“Then a strange thing happened. The more I started thinking about what we were studying, the easier it was to remember the facts. Facts began to stick in my head — and I didn’t even have to try to make it happen…”
— Don Johnston, CEO

 

After using Don Johnston’s assistive technology with our kids when they were growing up, it was such a pleasure for us to meet Don Johnston himself for the first time a few weeks ago. We hadn’t known that he is dyslexic and before we met, he shared his autobiography (for kids), Building Wings. The book is available in e-book form HERE and otherwise through Amazon.

Like many dyslexic adults, Don vividly remembers events from his childhood and school days, even if they were painful. His early years were painful, but he credits an 8th grade teacher, Mrs. Tedesco, with turning him around.

She didn’t turn him around with any reading program or curriculum or even additional tutoring after school (although that could have been helpful). She turned him around by first recognizing some of his out-of-the-box insights; his thinking about why things happened and not simply repeating back what she or a textbook had said. Her efforts inspired a revolution in his mind that led to a different engagement with reading and learning, and then ultimately school success.

From Don’s book:
“One day the class was discussing how people first came to North America thousands of years ago…I asked, “Why would people want to leave their homes and go to a new place they didn’t know? If they came here by boat, how did they get tools to build boats?…

Mrs. Tedesco told me what she knew. Then she said that there was still a lot that wasn’t known about this topic. She turned to me and said, “Don, nice thought.”

For one short moment, everything in the world stopped. Nice thought? This was the first time in eight years of school that any teacher had ever given me a compliment. I looked around the class to see if the other students were laughing at me. They were not laughing.”

After this moment, Don began thinking more about his thought processes and yet continued to struggle with repeating back the facts that he learned in lecture or from his books. Here again, Mrs. Tedesco had a helpful insight:

“Don, I don’t need you to tell me the facts that we are learning,’ Mrs Tedesco said. ‘I want to know what you think about the facts. I want you to give me your opinion about the facts.”

That comment ended up leading to a revolution in his mind:

 

“The more I started thinking about what we were studying, the easier it was to remember the facts.”

 

Why should this be?

The most likely reason is that like many other dyslexic people, Don needed to quit trying to use left hemispheric rote memory strategies for reading and learning and instead use right hemispheric approaches — imagery, context, employing more personal memory strategies and imagery (he talked about getting movies in his head as he read). Involving the default mode network was more powerful than rote repetition regions that tend to be left-sided (medial parietal-angular gyrus – just the same tricky area as for phonological processing).

What Don needed to do was drive insights – both require knowledge and facts – but insights are more personal, and can add important value.

If you’re reading this and have a more typical cognitive processing style – this difference may seem surprising or counter-intuitive. Why could such a little change result in such a big difference?

If we are good scientists and educational professionals, I think we should first listen to and observe what people are telling us – then see why these differences exist.

Don’s story also reminded me of when Brock and I had the chance to visit headmaster Bill Adams of Morgan Park Academy as he was teaching a group of students about the Revolutionary War. He had divided the class into the British and American revolutionaries, and he was leading his students through thought experiments about what resources they would need to have if they were to be successful against their opponents. How brilliant! After one student said that they would need muskets and cannons, Bill prompted them with more – how would they get the muskets and cannons? If they would make them, then how would they get the supplies?

In the Revolutionary War example, the students could be thinking of stealing weapons from the other side, forming alliances with other groups (Indians, the French, trappers, etc.) in order to gain strategic advantages against their opponents.

We would only learn later that Bill was dyslexic – this is just the type of critical and analytical thinking that we need in the world today and what dyslexic students (or all students) should be getting in order to be training them up in the skills they will need to solve the complex problems they will encounter in the future.

Teaching such as this truly embraces dyslexic MIND strengths – facts not as ends in themselves, but more as starting points. What do we know and what do we need to know? Developing multiple scenarios and interpretations. What are alternatives to the information being presented?

It is no surprise that the default mode network (also nicknamed the daydreaming network) is associated with counterfactual thinking, scene construction in the brain, and imagination of the future. It also ties together why so many dyslexics can excel in higher education or the world of ideas, but struggle when trying to repeat back verbatim what is taught to them.

 

HOW TO MAKE READING AND LEARNING MORE ABOUT THINKING

To really harness the strengths of dyslexic minds, it’s important that critical and dialogical thinking be an essential aspect of every curriculum. It’s not uncommon to see some of the highest strengths of dyslexic students – conceptual thinking and reasoning ability. As a results, students are pulled both ways – having to remediate weaknesses that may put them at the bottom of reading and writing groups, but also at the tops in higher-order thinking abilities.

Here are some ways to get more higher-order thinking into reading and learning:

1. Model curiosity. “I wonder…”
2. Celebrate good questions.
3. Find interesting and thought-provoking topics to learn and read.
4. Challenge assumptions including your own and encourage researching more into questions, answers, and subjects.

Inquiry-Based Learning is an approach that can work well with students to help them engage with material. It’s a good approach for all students but for dyslexic students, it can tap into their strengths in higher-order thinking.

The Exploratorium has a nice site with lots of resources, free videos, and activities that involve science and inquiry-based learning.

 

 

History and social studies are other subjects that lend themselves well to inquiry-based learning. Student reflections and thinking can be stimulated by the use of primary sources, visual or physical artifacts, and controversies. In the video below, see how inquiry-based science was added to science and art.

 

 

A related approach to incorporating more higher order thinking into reading and learning is the “Document Based Questions“- approach to learning. The idea is to equip students at all levels to be able to use evidence-based arguments.

 

” Unlike forced choice methods such as multiple choice, fill in the blank, and matching, authentic assessments include tasks in which students must compare, evaluate and demonstrate their knowledge in context. While authentic assessment advocates strong content knowledge, the emphasis is on using the knowledge and understanding transferable skills that will enable students to solve problems…”
                                                             — Grant Wiggins, Assessing Student Performance

 

 

Some additional Resources:
Teaching with Themes (History)
Document-Based Questions – American History Examples
Inquiry-Based Learning in Science from Future Focused Learning

 

 

Dyslexia | Dyslexic Advantage