Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Dyslexic Talents for New Economy

Note: I will be working soon with folks at Dyslexic Advantage on research -- and I am reminded of a section I wrote for second edition of In the Minds Eye. I thought some of you might be interested in seeing an excerpt -- see below (without quotation marks).

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. Old habits of thought are hard to break. 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.

Identifying the right topic for each specific student is 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.

True, it is not yet perfectly clear how this can be done. But it is clear enough that it will need to be done -- and in ways that are very different from traditional educational pathways -- and most likely there will be extensive use of the newest information visualization technologies. Sometimes just listening to the improbable life stories of highly successful dyslexics is enough to give us a few really new ideas about how to move forward in this direction.

End of excerpt. Comments are welcome.