Last Wednesday we had the pleasure of lecturing to the students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education on the topic “Dyslexia 2015”. The Stanford students were amazingly bright and extremely attentive, and we were inspired to think of the wonderful impact they’ll have as leaders in the field of education!
Our talk contained an up to the minute view on the features of brain structure, learning, attention, and memory that characterize dyslexic people. We also discussed how their characteristics typically create not only academic challenges with reading, spelling, and other basic skills, but also strengths in various areas of learning and thinking. The students seemed especially excited to hear about the strengths dyslexic students often have in learning and memory, and how they can be used in the classroom.
After class we were packing to go when a distinguished looking gentleman introduced himself. His name was Peter Lawrence. Peter is a retired history teacher who now works
as a University Supervisor at Stanford, mentoring and overseeing the grad students.
After exchanging greetings, Peter asked us a deceptively simple question : “Why, when we’ve finally realized the crucial importance of species diversity, do we place so little value on diversity within our own species?” As we considered the benefits of biodiversity in nature, the more insightful we realized that question was.
Biologists have found that the health of earth’s ecosystems depends upon keeping a balance among diverse components. It’s this interconnected web of complementary components that makes the system as a whole resilient in the face of challenge and change. Ecosystem health depends deeply on diversity.
Biodiversity also provides a wealth of potential solutions to important problems. Think for example of the bacteria that have been found useful in cleaning up oil spills, or how many plant barks, oils, and animal venoms have been found useful as medicines. Support for maintaining species diversity is now built largely on the awareness of the importance of preserving this storehouse of potential remedies for our future.
So, returning to Peter’s question, how can we increase awareness of the value of human diversity, and especially of diversity in how we learn and think? This is obviously a big question, but here are a few partial answers.
First, we need to try much harder than we have in the past to understand both the nature of the differences in how different minds think, and these differences can be beneficial. There’s far too little appreciation of how differently different minds can approach particular tasks. This is especially true of dyslexic minds, because they perform all kinds of tasks differently from non-dyslexic ones.
Second, we need to judge the value of different ways of thinking less in terms of what they can do alone and unaided, and more in terms of what they can contribute as part of a community. Rather than try to create broadly skilled Jacks- and Jills-of-all-trades, we should think more carefully about how we can benefit from the complementarity of the different kinds of minds that make up our cognitive ecosystem by creating great teams and partnerships.
Finally, we should listen to nature and learn the great value of diversity in responding to change and challenge. It’s our different thinkers who are best equipped to help us face the difficult and unexpected problems that will confront us in the future, and we suspect that special benefit will come from teams comprised of many different types of thinkers. Recognizing and nurturing the value of this resource is essential for us all.