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Thinking differently about dyslexia in the classroom: Part 1

Many successful thinkers, inventors and revolutionaries have dyslexia*. From Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Alexander Graham-Bell to Mohamed Ali, Walt Disney, John Lennon, Steven Spielberg and Richard Branson. Not forgetting the poster-people of dyslexia, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. All seven “man”-made wonders have been designed by dyslexic architects. At MIT they call it, the “MIT disease”, so many researchers there have it.

Dyslexia, and its lesser-known cousin, Dyscalculia are defined as a brain-based learning difficulties related to either reading, or to the difficulty in learning or comprehending arithmetic. According to the Dyslexia Foundation, about 5-10% of the population has dyslexia, and around 6% have dyscalculia. As a counterpoint, and starting point for this blog, let’s look at other figures:

  • 50% of all NASA employees self-identify as dyslexic - in fact NASA actively seeks dyslexic students because of their exceptional abilities in 3D spatial thinking
  • 40% of self-made millionaires are dyslexic.

Obviously, struggling with a formal education system that requires so very much reading and writing creates a certain degree of grit and perseverance in some children. Characteristics which no doubt enable them to respond to challenges in later life with a degree of emotional resilience. Adrian Atkinson, a business psychologist who worked with a dyslexic research group studying the prevalence of dyslexia among entrepreneurs says, “Most people who make a million have difficult childhoods or have been frustrated in a major way. Dyslexia is one of the driving forces behind that."

However, that is not the full story: dyslexics think differently — perhaps it’s time our classrooms think a bit more like them, rather than forcing them to think more like us.

A brief step back

Dyslexia causes the rods (axons) in the neurological system to be further apart than average — people with autism for instance have axons that are very close together. The shorter the distance between axons, the quicker and more detailed the thought process is. The longer distance between the axons, means that people with dyslexia can take up to five times longer to translate what they see, into words. On the other hand they are better able to look at situations or scenes, and notice and build patterns of meaning - they are very good at learning by watching and practicing.

However, with the emergence of the industrial revolution - and the rapid advances of the printing press - education became less about artisans and apprentices, and more about encoding information in books, and being able to scale it to industrial levels across hundreds of schools. Naturally this was an incredible boon for the majority of people. The middle classes emerged from this advanced ability to access knowledge.

But some people fell by the wayside - particularly those that struggled to learn from encoded knowledge (i.e. symbols such as letters and numbers). And so begins a rather sad and distressing period for those with learning disabilities. Marginalized, shamed, and labelled “dumb” - it’s no surprise that students with dyslexia are also some of the most socially vulnerable youths: 50% of all adolescents in drug and alcohol rehabilitation in the US have dyslexia.

A turn of the tide

Assistive technologies abound to help younger students to master reading, and older students with note taking and organising their thoughts. Equally, there are a number of tools and resources online for parents and teachers of students with dyscalculia.

Dyslexics happen to be very good at oral communication, delegation, creative and spatial awareness tasks. They are exceptional at entrepreneurship and sales, able to verbally paint compelling pictures of what they envision. Consequently they are also good at managing companies and motivating staff; they are able to “see” future consequences, patterns of success and swiftly visualize complex management hierarchies.

They are also brilliant lateral thinkers - perhaps honed by the tough task of comprehending the facts in a book-based classroom, they have exceptional work-around abilities - seeking new ways to understand problems. Consequently, people with dyslexia are particularly likely to succeed at engineering, entrepreneurship, the arts and architecture.

Increasingly educators and pedagogues are looking at dyslexia, and teaching students with dyslexia, differently. The thinking being: If dyslexics are proving to be some of society’s most extraordinary and valuable people (see list above) then surely ensuring they receive a good education is imperative?

Stay tuned!

Join me next time where I will uncover some of the advanced educational theories and practices that are not simply finding ways to help dyslexics to cope with the classroom, but are in fact redesigning their learning theories to embrace the ways dyslexics learn, to the benefit of the entire class.

*Note: I am aware that some of my readers may feel I have overstepped a politically correct protocol by using the phrases “dyslexic” and “dyslexics” so freely. I took guidance from Dr Daniel Peters in this article on the paradigms currently frustrating efforts at improving education for dyslexic students. He says, “Even worse, as in my state of California, many states aren't allowed, or don't use the word "dyslexia," and many parents have heard statements from teachers and educators such as, "Dyslexia is an outdated term" and "Dyslexia is not recognized anymore." I also took as my guide, the very many videos online of exceptional people, who happily identify as dyslexics - my logic being if dyslexics themselves don’t mind the phrase, then, in the interests of clarity I shall also use it.

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