Thursday 26 January 2017

The Unique Child

I love social media, I love the fact that we can share ideas online no matter where we are in the world. I also find this position I am in... of being British but having lived in Sweden for just over half my life an interesting one, especially when it comes to my mother tongue. I realise more and more that I am not totally up to date with how words are evolving... and so sometimes they still have the same power as they had when I left UK in 1992... some words I have found have been diluted a great deal, or have altered slightly in their meaning. 

This must be the case for UNIQUE/UNIQUENESS. It is a phrase that is being used in the British educational system at the moment, and personally, I am not keen on it. 

I was participating in a twitterchat last night and the word popped up, and was used in a positive way, but it just grated on me. It feels such an isolating word to me where we are focussing on our differences... even though I understand the point is about illuminating the need to see the talents of children that extend beyond the academic. 

My discomfort has lead me to find out more about the word "unique" and why I feel this way. I of course turned to the dictionary... to see how the word is described... in fact several different dictionaries, just to make sure... here are just a few...

"The quality of being the only one of its kind" (Oxford)

"The quality of being remarkable, special or unusual" (Oxford) 

"Being without a like or an equal" (Merriam-Webster) 

These descriptions have, for me, confirmed why I feel uncomfortable with using "Unique Child" in an educational system. The descriptions do seem to describe something that is "one of a kind"... and learning for me is something that is collaborative, it is interaction. 

For me, we have more in common with each other than we do not... no matter how different we are, what our talents are, what our context is. Our differences allow us to explore the world from new perspectives... but our similarities allow us to do that together. 

Wikipedia describes uniqueness as "a state or condition wherein someone or something is unlike anything else in comparison. When used in relation to humans, it is often in relation to a person's personality, or some specific characteristic of it, signalling that it is unlike the personality traits that are prevalent in that individuals culture..." 

This is not how I would want children to be described... children are very much a part of our culture - they are creating it together with us. 

My big objection is the description that unique means "without equal"... I mean what are we doing...? are we not trying to create a world where there is equality? where we are all valued for who we are? a world where we are not discriminated against..? religion, race, gender etc etc etc etc etc... so many things where we are categorised and put on some kind of value scale. 

Maybe by being unique we cannot be put on this scale, we cannot be compared? But I still feel that we are never actually unique, because we have more in common with each other than not... we have sharedness. 

If unique is oneness, is the opposite diverse/myriad? But if we are seeing unique as something different and special... then the opposite would be ordinary or standard, which is not something I think we are either. Standard testing is obviously not something I think is effective... the one size fits all approach to learning... well, to be honest, its not really an approach to learning... it's an approach to assessing learning, that has then become the focus of how to teach in an adult down world. 

And yet the word standard is also complex - it has not been serving children's education well... but in society it has served us well... standard measurements, a certain standard of behaviour helps society to interact with each other peacefully... the problem is that when it comes to people there just needs to be more flexibility and if we start saying following the standard is right and not following is wrong then we start excluding people and thinking less of them... no matter how "unique" they/we are. 

Why are we always focussing on the differences? - why are we not examining the standard, the ordinary and how we can broaden the meaning of this, to make it more inclusive so that we can all be individuals that make up a whole? Isn't that we want? To belong? To be a part of something? To be valued? 

All of the dictionaries that I checked had a little "warning" that said many authors of usage guides, editors etc feel strongly that such "absolute" words such as "complete", "equal", "perfect" and especially "unique" cannot be compared because of their "meaning" - these are words that denote an absolute condition - so we cannot have less unique or more unique or very unique etc. The earliest meanings of unique (17th century) were "single, sole" and "having no equal", which developed to "not typical, unusual" during the 19th century. 

So why has such an absolute word been chosen to describe a child/ren? And how does this affect how we teach? Does it make us think of teaching and learning as one of a kind... that each class, each child learns totally in their own way... I think this put an enormous amount of pressure on teachers to see each unique child... to be constantly focussing on the differences. 

The last four-five years, I have been working with the whole idea of "mwe" the individual child as part of the group... that together we learn more, deeper, richer than what we do on our own. That our similarities being us together and allow us to understand our differences. I would really like for us to be equals... not in the sense that we are all the same, but that we are valued equally, differences and all. 

When I did philosophy sessions with children it was about weaving the children's individual ideas together to create a wonderful fabric of learning, something that was meaningful to them/us at that time, something that was constantly evolving. 

Why do I feel strongly about learning together rather than "unique" learning where the focus is on each child can be explained in these series of quotes. 

"As a result, there is a move away from considering one's own viewpoint toward considering multiple perspectives of the collective, resulting in a shift from individual to shared meaning. This position often frees teachers from a focus on producing correct answers. If there is more than one way to view a challenge, then perhaps there is more than one correct response to that challenge."  Moran, p.413 The Hundred Languages of Children (1998) 

"Among the goals of our approach is to reinforce each child's sense of identity through a recognition that comes from peers and adults, so much so that each one would feel enough sense of belonging and self-confidence to participate in the activities of the school.... As a result, children discover how communication enhances the autonomy of the individual and the peer group" Malaguzzi, p. 68-9 The Hundred Languages of Children (1998) 

"The more we distance ourselves from quick and temporary solutions, from responding to individual differences in a hurried way, the wider will be the range of hypotheses open to us. The more we resist the temptation to classify children, the more capable we become to change our plans and make available different activities. This does not eliminate the responsibility or usefulness of noting differences among children. let us take them into account, let us keep an eye on them. But let us always excercise caution and learn to observe and evaluate better without assigning levels and grades."  Malaguzzi, p.81.2

"Recognizing the universality of children's potential..." Malaguzzi p.81 

I could go on... open other books and find the value of collaborative learning, of shared learning, the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky), being part of a community of learners etc.. But I think you are getting the idea... for me the focus should be on the us... the we... without forgetting the me... because I truly believe that the me develops through the we

Below is a quote from the British EYFS webbpage about the unique child... there is a link at the end of the quote of you want to check out the page and see more links about the unique child. How all this thinking got started...

"Every child is a unique child, who is constantly learning and can be resilient, capable, confident and self-assured
Babies and young children mature in every area of development at their own pace and in their own individual ways. Inclusion means that individuals and communities are valued and no child or family is discriminated against. Young children are vulnerable but they are kept safe and develop resilience when their wellbeing is protected by adults. Health and well-being is an integral part of children’s emotional, mental social, environmental and spiritual health." EYFS A Unique Child 

What I see is the continuous use of the word "individual" in the text... I find this word much easier to digest than unique... its not so one of a kind, not so absolute... it recognises our differences without ignoring our similarities. Below I have copied and pasted in the synonym discussions from Merriam-Webster dictionary for the words UNIQUE and INDIVIDUAL. No matter how many times I read them... I prefer to use the word individual over unique every time when it comes to children... any human, really. 

  • Synonym Discussion of unique Merriam-Webster dictionary

    strangesingularuniquepeculiareccentricerraticoddquaintoutlandish mean departing from what is ordinary, usual, or to be expected. strange stresses unfamiliarity and may apply to the foreign, the unnatural, the unaccountable <a journey filled with strange sights>singular suggests individuality or puzzling strangeness <a singular feeling of impending disaster>unique implies singularity and the fact of being without a known parallel <a career unique in the annals of science>peculiar implies a marked distinctiveness <the peculiar status of America's first lady>.eccentric suggests a wide divergence from the usual or normal especially in behavior <theeccentric eating habits of preschoolers>erratic stresses a capricious and unpredictable wandering or deviating <a friend's suddenly erratic behavior>odd applies to a departure from the regular or expected <an odd sense of humor>quaint suggests an old-fashioned but pleasant oddness <a quaint fishing village>outlandish applies to what is uncouth, bizarre, or barbaric <outlandish fashions of the time>.

Synonym Discussion of individual

specialespecialspecificparticularindividual mean of or relating to one thing or class. specialstresses having a quality, character, identity, or use of its own <special ingredients>especial may add implications of preeminence or preference <a matter of especial importance>specificimplies a quality or character distinguishing a kind or a species <children with specific nutritional needs>particular stresses the distinctness of something as an individual <a ballet step of particular difficulty>individual implies unequivocal reference to one of a class or group<valued each individual opinion>.

characteristicindividualpeculiardistinctive mean indicating a special quality or identity.characteristic applies to something that distinguishes or identifies a person or thing or class<responded with her characteristic wit>individual stresses qualities that distinguish one from all other members of the same kind or class <a highly individual writing style>peculiar applies to qualities possessed only by a particular individual or class or kind and stresses rarity or uniqueness <an eccentricity that is peculiar to the British>distinctive indicates qualities distinguishing and uncommon and often superior or praiseworthy <a distinctive aura of grace and elegance>.

So what do you think, based on the above descriptions? Would you like to be teaching unique children or individual children? 

For me, it is about being a part of a whole, not deviating from it. Instead of making children "unique" maybe we should be focussing energy on creating an inclusive environment where all individuals can feel valued not just for their similarities but also for their differences... by broadening educational/learning/play experiences we allow all children to participate together, so that they can learn from each other - so that differences are seen as a benefit, rather than something that deviates from the norm... That instead of unique children that learn in their unique ways and probably not interacting with each other... meaning that our differences never get to be understood and/or appreciated. We are allowing society to feed the standard norms by saying "sure children are unique... we meet them where they are" rather than bringing them into the zone of proximal development so that we can all become better people. 

Sure I have taken this whole "unique" thing to an extreme... I know. I wanted to pull it apart, to be critical, to explore and work out what I feel about it. It has made me feel that real change within the education system is hard because the same crap keeps getting masked with new words... the whole system needs changing, not how we classify children.. being unique won't make the learning better if we are not overhauling the concept of teaching to responding to how children learn. 

we should learn to understand the individual needs... to know which gifts to bring to the children for their learning. 


  1. Perhaps it is a case of 2 things being true at the same time. Equal but different. In play (& learning) the experience is both individual and collaborative, discovering from own experiences sometimes without others even present. Is it the factor of organised education that requires the group process? Also, is there not a problem with sameness as perhaps the opposite of uniqueness?

    1. I totally agree that we are equal in our different ways, that we need to learn together and as individuals... I also very much agree that a one size fits all approach is just as much a problem as seeing everyone as small unique islands of learning...
      life is a spectrum... with extremes on either end... and as always it is about finding that place on the spectrum that works, and I assume that we will need to dance within the spectrum all the time - same to unique - to ensure we learn to the specific needs of children as well as learn to be a part of a community where we are inspired by each other and feel enriched by our differences by allowing our similarities to unite us...