Imagine a restaurant does a survey revealing that 20 % of its clients are not enjoying the current menu. The business owners don’t think much of it, the majority are still paying. Until they find out just who the 20% are…the trendsetters in the city!
The same exact thing is happening in education.
Depending on the sources you look at, as many as 30 % of all kids are neurodiverse including ADHD, autistic, gifted, dyslexic and more. That’s a rather substantial chunk of each classroom. Seeing as we are focussing on dyslexia this month, let’s consider the numbers of kids that are specifically dyslexic: 20%.
In the relatively small secondary school my son attends, there are about 250 kids from grade 8-12; that means statistically we can expect that about 50 kids are dyslexic.
Students are more likely to be dyslexic than to need glasses: so perhaps around 30 in the school need to choose frames. Students are also more than twice as likely to be dyslexic than left handed: perhaps 23 out of 250 need left-handed scissors.
But unlike left-handedness that is neither an advantage nor a handicap or short sightedness that needs correcting: dyslexia offers both challenges that need support and extraordinary strengths that, when unlocked, result in dynamic innovation and imaginative problem solving.
This is not a statistic that needs fixing, it's a gold mine that needs exploiting.
The problem for the educator as for the ignorant restaurant owner is that the current stats aren’t showing the potential of the 20% – far from it.
Dean Bragonier of NoticeAbility.org , my guest on the Wonderfully Wired podcast this month, cited these stats in the US in his Ted talk in 2015:
35% of kids with dyslexia drop out of high school
50% of all kids in the US in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs are dyslexic
70% of juvenile delinquents have dyslexia
These numbers seem to indicate two things: not only is one in five kids not being served by general education; these kids are in trouble.
Sticking to the restaurant analogy, these clients are not merely disliking the food, they are getting sick from it.
My youngest and I recently read together from The Usborne Introduction to Genes and DNA. The book introduced the moral dilemmas posed by genetic modification. On page 51 is a bright quarter page picture of a familiar inspiring face. The caption read:
“The great scientist Einstein had dyslexia, which makes reading and writing difficult. If his parents had been able to avoid having a baby with dyslexia by using designer baby technology, he might never have been born”
What if it turned out that the 20% of diners leaving the restaurant are the young, upcoming trendsetters, the influential ones posting their experience on instagram, the ones that are determining the future of the restaurant business in that city?
What if it turns out that the gifts of the dyslexic brain are the ones most needed for us all to thrive in the future?
Think about the challenges our society faces today: food insecurity, climate change, the refugee crisis, water scarcity, global pandemics, gender and racial inequality, poverty…
What if the gifted minds, which are able to change the world, have that ability because of their dyslexia?
Except that the road to success in school is still more potholed for dyslexic brains than for non- dyslexic ones.
Don’t get me wrong. There certainly are dyslexic brains that have excelled: JFK, Stephen Spielberg, Tim Tebow, Pablo Picasso, Richard Branson, Jamie Oliver.
In fact in certain fields, the numbers representing dyslexic thinkers are much greater than 20%. Dean Bragonier, my guest on the Wonderfully Wired podcast this month, points out that 35% of entrepreneurs and 40% of self -made millionaires are dyslexic as well as a whopping 50% of rocket scientists.
But these names and these stats don’t always comfort me as a parent of someone with dyslexia.
They certainly point to the inherent strengths associated with a profile that the general population (and most dyslexics!) still regard as a disability. But as many of these men and women’s stories indicate, they seem to represent those that succeeded despite education and not because of it.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
What statistic is my son, Judah, more likely to fall into?
I believe with all my being, that the world needs what kids like Judah have to offer and that Judah and his dyslexic peers deserve a shot at pursuing education as far as he is called to.
But there are so many odds stacked against him!
How will our dyslexic sons and daughters jump through the traditional hoops to give them a shot at success?
When Judah first started in traditional school at the beginning of this year, the head of academics at school demanded the red tape, the long line of expenses and admin needed to go through to prove his need before the school was willing to give support.
Otherwise, he complained, “he’d be inundated with such requests”.
What he and many in education don’t realise, is that he wants to be inundated with dyslexic brains for the sake of his future and the future his grandchildren must live in.
If you knew what potential was walking down your corridor, you’d stop moaning about the three parents knocking your door down for support and go hunting for the other 47!
I’m happy to report that once the hoops were jumped, the school opened wide their minds and hearts to support Judah and the other possible 49 students with dyslexia in their midst.
Watch this space for the rest of the story.
Dean Bragonier’s talk, which you must watch here, explains how the invention of the printing press with its great gains in embedding and scaling information changed the nature of how people were taught from kinaesthetic hands-on learning in apprenticeships to text- based study. “At that moment,” Dean says, “the door was locked to 20% of the population”.
Teaching by reading and writing is only one of the possible mediums through which children can learn; and it just so happens to fall squarely in the area of weakness for our kids.
Not for one or two in a hundred kids — for 20 of that hundred.
I’m also convinced, incidentally, that non-dyslexic brains will only benefit from teaching that uses all possible mediums and not just text!
What lies ahead for Judah in traditional school invites one thing in abundance: Grit. He will have to overcome with great determination what others find easy and unchallenging to even arrive at what he is exceptional at. I’m choosing to celebrate the character that comes from that for him individually.
But we need to do better as a society to serve dyslexic kids so that they can contribute accordingly.
It is an injustice when such a big percentage of our population starts with an inherent disadvantage, expected to run a fair race when set back from the start. This is the heart of the Neurodiversity movement.
But today, mine isn’t a moral argument: it’s an economic one.
The issue is not just injustice suffered by the 20 – it’s the opportunity cost paid for by the 100!
Never before have the skills offered by the wonderfully wired brain been more critical!
In an age where machines can do so much of what humans used to do, we need those brains that make unlikely connections. But we are too busy judging them for their weakness in making the predictable links!
We need the 20!
Why, if Judah represents a significant portion of the kids in each classroom, is his academic success still so threatened? Why does a kid with ADHD still need a fierce mother to storm the doors of the school or a father of a child on the autism spectrum still have to harass the weary head of academics for accommodations due his girl?
And these are the minority of families that have some insight into their children’s profile: think of the huge number that don’t!
When I fight for my son, like a honey badger for my honey, I am not asking for handouts that will give him an edge over the 80% who happen to find reading and writing easy.
You and I are asking for glasses on a surgeon, to overcome the disability and unlock the skill. We are asking for a hearing aid in a therapist's ears making her able to listen because when she does, she has extraordinary compassion.
We would never deny glasses and hearing aids!
Would the unhappy client feel it is an imposition on the restaurant that he is dissatisfied?
The owners of the restaurant are staying awake at night threatened with foreclosure for causing food poisoning. But even if they can control the damage, their problem is bigger than the health and safety concerns.
The writing is on the wall: if they don’t find a way to unlock the taste buds of the 20% their relevance is fading and their business future is threatened.