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.


  1. Perhaps ALL People have some talent's or 'things to offer'.
    Could us 'Dyslexics'; make Web Sites; together??
    Higly 'Marketed Sites'; lots of 'Traffic'; changing the World.
    DOing what we Love...?! Is it possible??

  2. Excellent epilogue. I think one big barrier is that most schools come from a position of improving weaknesses in students. Rarely do they consider strengths or consider utilizing a student's strengths to improve a weakness or two. I also think you've mentioned another big barrier: the inability of teachers to see that learning isn't linear for these kids...that doing the hard thing is EASIER than doing the easy thing. This goes against everything they have been taught. I am saddened to see that not much has improved in this area. I do think teacher workshops with examples of this would be VERY beneficial.

  3. Amen. You nailed it. Schools are great at remediating weaknesses, but often blind to what makes a visual thinker tick. The strategies that work for other struggling students are often counter productive for these kids. My son is facing this now. I look forward to reading the new edition of your book.