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Learning Disorders Don't Scare Me

Today I'd like to talk about something that is near and dear to me, but quite sensitive to everybody in these situations. Since I have a somewhat controversial view, I ask that you read through completely before deciding I'm a crackpot.

So, without further ado, let's talk about learning disabilities and mental disorders and how they affect the learning process.

I'll start by duly informing you, dear reader, that I am not a psychiatrist nor a psychologist. I can't be taken as an expert source on this topic, and I don't pretend to try to pass myself off as so. What I have to say is based on my own experiences both in my own learning and in various educational capacities. It is, quite frankly, where the rubber meets the road. Secondly, I'm going to focus in on the two I encounter the most: dyslexia and ADD. Schizophrenia fits in there because it shares traits with both dyslexia and ADD. All other learning disabilities and mental conditions are either situations I haven't encountered, or require educational interventions for which I'm not qualified and therefore lack significant experience.

So here we go....

First off, I want to eliminate the phrases "learning disability" and "mental condition" when talking about how these situations affect learning. In my experience, neither is a disability nor a condition; at the risk of oversimplifying, they are both simply personality traits.

I knew you'd have trouble swallowing that last sentence. Let me explain. All people will develop attention problems when the material they're studying is really boring, or covered in a really dry way, or just plain incompetently taught. All. People. Folks with ADD just have more attention problems more often, even in areas of study that they find really interesting. Similarly, all people will make stupid algebra mistakes when solving equations, and the more complex the problem, the more mistakes they will make. Folks with dyslexia just make those mistakes more often and need extra steps in their procedures for rooting out those mistakes.

In both cases, traditional teaching methods often fail because of the difficulties these individuals face. However, they also tend to show significant talents in visualization, creative pursuits of any kind, and approaching problems from unusual directions. Both ADD and dyslexic kids also tend to show strong abilities to link ideas together that seem to be unrelated, but after the linking are clearly very related. All of these talents should predict strong problem-solving abilities, particularly in math. Yet, they don't, and there has to be a reason for it. I believe the reason is what I already said: traditional teaching methods fail these kids.

Let's deviate for a bit and talk about how intelligence is measured. Your IQ is basically a comparison to "normal", and the scale is designed so that an IQ of 100 is normal. It's the old bell curve, in fact. What is considered "normal range" is the statistical term "one standard deviation". Basically, you measure IQ for 1000 people and put the results in a scatter plot. Find the middle line where there are equal numbers of people on both sides, and then find the lines on either side that show where most people fit. Those lines are "one standard deviation", and by definition any IQ within that range is "normal". Normal IQ means a brain that functions normally, e.g. everybody in that range can be expected that their brains will function similarly to everyone else in that range. They will store memories the same, index them the same, retrieve them the same. They will link ideas together similarly, reach conclusions similarly, and understand new experiences similarly. That's normal, and it's a statistical term.

Kids with ADD and dyslexia almost never score in the normal IQ range. They almost always score well above normal, e.g. two or more standard deviations. The obvious explanation is that it's because their brains don't function the same way as a normal brain. There are things that are different, and it's those differences that gift them with the level of intelligence they exhibit. Now, I argue all day long about the validity of IQ tests, but one thing is clear: people with ADD and dyslexia show talents that are lacking in the normal population.

I think there's a causal relationship between their talents and their difficulties. To paraphrase something Clinton once said, there is nothing wrong with an ADD/dyslexic kid that can't be fixed by what is right with him.

So, standard teaching methods fail and the kid falls behind. In the normal course of life, these kids just figure they can't do math, even though they excel in math all the way until they face algebra head on. So they withdraw from math, fear it, and choose lives that don't require it at all. Unless there's an effective intervention, e.g. me.

You see, I'm not a person who sits on the outside looking in. I flunked out of algebra TWICE, and I did it at a time when being ADD or dyslexic would put you on the short bus in segregated classes. So I never got a formal diagnosis of anything. I just have the life events that match up, as well as the problems in math that go along with dyslexia. So what changed? A teacher, of all things. I talked my high school counselor into letting me advance to a slower algebra II class rather than retake algebra I (I think I said something like "trying the same thing and expecting different results"). She agreed, and because she was associated with the so-called "gifted" program, she had the clout to make it happen. And it was there that I learned from the horse's mouth how to deal with dyslexia in algebra, because my teacher, who carried more math degrees than most of us have shirts in our closet, was also dyslexic and had also flunked algebra twice in his life. I've even taken a page from his play book. When it's time to do arithmetic, I have my students punch it in on their calculator and attempt to do it in my head. This has two important and immediate effects: it gives the student a chance to show me up, and it shows them that these sorts of mistakes can be coped with.

The list goes on of famous people that were dyslexic or had ADD that excelled in math. Einstein is the one that comes to mind right now, and there's evidence that Benjamin Franklin was ADD, although neither are available for formal diagnosis anymore. You can check Wikipedia for a fairly complete list of both, if you'd like.

These aren't disabilities at all. They simply represent a brain that functions differently than a normal brain, and require an educational approach that either includes them, or specifically targets them. As a tutor, my approach is obviously to target these situations. A teacher of mine includes them and all difficulties students face. And like him, I have never failed to instruct an ADD or dyslexic kid who has given up on math.