because the system they sit in is wonderful–in fact, it gets in their way everyday. Flawed systems don’t helped these good-hearted, charismatic, intelligent, brave individuals transmit good education. Dr. Tippy thinks the world of teachers.

The Pandemic sparked reflection on education

Dr. Tippy has been thinking for years that the education system should just be shut down in order to start over. Then the pandemic hit and it shut down. This prompted Dr. Tippy to wonder what people are seeing in education now, how did schools react to having to go online, and what began to be revealed in education? 

It crystallized for him seeing this process stripped down. How did we get where we are in autism education–the paradigm of delivering facts in small chunks to students. How does this play on the computer screen, what are parents seeing of education that they never saw before, and what role does the school actually play in a family’s life?

He wrote the upcoming book chapter and presented on this topic at the recent DIR/Floortime conference because he wants people to know that there are other ways to education people than how we are currently educating them. Although he is biased to his own experiences in the Western world, he has seen education around the world and these thoughts generally seem to be universal around the world.

The ‘giant educational industrial complex‘–a phrase stole from John Gatto, educational theorist and teacher in New York City–is feeding something, but is not doing the best job for the people receiving the education.

Dr. Gil Tippy

‘As if…’ education

But what happened was not to become an educational system that stops just delivering facts and suddenly creates create thinkers. What happened over and over around the world is, “We’re going to start pounding facts even more because that’s what we think education looks like.” Now the parents are seeing what’s going on in the classroom from their living room: facts! Boom! Boom! Boom! The worst started to play out and many older students are just dropping out. 

The education that’s getting pounded at them is endless facts and that’s what people think education looks like. For me, that’s what I would call ‘As if’ education, or the ‘education show’. ‘As if’ education is, “I’ve got to make it look like I’m doing something because people are expecting something to be done.” What they know to do is this thing that looks like there’s a lot of information, so this must be education. Real education in your living room would be much quieter and there would be a lot of silence.  

Dr. Gil Tippy

The First Part of Education

Dr. Tippy is virtually teaching an eighth grade language arts pod where they are writing a five-paragraph essay. They sign on together, they talk about he subject at hand, and then they sit together silently and write, which is what you need to do to go to college and apply for a job. After about nine minutes of Dr. Tippy showing things and talking back and forth, they all put their heads down and write, all while staying on screen. Occasionally a student will have a question and then go back to writing. 

Dr. Tippy doesn’t care about the product at all. What he cares about is that they can look at something in front of them and figure out that they have within them the thing that they need to do a transformation. There are only two things in education. First are all the things you have to know about a subject: the ‘givens’ of that subject. This is the easiest thing to teach: the facts about a subject. This is your toolbox: letters, numbers, symbols in math, that are necessary. They are not sufficient for education. They are simply half of education and the easiest half to teach. 

People really like teaching this part of the education because it’s measurable, Dr. Tippy explains. The facts are always measurable but they are only the beginning part of education. They are the first three Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities in DIR/Floortime. They are the parts that can be done — staying regulated, engagement, and opening and closing simple circles. Be attentive, learn some simple things.

Unfortunately, this paradigm sticks and continues to be the thing that education focuses on, and this was what got paid attention to in the pandemic: the transmission of facts, Dr. Tippy continues. In high school education in the United States you get more and more elaborate sets of facts that you study like crazy, regurgitate them on the test, then forget them. This technique of learning is a cram and dump education. It’s memorization. The facts are not the education. 

From ‘the Givens’ to Transformation

What is education, Dr. Tippy asserts, is the next three Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities (FEDCs). Being able to be abstract, think symbolically, and build bridges between ideas is what real education is, he explains. You put a problem in front of them and get them to a place where they believe that they have inside of them the ability to look at the facts in front of them, and problem-solve them to the next step to make a transformation out of them.

Once you have the notion inside of you to look at any situation and make decisions about how to turn something in front of you into the next thing, your education is basically done, Dr. Tippy explains. Then you learn new facts and bring that same skill to that set of facts, he says.

Dr. Tippy constantly thinks about the movie Hidden Pictures about the brilliant woman who did a lot of the computations for the space program to put John Glenn into orbit. This is the exact same process. You look at your set of facts and say, “My goal is to put someone into orbit.” So, what needs to happen to move the set of facts one step closer to what I want my final goal to be? What’s the next logical transformation? Then, what’s the next logical transformation? This is all of education but we almost never do it, Dr. Tippy laments.

Why do we skip the transformation and why are parents ok with it?

The reason why we never teach the transformation, Dr. Tippy continues, is because it is much harder to measure and justify than transmitting the facts, then having them be memorized then regurgitated on a test so you can have proof for your school administrator. You can say as a teacher that before the students met me, they didn’t know these facts, but now they know the facts. That’s the justification for keeping their jobs, even if they prefer to be more creative, Dr. Tippy says.

That’s how the principal does it, and the superintendent, and everyone up the ladder, Dr. Tippy explains.  But it’s actually easy to move children to be into creative thinkers. The thing is, he says, is that you have to focus on it and actually do it. You can’t just drift along. It is a constant process of challenging students to imagine the world as different than it is in front of them, and then constantly referring students back into themselves.

Dr. Tippy is anchored in the European teaching traditions, not in African nor Asian nor other traditions. He says that if you think about Socrates in Athens teaching the young white men who were not enslaved, there was never a moment when Socrates wasn’t saying that you need to question everything that you know, and look inside yourself for the answers. That’s what education actually is, Dr. Tippy believes.

Theoretically, he continues, we want to have people be free thinkers and problem-solvers. We hold people who have solved these problems up on a pedestal, but our educational paradigm doesn’t support this. People who have developmental differences are getting the very worst of that, Dr. Tippy shares. In most places, they’re very often getting facts pounded at them and compliance demanded of them. That is held up as the highest that they will go.

The pandemic made Dr. Tippy ask why parents send their kids to crummy schools? He believes that parents are often terrified that if they leave the school they’re in, they will not find another school that will take their child and keep their child safe. They are faced with a dramatic decision, and the pandemic brought this into focus. They need someone who can occupy their child so they can keep the family going, Dr. Tippy states.

When schools closed, it became dramatically apparent to him that one of the primary functions of schools is childcare. Dr. Tippy always kind of knew that was true, but it became deadly clear in the pandemic. Parents need children to be occupied and kept safe. Parents who found that educational system, stuck with it. That’s why he wrote the book chapter about what is going on.

Developmental is the way to go

Dr. Tippy does think that it is possible for us to do a good job in education including for those with developmental differences, but it requires a different kind of education. It boils down to a developmental mindset. Dr. Tippy believes that Dr. Stanley Greenspan’s Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model is as good as anybody’s. He believes in Margaret Mahler, Anni Bergman, Fred Pine, and separation and individuation as a way of development as well, and Piaget, but he follows Dr. Greenspan’s ideas about Functional Emotional Developmental Capacities (FEDC) and he was lucky enough to work with him.

Dr. Tippy believes that education breaks down between FEDC 3 and FEDC 4. All of education is to move kids from the ‘givens’ to a transformation, or from FEDCs 1, 2, 3 to 4 to 6 and beyond. If you can do that, he says, you can teach a kid anything. If you teach a kid that when they encounter a bunch of stuff and they have within themselves the ability to figure something out, you can sit them in a Kindergarden class successfully, or auto mechanic school, or med school. It doesn’t matter. You can learn all of math in 180 educational hours. Once you know the rules, which are very quick to teach, you can do it.

Education is instilling in anybody to imagine that they can make the transformations. And that’s where we’ve fallen down in autism education.

Dr. Gil Tippy

Compliance isn’t education

Dr. Tippy asserts that when we’re only concerned about compliance, our kids learn that they have to come up with a right or wrong answer and they don’t think. I confessed that like most parents, I find myself doing this daily with my own son, despite my years of Floortime training and practice. Dr. Tippy wants to let us off the hook. There are two different ways that we do things, he says. One is that we have to comply because we have to move from A to B. For example, you have to get off the busy street because it’s dangerous.

Compliance is essential in certain circumstances, Dr. Tippy explains. But that’s not what we want as the baseline, he says. We want our children to reach the point where they can think to themselves, “I don’t do these things because there are rules in society. I can think of what this makes me look like as a citizen and I want to be a part of a community.

When you only focus on compliance, you’re working on the paradigm of prisons to stop someone from doing this thing and punish or reward them until they do what you want them to without ever making any change in them as an entity. That is not education, Dr. Tippy states. Schools have to operate with the largest number of kids and the least number of teachers as possible because your tax dollars pay for it. The less staff you have, the better your budget is. The more children you can put in a place, the more you can afford. Large classrooms require compliance. That’s how we got told that this is education, Dr. Tippy continues.

How do parents end up believing that compliance and regurgitating was education for their children? Parents have been lead to believe that this is all their child with developmental differences will ever be able to do and that they have to be realistic or to stop dreaming. That’s pernicious. That’s evil, Dr. Tippy says. He doesn’t buy it.

This is just never true, Dr. Tippy says. Human beings always continue to develop and when they’re nurtured to develop, they continue to develop. It may not be in the way you’re thinking, but they’re always developing.

If we believe that the window of development stays open, which we obviously do because we give rehabilitation to 90-year-olds, Dr. Tippy continues, then we can believe that we can educate our children into creative thinking and fostering thinking in a problem-solving way. We can continue to encourage parents that their children will continue to grow, as we all do, and that we can foster that as part of the educational system.

Teaching to the norm is a myth

Education would like you to believe that there is a bell curve and because we have limited resources, we are teaching to the middle. But that’s not true at all, Dr. Tippy says. They are doing bad education with the majority of kids. Over 70% of high schoolers reported crushing anxiety before the pandemic. It’s because the education they’re being dealt is of absolutely no use to them. It’s a fallacy that education is dealing with kids who are in the norm. What we’ve come to accept is a lousy deal and it doesn’t have to do with our educators, it has to do with the system that says they teach according to Dr. Tippy.

Truthfully, bad education happens all along the curve, except for the tail of gifted students. There’s STEM classes that do creative things. Then the other tail, where special needs teaching is, is really bad. It’s not true that we’re hiding behind the fact that we have to educate the largest group, therefore we can’t teach to the tails of the curve. Individualized education is the only answer. Teachers will tell you they can’t do that in a group setting, but they can by asking everybody to look within themselves educationally and figure out what they have within them to find what they can bring to the problem at hand.

Education is not attending to people who have tremendous talents that are not recognized by intelligence tests. Everyone in the giant bell curve is equally intelligent. They just haven’t been recognized by our tests unless you’re in the gifted programs.

Dr. Gil Tippy

What does Good Education look like?

For someone with developmental differences like those individuals Dr. Tippy has worked with including autism spectrum challenges, an ideal school would have teachers set up in a position where they could connect and form relationships with students, which is the only way good education gets done. It would have classrooms that have enough calm where people could be making transformations on things. You have to have good places where people’s way of experiencing the world is supported, which often looks like a good sensory occupational therapy program.

Dr. Tippy also loves clinical music therapy. That wouldn’t be morning circle time, but a therapist getting into circles of communication with another person musically like  Nordoff-Robbins  music therapy does. He’d focus on that jump from FEDC 3 to 4. Kids would be outside, even if it’s a city. Being out in the world makes a difference. Being in the elements makes a difference. The worst thing our society ever does is cut out recess, gym time and music classes to make room for math or science class. For the development of the education of the child, movement in space makes a tremendous difference. If he could hold all of his classes outside he would, Dr. Tippy says.

Critics will say it’s too expensive but Dr. Tippy believes that’s not true. It’s tremendously less expensive. When a 5-year-old is capable of confronting every new situation as just an adventure and something to be solved, as opposed to a limitation and an obstacle which they can’t get by, then the world gets freed up and our educational system becomes less expensive. Kids leave the system without needing the educational support that they currently require when they leave. Right now, everyone needs a college education to make the next step which is creating great divides in our society. Everyone is capable of being great creative problem solvers and thinkers.

Dr. Rick Solomon of the PLAY Project wrote a blog post about ‘de-schooling’

Language Warning: The blog post uses functioning labels and uses person-first language (i.e., ‘children with autism’)

A huge thank you to Dr. Gil Tippy for sharing his thoughts about the state of education and how he believes it can be improved. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter and if you have any relevant experiences, questions, or comments, please feel free to leave them below in the Comments section. Next week is a long overdue first for Affect Autism when I interview a self-advocate. Stay tuned for the story of Emile Gouws, autism self-advocate and new senior advisor to ICDL.

Until next week… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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