(Re)Defining Dyslexia

1310845577_cc84a596dfIn a recent New York Times op-ed, Defining My Dyslexia, physician and author Blake Charlton explores some of the emerging research and trends related to dyslexia while also sharing his own story about his struggles growing up a dyslexic. At the heart of his piece is the growing understanding that along with the challenges associated with dyslexia, are a collection of cognitive strengths that are too often under appreciated. He writes,

Last month, at the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation Conference on Dyslexia and Talent, I watched several neurobiologists present evidence that the dyslexic brain, which processes information in a unique way, may impart particular strengths. Studies using cognitive testing and functional M.R.I.’s have demonstrated exceptional three-dimensional and spatial reasoning among dyslexic individuals, which may account for the many successful dyslexic engineers. Similar studies have shown increased creativity and big-picture thinking (or “gist-detection”) in dyslexics, which correlates with the surprising number of dyslexic entrepreneurs, novelists and filmmakers.

The conference’s organizers made a strong case that the successes of the attending dyslexic luminaries — who ranged from a Pulitzer-winning poet to a MacArthur grant-winning paleontologist to an entrepreneur who pays a dozen times my student loans in taxes every year — had been achieved “not despite, but because of dyslexia.”

It is a powerful message for everyone, especially students struggling to understand their dyslexia within the context of a world that sees their differences as deficits. He goes on to illuminate this point,

Today’s educational environment exacerbates dyslexic weaknesses. Schools misidentify poor spelling and slow reading as a lack of intelligence; typically diagnose the condition only after students have fallen behind; and too often fail to provide dyslexic students with the audio and video materials that would help them learn. Until these disadvantages are removed, “disability” most accurately describes what young dyslexics confront.

This heartbreaking reality further demonstrates what many of us already know: we must design educational spaces and experiences not to just accomodate, ahem, all kinds of minds but to intentionally leverage the mosaic of strengths that such diversity brings to the table. There’s a considerable difference between tolerating diversity and embracing it. Perhaps a good place to start is in how we define and diagnose such “disabilities” as dyslexia. To this point, Charlton concludes,

A more precise definition of dyslexia would clearly identify the disabilities that go along with it, while recognizing the associated abilities as well. If the dyslexic community could popularize such a definition, then newly diagnosed dyslexics would realize that they, like everyone else, will face their futures with a range of strengths and weaknesses.

We could not agree more.

Photo Credit: The Nikon Guru via Compfight cc

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Oh, The Places You’ll Find Yourself — Spatially Speaking

Below is a TED Talk by Neil Burgess, a neuroscientist at the University College in London, who researches, as described on the TED website, “how patterns of electrical activity in brain cells guide us through space.”

Supplemental to the grid cells Dr. Burgess discusses are additional neurological systems that give us a sense of our surroundings. Dan Peterson, who writes a fascinating blog (Sports are 80 Percent Mentalabout the body-mind connection in sports, recently posted “Spatial Awareness on the Football Field” (where we found the above TED Talk — Thanks, Dan!) in which he writes,

Jeffrey Taube, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, has been studying our sense of direction and location. “Knowing what direction you are facing, where you are, and how to navigate are really fundamental to your survival,” said Taube.

In his research, he has found there are head direction cells, located in the thalamus, that act as a compass needle tracking the direction our head is currently facing.  At the same time, in the hippocampus, place cells determine and track our location relative to landmarks in the environment, say the football field sideline or the end zone.  These two sets of cells communicate with each other to guide our movement.

“They put that information together to give you an overall sense of ‘here,’ location wise and direction wise,” Taube explained. “That is the first ingredient for being able to ask the question, ‘How am I going to get to point B if I am at point A?’ It is the starting point on the cognitive map.”

It reminds us once again that strengths and affinities can be left at the door of our schools and classrooms if we don’t incorporate movement, action, and an intentional use of our bodies in our lessons and activities. Research continues to indicate that taking advantage of the neurological links between spatial ordering, graphomotor functioning, attention, and memory can help nurture achievement among a broader diversity of learners than the traditional sit-n-git approach (which leaves too many students itching for something more engaging).

Summer Blog Series Post #5: The Role of Spatial Ordering in Understanding Math Symbols

The results of our recent poll are in!  You, our readers, expressed a strong interest in hearing about learning challenges related to math … so in response, this week’s blog is about the spatial ordering demands involved in understanding math symbols. Thank you to everyone who participated in our poll.  We love the feedback.

In developing an understanding of mathematical concepts, students must engage their nonverbal thinking skills. Nonverbal thinking involves the use of spatial and visual processes to learn or think about a problem or concept.

One mathematical concept that involves nonverbal thinking is the use of symbols, such as numbers. The number 6, for example, is a symbol that represents a quantity. Another common math symbol is “=”, often referred to as an “equals sign,” that represents the concept that quantities on each side of the symbol are the same, or equal (e.g., 3+3 is the same as 6).  Students use and manipulate symbols when doing operations ranging from basic addition to algebraic equations.

Understanding and using math symbols taps into a student’s higher order cognition and spatial ordering abilities.  In this post, we’re going to focus on the role of spatial ordering

Neurodevelopmental factors:

Nonverbal thinking involves visual or spatial representations of math processes and relationships. Students must be able to interpret visual and spatial information (as when looking at a graph or geometric shape), and to form and understand visual and spatial concepts (as when interpreting information from a graph or describing attributes of shapes).

Some concepts lend themselves to “visualization,” creating a mental image to represent a mathematical relationship. The concept of proportion is a good example. A student may have a difficult time interpreting proportion through words and verbal explanation, but being able to visualize the relationship (e.g., the number of boys to girls in the class, the ratio of eaten slices in a pizza) may greatly enhance his/her understanding of proportion as a concept.

Here are some possible signs that a student is succeeding with the spatial ordering demands of math:

The student …

  • understands mathematical symbols and can visualize patterns, math concepts, and the parts of a problem in his/her head
  • uses visual analogies successfully (e.g., determines how two symbols relate and applies that understanding to link other symbols)
  • quickly learns new science and math concepts (e.g., place value, perimeter, equations, resistance in a wire)

Here are some possible signs that a student is struggling with the spatial ordering demands of math:

The student …

  • has trouble associating math symbols with the concepts they represent
  • is unable to recognize the systematic organization of charts, diagrams, tables, or maps
  • is slow to master the alphabet and numbers because of difficulty recognizing symbols
  • has trouble forming concepts and solving problems without substantial use of language

Strategies to help students struggling with understanding and using mathematical symbols:

  • Integrate hands-on activities and verbal explanations into the learning of spatially based concepts. For example, have students use pattern blocks to make geometric shapes, then discuss and write down the characteristics of the shapes, such as number of sides, types of angles, etc.
  • Use examples of familiar situations, or analogies, to talk and think about math concepts. This helps students link the concepts to a visual image. For example, the concept of ratio may be illustrated by asking students to imagine two brothers sharing a pizza, and the amount of pizza left over after the big brother takes his portion.
  • Guide students in visualizing patterns. For example, talk students through ‘seeing’ a geometric shape in their minds, “picturing” a math process taking place, such as 1/3 of a pizza being taken away, and 2/3 of the pizza remaining, etc.

We’d love to hear what strategies or activities you’ve used to help promote understanding of math symbols in your classroom.  Leave a comment below with your ideas!

Related links:

Learn more about our summer series

  1. More information and strategies on understanding math concepts
  2. Related research on spatial ordering (check out the section on Higher Spatial Thinking)
  3. All Kinds of Minds’ “Thinking Mathematically” podcast
  4. Mathematics section of the All Kinds of Minds Parent Toolkit
  5. Interactive spatial ordering activity