Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Every Brain is Different

255/365: Dyslexiaphoto © 2009 Janine | more info (via: Wylio)One of the most common misconceptions I encounter about learning disabilities is that they all affect everyone the same way--every student with dyslexia is the same, every students with ADD is the same, every student with executive functioning issues is the same, every student with X is like Y. And oh if it were that way, education (and life) would be so much easier. But every student with dyslexia/ADD/whatever is very, very different. These are big umbrella diagnoses, and there's a lot that fits under them.

Think of it like being diagnosed with allergies--everyone who has allergies is allergic to different things, reacts in different ways, and is best treated by different methods. There's overlap, sure, but it's still a highly individualized diagnosis. So it is with learning disabilities--there's overlap, sure, but what works for Dyslexic Student A is by no means guaranteed to work for Dyslexic Student B.

Which is why I find the research reported on in the article Dyslexia: Brain scans predict reading skills so fascinating and so, so important. Not only does it give us a better understanding of what is going on in the brain, it could help us fine-tune how we work with individual students.

These are the two paragraphs that resonated with me the most:

In contrast, the battery of standardized, paper-and-pencil tests typically used by reading specialists did not aid in predicting which of the children with dyslexia would go on to improve their reading ability years later.

“Our findings add to a body of studies looking at a wide range of conditions that suggest brain imaging can help determine when a treatment is likely to be effective or which patients are most susceptible to risks,” says study leader Fumiko Hoeft, associate director of neuroimaging applications at Stanford University.

Paper and pencil tests (or any standardized test, really) will do a good job of telling us what a student doesn't know or can't do--but they fail miserably at telling us why. And the why could be any number of things, depending on the student--even a student who we think fits in a particular box because they have a particular diagnosis. I think we're a LONG ways away from having up-to-date brain scans on every student (and I'm not sure about how I would feel about that, though my initial reaction is ew), but research like this will, hopefully, lead to discussions about the fact that there ARE differences in why and how students struggle with information, even if they're struggling with the same information.

If I haven't already recommended Maryanne Wolf's absolutely amazing Proust and the Squid a million times, I am severely negligent. You will come away with a new-found amazement at the sheer complexity of process of reading, and learning to read (and it's the most accessibly written book about neuroscience you'll ever read). Of particular resonance for me was the final section, on the dyslexic brain and how it doesn't learn to read--but does learn to do many other things. Wolf raises an excellent (but currently unanswerable) question about whether the over-development in certain areas of the dyslexic brain is a cause of or effect of struggles with reading--and also asks us to think about the talents that many dyslexics have that those of us with "normal" brains couldn't conceive of. If you're interested in this topic at all, you should go read it, like, right now. I'll wait.

We owe it to all our students--diagnosed, undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, undiagnosable--to do our best to understand and believe that having dyslexia, or ADD, or dyscalculia does not put them in a particular box. The same goes for "smart" kids--the ones who typically do well in school. If we tell them (through words or actions) that we think they can/will only learn a particular way, imagine the crushing defeat when that way just doesn't work for them. For resilient kids, or the ones for whom school usually "works", chances are they'll find or ask for another way. But LD kids generally won't--because, sadly, they've gotten the message that they just can't "do" school so many times that one more failure doesn't seem noteworthy. So it's up to us to notice, and adapt, and change, and work with them to find the how and why that DOES work.

Even if we don't have an fMRI in every classroom.

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