Sample text for Learning outside the lines : two Ivy League students with learning disabilities and ADHD give you the tools for academic success and educational revolution / Jonathan Mooney and David Cole.

Bibliographic record and links to related information available from the Library of Congress catalog

Copyrighted sample text provided by the publisher and used with permission. May be incomplete or contain other coding.


Chapter Three: Institutionalized

On August 10, 1997, we unknowingly sat across from each other at the opening night of transfer orientation at Brown University. Two kids who were supposed to be a pair of statistics, now Ivy League college students. Next thing we knew, we had paired off and stood next to each other reading off a list of "wacky facts" -- an icebreaker where each student had to guess what his peer's fact was. About halfway down the list, Dave read: "I didn't learn to read until I was twelve" -- Jon's not-so-funny fact. And then Jon read: "I learned to weld when I was eleven and dropped out of high school when I was sixteen" -- Dave's less-than-stellar fact.

At that moment, we both knew something about the other that was hidden to the world. Throughout our lives, we had looked to the idea of succeeding in school to define our worth and our intelligence. In childhood, we were told we were defective goods, and to be better we had to be other than what we were. In our adult lives, we tried to use academic success to define ourselves. In both of these situations, however, we fought a losing battle. Regardless of whether we were trying to fill up our holes or looking to be told we were whole, this thing called academic success still held our identities in its grip.

As we would learn that semester, after growing together as friends, arriving at Brown was not the end of our struggles. Arriving at Brown was in fact the beginning of a profound new challenge -- the challenge of moving beyond "academic success," to truly using our education to redefine our selves and find personal empowerment.

In order to achieve that, we had to come to an understanding of how institutionalized education affected us. Recognizing how institutionalized education affects all of us allows us to take concrete steps toward becoming personally empowered and ultimately frees us to find academic success for our own reasons and our own goals.

In this chapter, we take a critical look at the oppressive nature of institutionalized education. First, we look specifically at how everyone suffers losses during their trek through the institution of education. Then we turn to the present and explore how becoming personally proactive is the first step toward taking ownership of your education. We explore some concrete tools that will give you control over your environment. Then we introduce our study skills, and explore how they can empower you to revolutionize your higher education.


Alexandra is in third grade and lives in LA in an apartment complex across from Jonathan's mom. After Alexandra's third week of third grade, Jonathan's mom, Colleen, ran into her in their complex. Unlike her normal greeting, a dance and smile, Alexandra looked very serious. She sat down quietly, with her head down. Colleen asked what was wrong. "I don't get stars on my math homework," she said. "All the other kids get gold stars on their homework, Miss Mooney. I study all the time. I just don't get that stuff. What's wrong with me?" Alexandra was not LD/ADHD, just a little girl, but she suffered the same losses we suffered. From the simple task of doing math problems at the age of nine, she had been taught that there was something inherently wrong with her.

Her experience is not at all uncommon. There are very few people in this country who escape their education without leaving behind some hostages. Our experiences are not the aberrant stories of two cognitive freaks, but rather narratives from a battlefield that consumes us all, like Alexandra.

This section briefly goes back over our stories to provide insight into an educational institution that takes something from everyone. Our goal is to face our personal losses with courage -- not to allocate blame, not to play educational reformers, not to influence policy, but ultimately to discover what we want to change in our lives now and how our higher education can do that for us.

A Case Study

The day we were diagnosed as "disabled" is one of those memories that burns too bright ever to go away. It sits at the core of our identity, bridging our consciousness and our subconscious, holding the key to our development, and it flickers like the buzz of a white fluorescent light bulb. This flickering light, however, not only gives us insight into the LD/ADHD experience, but also illuminates the educational system that affects all of us. In the end, the biggest challenge for us was not overcoming our weakness as LD/ADHD thinkers but transcending the biases and oppression of the institution of education.

Our case study starts when we are in third grade, when all kids want to be the same. But we find ourselves pulled from the group and sitting in front of two "doctors." At least that's what our moms call them. They might as well have had white coats on and dragged us from our classrooms in front of the other kids, because we knew something was wrong. We knew it had something to do with us not being "smart" and "good," words the teachers used when they thought we weren't listening, or when they yelled at us in the hallways. We were being tested in our minds because we were stupid and bad -- not merely different from the rest of the kids, but much worse.

And then the testing began, for varying amounts of time. A standard children's intelligence test, a battery of other IQ tests, and the infamous Rorschach, where all the images looked like weapons or darkness. It didn't matter that the test gives both an average total score and a breakdown of subtests, and that each of us was dramatically above average in intelligence. What mattered was that on our subtests, the results were spiked -- some abnormally high and others abnormally low. And following an established clinical protocol, this type of scatter pattern, equaling a standard deviation, along with other variables in the subtests, meant we were LD/ADHD.

Despite our intelligence, despite the areas of profound strengths that were in fact vastly superior to those of our peers, we became simple and easy to understand. We knew it all along, but it now had a name: "chronic disorder of the central nervous system" and a "chronic disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written." And...

And then we found ourselves back in the classroom, in the environment where we failed to begin with. But it was no longer the environment's fault. As the "diagnosis" showed, the problem was within us. And they were even nice enough to give us a special room away from the normal kids for some of the day. In one way, it was the logical thing to do. As a medical diagnosis, LD/ADHD identified a problem or a disease in isolation. It did not matter that our testing showed we were abnormally strong spatial and logical thinkers. That would make things too complicated. The diagnoses identified a disease of the mind, and no possible strengths could result from a disease of the mind, could they? (Just ask Professor Russell Barkley. This "defect" logic is at the core of his belief that ADHD is an inherent deficit.) Again, it did not matter that we showed strong alternative learning styles such as tactile kinesthetic learning and artistic abilities. But these strengths were ignored, and we lost the chance to learn in ways that suited our cognitive differences.

Ultimately our diagnoses and the subsequent attempts at intervention allowed people to blame us, two powerless kids, for our failure instead of turning a critical eye toward the environment. It took us fifteen years of personal and academic struggle to stop blaming ourselves, to stop believing that we are inherently defective like "they" thought, and to come to realize how profound an effect the environment had on our inability to succeed. Only as time went on did simple interventions like the ability to get up out of our seats, the use of a spell checker, and progressive ideas like project-based learning and other modifications to the learning environment allow the pathology to slip into irrelevance and enable us to be successful.

Our hard wiring is a simple cognitive difference. We all have them. But an oppressive educational environment that blames children for their failures caused us to grow up with the stigma of pathology. We learn differently, and our success at Brown illustrates that we always had these alternate learning styles and were never defective. We faced a punitive educational environment, fanatically concerned with socializing behavior, and we fought against an idealized conception of normalcy, not an inherent life-threatening disease in our head. Our stories as case studies force all of us to look outside, toward the institution of school, to understand what we all lose in our attempts to become educated.

Looking Outside: Past Self-Blame for a Better Understanding

We spend the vast majority of childhood in school. Our politicians and intellectuals debate issues such as vouchers versus charters, but no child is ever encouraged to question why he or she is in school. On the margins of our schools are the outsiders: the art punks, the drug addicts, and the losers who challenge and criticize the codes of school, its function, and its importance. Many teachers and reformers ignore these kids, writing them off as angry, misdirected punks from bad families whose parents, or the media, are to blame -- or that ultimately the kids themselves are to blame. These messages are ignored because they threaten a core concept of cultural power; they threaten our blind belief in the objective nature of education. But when the kids bring guns to school, we finally listen. When something as horrific as Littleton occurs, our society, appropriately, turns its critical lens on social sources, such as the media, the parents, and gun control laws. But no one has had the courage to look at the fact that those two kids at Columbine High School wanted not only to kill themselves and their peers but tried to blow up their entire school by wiring it with explosives.

No blanket statements will ever be absolutely true about our schools, and no single teacher or school district is to blame, but education is an institution, and there are common threads in all of our experiences. We are not taught to look with a critical eye at our education. We all face a system that has oppressive elements along with virtuous ones, and we all experience a level of sacrifice and loss. By looking outward and exploring our schools' function as a socializing institution and the values underpinning its structure, we can come to a better understanding of ourselves in an effort to change our future.


One of the most devastating things we faced was the unspoken reality that school is fundamentally an institution charged with socializing kids. By socialize, we mean the function of school is to shape the behavior and thinking of children and give us identities that fit cultural norms. Our elementary schools were institutions of discipline and training, and only secondarily places of learning. We see it in the third graders we work with in Project Eye-to-Eye, our program that matches LD/ADHD college students with LD/ADHD elementary school children as role models, tutors, and mentors. No one ever asked them how they feel, but when we do art projects, images of fear or anger and repression rise to the surface of their poetry.

We experienced the same emotions as kids. The moral connotations of our childhood were almost unbearable. Unlike preschool, first grade become a place about conformity and following rules. These rules controlled how we engaged with our bodies, with our appetites, with other kids. We got little desks and were told we had to raise our hands before we could go to the bathroom, play, eat, or touch other kids.

Along with rules comes enforcement, a punitive system of punishment and rewards. Little kids learn to live in fear of getting their names on the board three times, ultimately to be sent out into the hallway or to the little blue desk in the principal's office. The goal is to not rock the boat. We all learn to control ourselves most of the time out of fear, not understanding the reasons, and not understanding the toll our passivity takes on us. The by-product is a socialization centered on the idea of being able to control our behavior. Behavior becomes a social indicator of morality, marking which kids are good kids and which kids are bad, and the highest value is one of conformity, passivity, and obedience.

School is also charged with socializing thought -- molding how we engage with the world, what we think about, and how we express ourselves. Using the "objective" idea of learning, our schools' goal is to produce smart kids, and the function is to identify intelligence and support it. But the concept of intelligence is varied and subjective, and in many respects misused in many schools. Children are identified by their ability to learn, and their intelligence is defined by who can learn best. Therefore, the means to assess learning has to be measurable, quantifiable, and standardized. In our early lives, this took the form of spelling tests, math problems, and reading.

Our ability to perform on these sequential markers was used in the larger paradigm of formal and informal tracking. Many teachers abhor the concept of tracking, but they must function in an environment obsessed with academic performance, one that demands some level of tracking. Neither of us was "tracked" (although special ed is a track in and of itself), but we were in low reading groups, out in the hallways during recess and during math class. Tracking occurs every day, when one kid is called intelligent, another average, another stupid in such simple things as reading groups, and the seemingly benign hierarchies in the classroom such as "the student of the week" or the "hawk" reading group.

For us, what was tracked was our ability to perform on concrete indicators, like when we learned to read, our handwriting, ability to spell, or do math homework. The underlying notion is that all kids develop at the same time in a linear, sequential manner, and if some kids cannot read early, they are not intelligent. This environment gave us an identity at a time when our personality was malleable, an identity that revolved around the teacher, the authority figure in the room. We did not question the rules and the identity handed to us. We were taught that sitting still and getting gold stars on our math homework were more important than art and ideas, and much more important than what kind of people we were and how we treated other kids.

In this environment, it is no wonder that many kids, whom many professionals would argue are natural learners, start to hate learning in elementary school and then come to high school bearing firearms.

One Teacher, One Learner, One Mind

The core environmental challenge we faced was the structure, pedagogy, and value implications in the organization of our schools. In the vast majority of our public elementary schools, the teacher-to-student ratio is well over fifteen to one. Necessary to this structure is the idea that there is one right way to learn, and one right or "normal" mind. As a result, the vast majority of schools in this country value one type of mind, one type of intelligence, and assume a universal learning process for all children. This is one of the most devastating prejudices dominating our schools.

Over the past twenty years, Howard Gardner has developed the theory of multiple intelligences, a radical reframing of what it means to be intelligent, challenging the common notion that there is only one kind of smart. He asserts that people do not have one single intelligence, but eight multiple modes of representation. In his observations, schools support the development of only a narrow set of intelligence. In this light, vast parts of our selves -- creative parts, intuitive parts, and emotional parts -- go undeveloped. The arts are seen as extracurricular, and in many schools, they have disappeared entirely.

In addition to the concept of multiple intelligences is the separate concept of alternative learning styles, which challenges the common notion that all people learn the same way. Many educators believe that people process information and in turn learn in multifaceted and individual ways. Some alternative learning styles are tactile and kinesthetic, verbal, visual and spatial, and project based. Again, as a result of the structure of most schools and their underlying assumptions and values, our teachers teach to a universal learning process for all children: one teacher, one way of presenting the information, one way to learn.

Our inability to learn along a very narrow paradigm led to our label of pathology. For sure we had certain weaknesses (spelling, attention span), but we also had enormous strengths for learning outside the lines that were obvious when we were children, but went underutilized and were never valued by our schools.Not only were we labeled as diseased, but we also lost the opportunity to be educated in the most appropriate way for our individual minds. We lost our opportunity to enjoy elementary school; instead, learning became a struggle. Trapped as children by a narrow understanding of what it means to learn, we lost our passion for learning and our passion for school, which we had to fight to regain later in our lives. We also lost the opportunity to develop the intuitive, emotional, and creative parts of our minds. These were identified as irrelevant, as learning became about memorization and sequential thinking, and not about creative, intuitive ideas.

Your Report Card, Your Worth

Most devastating for us was the highest unspoken value of school: grades. As kids, all we wanted to do was learn, to be with other kids, and be loved. School intervened in this process with a carrot tied to our academic performance and behavior. Our success at school -- the way we performed and behaved -- became who we were. Like Alexandra, we felt this at a young age and had no way to understand its origins. All we knew is that kids who sat still were good, kids who spelled well and read well were smart, and all that mattered was the competition and the comparisons. And every year the school issued a report on who we were. As Alexandra knows so well, success at seemingly objective tasks meant everything; it was who we were in a very real sense. Performing well became synonymous with being good and being smart. Academic success, which was supposed to be about learning, became a battle for our identities, and only the top 10 percent of the class could ever be truly whole.

It is important to take a moment to think about how school teaches us about our worth, because even the kids who fall in the chosen 10 percent suffer under this regime. We know this from personal experience. In our twenties, we still believed that succeeding traditionally was synonymous with being. From our first days in school, we are given an idea of what it means to succeed. It does not mean having compassion for the kid who falls down on the playground or questioning why we have to spell correctly. Instead, success means reaching for those gold stars at any cost.

We have come to know that just by engaging with all of these questions, by thinking about our past and the institutions we have come from, we have taken a huge step toward change. The key to using our higher education as a means for personal empowerment lies in demystifying the success, making it tangible, within our control, and then redefining success for ourselves and ultimately finding success on our own terms.

In the spirit of revolution, it is time to look at praxis: the merger of theory and action.

Praxis: Taking Our Education Higher

We know you did not buy this book to theorize about education, nor did we write it for that purpose. The fundamental goal of this book is to give you ownership over your education and the tools to do what you want to do. We do not want to live our lives running blindly from old ghosts or bouncing on strings like puppets. And we don't want to waste this time in our lives trying to fix ourselves, playing out the narrative of a school system that sees diseases in weakness and squashes creative thought and individuality. College is an opportunity for you to define who you are, for yourself, to heal old wounds, and to get back anything you lost in the gauntlet traveled thus far. Let's get down to it.

Our first step is personal proactivity. Much of school past and present is about reacting to external pressure, other people's definitions of us, and other people's expectations of who we should be. Our first and biggest step to making the most out of this opportunity is arriving at a place where we look inward for direction to chart our own educational path.

Proactive Past, Present, and Future

If all you want to do right now is to cram for an exam or blow off some work, you're in the wrong part of this book. No problem. Just move on to Part II.

What we are looking at here is how the act of self-reflection can be an empowering experience. Looking at your past, pres-

ent, and future is not only good for the soul, but it also can be good for the budding pragmatist inside all of us. The stuff that you dig up in this section can be used for personal essays on any application, fellowship statements, job interviews, or just some good material for therapeutic writing. (It is also damn good for the sensitive guy/girl front.)

Recovering Your Dead. None of us escapes our past unscathed. However, neither we nor anyone else can claim to know where you come from -- your victories, your wounds, or your losses. For us, going back over the previously unexplored territory called the past was a difficult, terrifying, but ultimately freeing experience. There are many different ways to do this, and no one is more right than another. We used a shrink (hereinafter called "shrink head") -- check out your student health insurance. But one of the most effective tools was a personal narrative of sorts (a small example of the pragmatic value of this exercise: our journey turned into a book). What we did here was go back into the past like a reporter, interviewing all the major players. We talked to our parents, teachers, siblings, past girlfriends, and old friends. We also went back and looked at old pictures, school records, tests, and papers. If you decide to take a journey like this, here are some things to keep in mind as you search:

Living in the Present. There is no way to avoid this cliche;, but we do have a little spin to it. Taking an introspective look at our relationship to school today is itself an act of defiance. We are not taught to look inward for direction when it comes to school. We are supposed to follow the lead of the institution and accept many of its unquestioned values. The key is to look at yourself without judgment, as a problem solver and not as a moral legislator. Following are some things to consider examining as you stand on the verge of or in the middle of your higher education.

Imagining the Future. This is our last stop, and we venture here with caution. Keep in mind that the future is not a place to live in. However, we cannot make any positive change in the present without the ability to imagine a different future. Set long-term and short-term goals, but look at these goals and the future almost through a hazy visor. You can see the horizon, but as you get closer, it keeps changing. Looking ahead is not about charting an absolute path, because we all know those are boring and are for linear people. But a life without moments of dreaming and looking ahead to the horizon, and imagining how things should be, for you and for others, is a wasted life. So look ahead with confidence and know that whatever you now believe to be true about your future will change -- and that is a good thing, one of the best of things.

And now, with the shrink head stuff out of the way and a little buzz of proactivity, it's time to introduce what will carry the remainder of the book. These are the true tools for personal empowerment, academic success, and educational revolution.

Power Tools for Personal Empowerment

Now you are standing either on the verge or in the middle of this "great" opportunity of higher education. You have gone over your past; you know what you've lost, what you want to get back. The bottom line is that your reasons for doing school are your reasons, and it is now our job to introduce the power tools, the concrete things to do for academic success on your own terms.

The biggest of these are our study skills, and they occupy the remainder of the book. We will introduce them in just a few pages. But first we have a few things to look at that make these study skills even more effective and give you more control over your education. The first is a new way to look at the institution of higher education, and the second are some concrete steps you can take outside the classroom to ensure personal success.

Not the Holy Land, Just a System. College is not an ideal holy land where perfect kids, with giant brains bulging out from the sides of their heads, engage in Socratic discourse in soft sunlight. In reality -- and this is something we all need to think about for a second -- college is not a single institution with a set of rules and expectations that everyone has to follow to be successful. Granted, it is a system that has its values and its codes, but it also has distinct parts, and so it gives us places to exert control. The college environment has resources that give you an edge, and there are things that you can personally do to stay in control. There is no shame in using these resources. On the contrary, find them and use them -- they are good

Reasonable Accommodations

If you are a disabled person, you are entitled under some very powerful legislation to have the college environment modified for you. "Reasonable accommodations" (or "academic accommodations") are adjustments in the school environment to make the environment accessible to people with disabilities, including both LD and ADHD. An institution must provide requested accommodations that are reasonable in nature, do not fundamentally alter the nature of the course, and do not place an undue hardship on the institution. The institution is not required to provide services of a "personal nature" such as an individual assistant or a tutoring or coaching service (unless that service is also provided for nondisabled students).

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) are the primary pieces of legislation protecting LD/ADHD people. (A third, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, primarily protects children ages three to twenty-one.) We are protected as disabled people due to our "mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of the major life activities" -- specifically learning. The ADA and Section 504 entitle LD/ADHD people to freedom from discrimination and mandate that institutions make "reasonable accommodations" to allow us to enjoy an equal opportunity to participate in all aspects of college life. Every school is required to have a Section 504 officer on staff -- typically the director of disability support services (DSS) -- who is responsible for preventing discrimination on campus. The ADA also specifically mandates that "examinations and courses" must be offered in "a place and manner accessible to persons with disabilities or offer alternate accessible arrangements for such individuals." This ensures that examinations measure a student's skills rather than his or her disability.

The DSS is often in a complicated and difficult position. At many schools, DSS is not an autonomous entity. Instead, the office is directly supervised and evaluated by the other offices at the college. This puts it in a bind politically: responsible to the law to suggest accommodations that can be very expensive to the college, but dependent on the college for salary and promotion. Sometimes the position becomes one of institutional damage control: making sure that the college is close enough to the letter of the law to avoid lawsuits. This is not to say that most DSS coordinators don't fight like hell for their students -- most of them do. It is just a potential conflict of interest that students need to be aware of.

Personal Steps. We have a few more personal things to cover. They will allow you to create a more individualized, personal, and supportive environment:

With this stuff in mind, it is time to look at the biggest power tool in our arsenal: the skills we use to find academic success that ultimately lead to personal empowerment and educational revolution.

The Armory: Skills for Academic Success and Educational Revolution

When we first arrived at Brown, we thought that our challenge had been in getting in; but, no, it still lay ahead of us: getting out without losing our souls. You see, academic success had not cured us, had not fixed us, because there really was nothing wrong with us. However, fresh off the transfer boat at Brown, we still had to face the very real challenge of succeeding academically. For a while, we toyed with a traditional model, studying until our eyes bled. And simultaneously, as we went back into our past and explored what we wanted from college, we discovered that no one had ever really given us skills for academic success and personal empowerment. We had at our disposal only skills that had been developed by professors and teachers that were detached from the reality of being a student. Many of these skills were punitive; they tried to fix us and fit us more into some impossible model. Ultimately, all of these skills were based on the idea of one type of mind and one way to learn, and in the end were simply not good ways for us to learn.

During our time at Brown, we developed our own set of academic skills that allowed us to use our education as a means to redefine ourselves. These skills and strategies take up the remainder of the book. The last question to be answered is: What is it about these skills that allowed them to be revolutionary in our lives?

Beating the System. First, and most important, all of our skills are about beating a system. As we already explored, there is a lot of social baggage caught up in academic success. Like many other students, once we got to college, we slipped right back into the elementary school mode. All that mattered was getting those gold stars. But that is inane. Academic success is not a reflection of our worth or our intelligence. It is a game, albeit a game that has some positive aspects. The game is about learning, and by playing it well you have the opportunity to expand your horizons. Also, playing the game opens doors to your future and allows you to be who you want to be in your adult life.

All of these skills come from the value-neutral place of beating a system that at times is unfair and oppressive. We address honestly the fact that we do not do all the readings, we do not study for exams ten days in advance, and many times we do not take good notes. But we find success and learn nonetheless. These skills will give you control in this system and allow you to chart your own path. They come from the trenches and are about addressing the realities of school, not some mythical ideal.

Individualized. Running congruently with beating the system, these skills are about you doing your thing, whatever that may be. They are student centered and value the individual differences that will allow you to do what you like without rendering judgment. If you want to chill out with friends and blow off a reading but not get screwed the next day in class, we'll tell you how to do that. If you want to get a 4.0, study everything under the sun, and then apply for the Nobel Prize, these will help you do that also.

Second, all of the skills embrace and value the individual ways we all learn. These skills do not impose a method for learning on you; they empower you to develop your own individualized process. Written from the perspective of two alternative learners, our skills are about mitigating weakness, reviewing and accessing information from alternative sources and multiple entry points, and getting more help than you can possibly imagine.

Study Different; Learn Better; Be Sweet. Here is the kicker: the same set of skills that allows you to beat the system on your own terms also leads to better learning. Many of the study skills books out there pay lip-service to alternative learning, but they still value only one type of mind and one type of learning. Our skills are alternative learning skills. In every section we explore multiple entry points to information, integrating color, verbal processing, pragmatic learning, and project-based learning. Follow these skills, and you will learn more than you ever thought possible, in less time and with less pain.

The Coup d'Etat: Your Success, Our Revolution

Through the midterms, the finals, the tedious readings, your victories and your defeats, remember the ultimate power of what you are about to undertake. Living your life this way, on your terms, for you, and studying differently is revolutionary. These skills and this way of using your higher education are in direct opposition to many of those oppressive values we confronted in our past. This type of success outside the lines is an important message for all kids who suffer under those values. There are kids now who are learning to be ashamed of how their mind works or losing their creativity to conformity. By finding success outside the lines, for our reasons, we challenge everyone to reevaluate the standards we hold and judge people by. We force people to rethink how we define success, how we define intelligence, and ultimately how we define education.

Copyright © 2000 by Jonathan Mooney and David Cole

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Learning disabled youth -- Education (Higher) -- United States.
Attention-deficit-disordered youth -- Education (Higher) -- United States.
College student orientation -- United States.