Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Big Picture Thinking

While reviewing the "long-term," "big picture" thinking in the blog pieces on James Lovelock, Jack Horner and others, I am struck by how distant from "real life" the work of these individuals would appear to be. Yet, on reflection, I see that as our global climate crisis begins to mature, it would appear that their large scale perspectives may be all that will matter in the end.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Twenty Years Ahead

The page proofs of the new edition of In the Mind’s Eye have recently been completed and the book is to be printed shortly. I thought it was the right time to excerpt here parts of a section from the new “Epilogue” that focused on several early reactions:

Some eighteen years have passed since In the Mind’s Eye was first published in the spring of 1991. Shortly afterward, two reviewers asserted that the book was some twenty years “ahead of current educational thinking.” As a first time author, I was, of course, greatly pleased to read this. But I did not take it very seriously at the time. However, over the years since, I have come to wonder more and more why so many efforts in school reform have so often ended in failure or inconsequence--and how the perspectives outlined here have been so uniformly ignored by the professionals--although not ignored by creative, visual-thinking dyslexics, their families and a handful of insightful teachers and educational institutions.

I am beginning to think that perhaps we might get some different results if we were to learn to see education through truly different eyes. Perhaps this might help us understand how we can find the islands of hidden talent in many students, creating motivation and a sense of hope that never existed before--and so finding ways do less damage during all those years of education.

It is perhaps worth our looking at one of these reviews with some care to see what might be helpful. The following remarks were made by the late Professor T. R. Miles, Ph.D., who, among many other accomplishments, was founder of the Dyslexia Unit at the University of Wales, Bangor, and was founding editor of the peer-reviewed professional journal Dyslexia. Professor Miles wrote: “. . . I entirely agree with [Dr. Doris Kelly] when she says that [In the Mind’s Eye] is ‘about 20 years ahead of current educational thinking.’ Many of us have spent long hours considering all the things that dyslexics are supposed to be weak at. What Tom West reminds us of is that we need also to consider dyslexics’ strengths. . . . At present, so he implies, education is in the hands of those who possess all the traditional skills; and since, not surprisingly, they assume that others are like themselves, the needs of some very gifted thinkers whose brain organization is different are not being adequately met. I very much hope that both teachers and educational planners will read this book and take its message seriously.”

Professor Miles touches on an aspect that is almost never addressed, but may be a major point in our considerations--that is, that most of the people involved in the study and remediation of dyslexia are not dyslexic themselves and were, in many cases, excellent pupils in their own school days. Accordingly, it may be very difficult for them to see the emerging great strengths and creative powers possessed by the students sitting before them --who seem such helpless fools in doing even the most elementary academic work. Over the years, I have become more and more impressed with the extreme difficulty many have in separating the concept of intelligence from academic performance and test taking. Dr. Orton did not have this problem. With his first dyslexic patient, Orton made a point of identifying high intelligence that did not correspond to conventional academic skills.

However, since his time, many seem to be like Dr. Starr--referred to in chapter 1 by Eileen Simpson. Dr. Starr was full of good intentions in helping the struggling children but, apparently, was completely unable to believe that the children in her center could be highly intelligent. She thought Simpson was bright and capable -- indeed, sufficiently able to follow her as head of the center. Simpson was smart -- consequently, Simpson could not possibly be dyslexic herself. It is simply unthinkable. (“What nonsense! . . . dyslexic? Impossible”). We all may wonder how many in this field hold, deep, deep down, the same beliefs as Dr. Starr, in spite of the best intentions and in spite of all protestations to the contrary. We may also wonder how many children pick up on these beliefs, buying into a life of low expectation and unrealized potential.

I am not arguing, of course, that all dyslexics have great talents -- nor that all non-dyslexics are blind to the talents of dyslexics. But I believe we do need to consider that the kinds of talents they do have, great or small, may be just the kinds of talents that are invisible to conventional teachers and conventional tests and conventional measures of academic ability. This is why I feel that developing a whole new family of tests and measurement instruments is so critical.

In the ways of the world, it is a simple truth that one cannot be considered to be really bright unless there exists some test on which you can get a top score. And, as we have been trying to show throughout this book, there are many talents and abilities that are important in life and work that are never measured by conventional psychological and academic tests. This needs to change.

To do this properly, we will probably have to get highly successful dyslexics involved in the process because many conventional educators and test designers may be quite unable to see what needs to be measured, how it can be measured and why it is important to measure it. Old habits of thought are hard to break-- especially when you have always gotten top grades on your papers and examinations. But perhaps, once again, we will need to rely on dyslexics to “see what others do not see or cannot see.”

Clearly, it is time to develop new ways of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of students as early as possible. Sometimes great abilities can be hidden beneath striking difficulties. Sometimes, we are beginning to see, the kid who is having a lot of trouble with reading or spelling or arithmetic may turn out to do very well indeed with astrophysics or advanced mathematics or molecular biology or computer information visualization -- areas where visual thinking and image manipulation are more highly valued than rapid recall of memorized names or math facts or large quantities of data. Sometimes, when the conceptual context and the technologies change in dramatic ways, the high talents that were once marginalized or considered of low value in the old era may suddenly move to center stage, providing the exact set of skills required in the new era.

Somehow, we need to be able to observe these changes with an open mind -- alert to seeing potential and opportunity rather than only failure and restriction. Sometimes, we might discover, the kids who are having the most trouble should not be held back. Rather, perhaps, sometimes, they should be pushed a long way forward -- if the right area can be identified by some new and innovative screening device or testing method. As we have seen, those who are most gifted in higher mathematics can have persistent problems with arithmetic; some great writers can never learn to spell. Sometimes, our conventional ideas about tests of grade-level basic skills make no sense at all.

However, identifying the right area of strength for each specific student can be quite important. It would help to hold their attention. But more important, perhaps it will allow them to use talents never recognized before. Perhaps it will allow them to learn in ways that are quite different from conventional schooling (and out of conventional educational sequence). Perhaps it will allow them to gain respect from others (and for themselves) for being able to do things that are challenging for other students--or even challenging for their teachers. Of course, not all will be able to move ahead quickly -- but even the most limited student may have islands of strength that no one knew existed. We must make it our business to help them find these islands. Sometimes, almost anything will do to start. But in the end, it is really important for them to be able to say “I have a lot of trouble with this but I am the best in my class (or my school) at doing that.” Sometimes, a whole life hangs in the balance.

In many cases, of course, such an approach could be an administrative nightmare. How can the system cope with such extremes of diversity, with so many different measurement scales? Life is so much easier when there is one scale -- conveniently showing those who are the top in everything and those who are at the bottom of everything. With some new system, with so many scoring high on at least one or two subtests, how do you know which ones are really bright and which ones are really not so bright? However, it is clearly not beyond our capacity to make it work if we are convinced that it must be made to work -- if we are convinced of the real value of diversity in brains and abilities.

We now have many new and sophisticated tools at hand. And the need is great. It is high time to give up the illusion of uniformity and begin to take advantage -- for the sake of these individuals as well as the needs of society at large -- of vast differences in abilities in many diverse fields. When we all are having to compete with many millions of others globally (in an increasingly uncertain and changing economy; with fast transportation and cheap light-speed communication), it is suddenly essential that all of us quickly find whatever special talents we have, and develop these to a very high level -- whether or not it is part of the conventional academic curriculum.

Based on excerpt from the new “Epilogue” from the second edition of In the Mind’s Eye, August 2009.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Autism as Academic Paradigm by Tyler Cowen

I was delighted when this article was forwarded to me yesterday. I am posting it on my blog since, in my view, it is full of truth telling--about what I have learned in recent years from Temple Grandin and others as well as my quick look at Nikola Tesla and my talks with folks at GCHQ. But also there is much in the article that exactly parallels the points that I and others have been trying to make with respect to the talents of dyslexics. In fact, several years ago I happened to meet Vernon Smith (mentioned in the article) at a George Mason University reception and I asked him whether he had encountered highly talented dyslexics among his associates. To my surprise, he started telling me about his own autistic-like behaviors, when he would "zone-out" while thinking of some long-term problem. The article does mention dyslexia, but, of course, there is much, much more. Several times Temple Grandin and I have discussed the highly visual ways of thinking that some (many?) of those with autism or dyslexia seem to share--in spite of being very different conditions. Perhaps the time is right to look into these matters in a conference of some kind. As the literature continues to develop, it would appear that autism and dyslexia may be opposites in many ways. However, they would appear to be similar with respect to being misunderstood--having professionals looking only at cognitive weaknesses while pretty much ignoring cognitive strengths. (Or, allowing major strengths to entirely overshadow the weaknesses so that the weak areas are hardly noticed.) I hope the link below will work for the next few days. (Just now I am going through proof pages of the new edition of In the Mind's Eye.)

-----Original Message-----

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Saturday, July 4, 2009

Dyslexic Discoveries: James Lovelock

I was really surprised and amazed, indeed, shocked. I had been reading things by and about James Lovelock since the 1970s. But I had no idea that there would be an explicit connection between him and creativity among dyslexics. Indeed, on the Summer Solstice, Father’s Day, the 21st of June, not long ago, it happened that Lovelock gave a talk and signed books at our local bookstore, Politics and Prose, here in northwest Washington, D.C.

Shortly afterward, I was browsing the new website “Dyslexic Advantage” recently put together by Fernette and Brock Eide, physicians with a clinic near Seattle, Washington state. This new site skillfully blends video clips with a few lines of text, often with little commentary. The videos relate to an individual’s accomplishments and may or may not include references to dyslexia. The text is usually quoted from biographies or autobiographies, providing evidence of dyslexia or similar learning problems.

I quickly noted that this is a wonderful combination, especially accessible for dyslexic children and adults who need to have real evidence of what dyslexics have done and perhaps a bit about how they have done it. I browsed several stories on the website and then noted a reference to James Lovelock. An excellent interview with Lovelock had been selected summarizing his main ideas and the controversies that these ideas have yielded over the years (among many unwanted but often accurate predictions). But then I was shocked to read the following text just below the video clip on the website:

“ ‘I’m dyslexic and hopeless at arithmetic, but nowadays I love maths as computers do all the hard arithmetic chores.’ -- James Lovelock

“Dyslexic inventor of the electron capture detector, James Lovelock is now known best for his work as an environmentalist and creator of the Gaia Hypothesis. This video is an interview with Lovelock about his environmental work.

“Interview with Lovelock where he talks about his school history:”

In the story in the Independent (a London newspaper), we see brief examples of Lovelock being able to learn much from hands-on lab work--combined with long hours of boring war work (fire watching while at the National Institute of Medical Research in London during World War II) where a future Nobel Prize winner, doing the same duty, gave him a “brain dump” of all that he knew (in reality, we see here a treasure of interactive, individualized instruction, so well suited to a bright and intensely curious dyslexic mind).

But there is more: Very recently, I was putting together ideas for a chapter in an upcoming book on dyslexia and creativity. While searching for a quotation from Michael Faraday in my own chapter on creativity in In the Mind’s Eye, I chanced upon a long endnote that somehow I had totally forgotten about:

“A major recurring theme in the history of science is that some new ideas are unacceptable to conventional modes of thought. Sometimes the problem is that the ideas are not really perceived as being new. It is assumed that what is important is already known and well understood.

“A current example of this sort of problem is the theory of atmospheric chemistry known as the ‘Gaia Hypothesis.’ The theory has been advanced since the late 1960s by the British scientist and instrument designer James Lovelock, with others. The basic idea is that the kinds and amounts of gases in the earth's atmosphere are regulated mainly by microbial life. If certain gases, like oxygen and methane, were not being constantly produced [by living things], they would be expected to combine with each other, making the proportions of these gases in the uncombined state much less prevalent. Consequently, Lovelock argued that life can be detected on a planet [at great distance] through the makeup of its atmosphere alone--that is, [the presence of] life can detected through atmospheric measurements.

“ . . . Lynn Margulis, [who worked with Lovelock for a time, years ago,] indicated that it was some time before even she was able to understand the full significance of Lovelock's still controversial ideas. . . . Margulis noted that some time ago Lovelock ‘couldn't get anyone to understand what he was saying. I know,’ she said, ‘because I worked with him for two years before I could understood it. . . . It's not his fault. It's not my fault. It was just that he was coming up with something very new. What we tended to hear was what we had heard before. Oh, we would say, we know all about that already--which is just the response you are getting today from today's academics. [But] it's a genuinely original idea.’

“There are further possible reasons for the continuing resistance to Lovelock's approach--ones that touch on the familiar problems of [over] specialization and definition of professional domain. According to Margulis: ‘If this kind of analysis is correct, then atmospheric chemists will have to know something about microbiology. And even worse, microbiologists will have to know something about atmospheric chemistry. . . .’ Many specialists are not enthusiastic, in part perhaps, because ‘they are going to have to re-educate’ themselves, which many do not wish to do--making for ‘a real problem.’ ”

At the book signing at Politics and Prose, I had given Lovelock a hastily prepared note (along with a copy of Thinking Like Einstein and sections from my new epilogue for the second edition of In the Mind’s Eye), thanking him for his research, books and talks--also noting how much his career as an independent scientist would appear to have followed Einstein’s advice that to do deep science one needs to remain apart as much as possible from the “battle of the brains” in conventional scientific careers.

Clearly, there is much more to be investigated about how it came to be that an independent dyslexic scientist has been able to both design instruments that have been able to make minute measurements that sparked global awareness of one global problem (CFCs) and now is willing to make unpopular and controversial predictions about another global problem (one much more difficult to understand and control). Even those who disagree with Lovelock’s observations and assessments would acknowledge that he has brought us to think deeply about important issues. He now thinks that global warming is proceeding more rapidly that the experts expected and he wonders whether it is already too late to reverse the accelerating trends. He hopes that he may be wrong. But if he is right, we will know in a decade or two.

The endnote quoted is from In the Mind’s Eye, chapter 8, “Patterns in Creativity,” note 20, p. 328 in the 1997 edition; original source quoted: Lynn Margulis, “Rethinking Evolution,” Smithsonian Institution talk, April 23, 1990. The new Lovelock book is The Vanishing Face of Gaia (Basic Books, 2009). The publisher gave the subtitle: “Final Warning.” During his recent talk, Lovelock noted that his own preferred subtitle had been: “Enjoy It While You Can.” The front cover of the book carries the quotation: “ ‘James Lovelock will go down in history as the scientist who changed our view of the Earth’-- John Gray, Independent (UK).” For material on James Lovelock from website “Dyslexic Advantage,” see: