(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.

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Paradox of Students’ “Deficits” As Society’s Strengths

179897674_ee402474d9_bThe Economist article, “In praise of misfits,” lays out the business-related benefits of what the author  calls “creatives,” “anti-social geeks,” “oddball quants,” and “rule-breaking entrepreneurs.” While the entire article is well worth the read, we have pulled out a few quotes to help frame the idea that we should work tirelessly to help our school system to support these “misfits.”

Rather than treat their uniquenesses as deficits, we would do well to build on their actionable strengths and affinities — qualities that are proving to shape our present, and will surely impact our future.

From the article:

Recruiters have noticed that the mental qualities that make a good computer programmer resemble those that might get you diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome: an obsessive interest in narrow subjects; a passion for numbers, patterns and machines; an addiction to repetitive tasks; and a lack of sensitivity to social cues.


Similar traits are common in the upper reaches of finance. The quants have taken over from the preppies. The hero of Michael Lewis’s book “The Big Short”, Michael Burry, a hedge-fund manager, is a loner who wrote a stockmarket blog as a hobby while he was studying to be a doctor. He attracted so much attention from money managers that he quit medicine to start his own hedge fund, Scion Capital.

The article goes on,

Entrepreneurs also display a striking number of mental oddities. Julie Login of Cass Business School surveyed a group of entrepreneurs and found that 35% of them said that they suffered from dyslexia, compared with 10% of the population as a whole and 1% of professional managers. Prominent dyslexics include the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM and IKEA, not to mention more recent successes such as Charles Schwab (the founder of a stockbroker), Richard Branson (the Virgin Group), John Chambers (Cisco) and Steve Jobs (Apple).

All that said, however, there must be balance between the “creatives” and what the article refers to as, “The Organisation Man,” or the “‘well-rounded’ executives.” The writer goes on to explain,

Where does that leave the old-fashioned organisation man? He will do just fine. The more companies hire brilliant mavericks, the more they need sensible managers to keep the company grounded. Someone has to ensure that dull but necessary tasks are done. Someone has to charm customers (and perhaps lawmakers). This task is best done by those who don’t give the impression that they think normal people are stupid.

All of this hints at the need for the real career-ready skill of knowing simply how to get along — to not just tolerate differences, but to appreciate and leverage these differences as opportunities to innovate and become more than the sum of our parts. Our learning communities can be (and already are) incubators of the social relationships that, in part, define a student’s path beyond graduations, for better or for worse.

What if we were so bold as to decide that each student is a learner, learning changes lives,  learning happens in different ways, and learning empowers, and therefore we need to ensure that each student feels the work of schooling matters to them and that their strengths and affinities are not only valued, but embraced and employed as essential to the success of the community?

Do we need to wait until these “misfits” graduate and enter the workforce to change the following?

Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties.

Because, after all,

. . . these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s actually cool to be a geek.”

We, as educators and advocates of all students, have the power to change this trend. There is no need for students to wait until adulthood to find that their strengths matter, and no research suggests this is in the best interest of students, especially those “creatives, oddballs, and/or square pegs among us.

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