Monday, March 24, 2008

Dyslexia, ADD and Other Assets

That's right - "assets." Or so claims Paul Orfalea, the founder and super-successful CEO of the Kinkos chain. In his book, Copy This!: Lessons from a Hyperactive Dyslexic who Turned a Bright Idea Into One of America's Best Companies, Orfalea refuses to call his unique learning styles "disabilities." Growing up in a time when Dyslexia wasn't understood by most educators, he didn't receive needed help and had to navigate school without ever learning to read.

Yet, reading's just one way to learn. Orfalea mastered the arts of thinking outside of the box, capturing ideas through observation, and disseminating ideas through voice-mail rather than e-mail.

What does this have to do with character? Everything. Many teachers, either subtly or overtly, perpetuate in the classroom the dated concepts that quick-learners of textbook and lecture material are "smart," while slow learners in the same arenas are "dumb." Some have actually separated the "smart" from the "slow" in seating, ostensibly to inspire the slow learners to catch up and be allowed to sit with the "smart" crowd.

Other teachers who wouldn't dream of such overt profiling nevertheless say in the hearing of others how "smart" one student is (who scored 100 with little effort), not realizing that in proclaiming this student smart, the other students may very well be categorizing themselves as "mildly dumb" (who scored 80-89), "dumber" (scores 70-79) and "dumberer" (under 70).

It would appear that the language of "smart" hasn't kept up with science of "smart." We now know that people learn in many different ways. So while Einstein may have been gifted in theoretical Physics, he struggled with languages and was labeled slow by many teachers. Some have a high emotional IQ, but struggle with academics. Author and professor C.S. Lewis struggled with Math, but excelled in literature.

Interestingly, some successful writers flunked English. Apparently, a prerequisite to writing a thrilling novel isn't the ability to label all the parts of speech in your sentences.

One professor told me of a graduate level class she took, in which all the students took a test to determine their learning style. All of the students were training to be teachers. The result of the test? Every one of them had the same learning style. And that makes sense. People who learn well in an academic setting would have fond memories of succeeding in that arena. No wonder they wanted to go to college and later teach. But it's as frightening as it is fascinating. Can the typical teacher truly understand students who learn differently?

The practical outcome? Our present school system tends to lead one category of learners to think they are smart, and all other learners to assume they're dumb. By keeping this fact in mind, perhaps we can avoid actions and words that put down those who learn differently, and help them to recognize their strengths.

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