Monday, February 15, 2010

Dyslexic Talents Everywhere

In a previous blog (January 25, 2010), I made reference to the recent Miami conference for which I organized a roundtable discussion on the talents of dyslexics, indicating why I feel there ought to be greater research interest in this topic.

In my thank you email to the participants, I noted several points that I thought might be of interest to readers of this blog. Excerpts of this email follow (slightly modified and expanded in some places):

I want to thank you all once again for your willingness to participate in our small (but I think very high quality) roundtable discussion in Miami. I am most grateful for your time in doing background research and for your thoughtful comments.

As you know, I am deeply committed to this particular issue and I plan to continue several lines of investigation to try to move the discussion forward and to encourage the interest of other investigators -- in my talks, my blog and my third book as well as other venues, as appropriate.

If you have further thoughts on the topic, I would be most grateful if you would let me know. My intention is to address in some way each of the issues and concerns that have been raised -- in a effort to bridge the gap between my own certain feeling that this research is greatly needed and the feelings of others that it is deeply problematic and, on the whole, not very helpful.

I will be flying to Paris tomorrow to attend the World Dyslexia Forum at UNESCO Headquarters and I understand representatives of a great many countries will attend. The organizers wanted to focus their program almost exclusively on literacy and academic remediation, but I will be doing what I can to spread the word on the importance of looking at the talent side as well -- which, indeed, is part of their program, although a very small part.

It is worth noting that I will also be participating in a conference at the University of Maryland in March, called "Diamonds in the Rough," where the main theme will be gifts and talents and positive capabilities in a range of LD areas.

I continue to be puzzled by the wide divergence between two sets of groups working more or less in the same field.

It is noteworthy, that when I spend time with my friends working in the computer graphics field (whether colleagues working at Pixar or at the annual SIGGRAPH conferences) I see almost nothing but highly creative and highly visual dyslexics who are working at very high levels of proficiency, often at very high levels of income and prestige. They have gone where they are appreciated -- and they have largely avoided areas of academic failure and humiliation. Indeed, this behavior is common sense.

I was in our local Apple store earlier today and noticed a new version of "Kid Pix" for sale there in the children's section (4 to 8 years). I happen to know quite well the original developer of "Kid Pix." (I hope he continues to have a good contract with the company currently updating and distributing the product.)

A dyslexic father designed “Kid Pix” for his dyslexic son. In the early 1990s, the MIT Media Lab professors and students believed that the creator of "Kid Pix" had designed the most innovative and most error-free user interface ever developed to that date. The father taught photography at the University of Oregon at Eugene. I saw him and his family regularly at SIGGRAPH conferences for many years. He has given me several of his books and photography CDs.

So, I hope you can understand, I see the talents of dyslexics wherever I look -- and I wonder why others do not see it.

Increasingly, I think of it as a history of science question -- or perhaps an epistemological question (since I was originally trained as an undergraduate in philosophy and especially logic, epistemology and the philosophy of science).

How do we know what we think we know? Do our empirical studies actually address the right issues with the proper testing instruments? Or, do we keep doing the same kinds of studies with marginal or inconsequential results?

If we look at things with different eyes, do we get very different (and much better) answers? Do we need very different tests and instruments to begin to understand talents and capabilities that we never thought were important -- but are now clearly very important in work and life as well as a truly modern educational system? Like Lord Kelvin, can we be too easily fooled by working with “hard” numbers?

For example, why is it that we all agreed (and taught our students) for some 100 years that the ratio of dyslexic boys to girls was roughly 4 to 1 -- only to discover the real ratio was closer to 1 to 1 -- mainly because the girls had better social skills and did not act out -- so were not tested and were not identified.

Lately, it is looming larger in my mind that what we have here may be (what is called in medicine) a "referral bias" type problem.

Most professionals in the field see every day mostly a long line of school failures and “at risk” children -- those who are too young to have found a way to some measure of success (often necessarily outside of school), great or small. (Sometimes, even the needed brain structures and capacities are not there until later in the child’s development, we are told.)

In contrast, I, and a few others, see almost exclusively those who are highly successful or very highly successful, in our attempt to see what can be learned from them that may be useful to dyslexics and non-dyslexics alike.

Can it be that so much depends on what one sees every day -- as well as what we were taught to see in our own student days?

Almost all the extremely successful people I write about were never tested and were able to find, mostly on their own, some innovative way to excel and to think well of themselves outside of school, that is, outside of continuous failure situations.

(In recent years, often the situation has changed and these highly successful dyslexics learn about dyslexia and related conditions, and the significance of their own personal histories, through the testing of their children.)

As attachments, for your interest, I am including a copy of a summary paper I wrote years ago for the journal of the Hong Kong pediatricians as well as a set of several excerpts from the Epilogue for the new second edition of In the Mind's Eye. Please have a look and tell me what you think. (As it happens, I learned at the Miami conference that the Hong Kong paper is now required reading in an Israeli graduate program, among other places.)

Again, thanks so much for your thoughtful efforts. I hope the discussion will continue.

All best wishes, Tom West