“What’s in a name?”, Shakespeare once asked. And although his point was that what we call a thing does not change it’s essence or our experience of it, the reality is that what’s in a name does matter when we’re trying to communicate our ideas to others. So when we’re talking about what a learning disability is or isn’t, let’s be sure that we’re using language that isn’t just focused on weaknesses and challenges, but that also conveys concepts like promise, potential and possibility.
I got to thinking about this when I met recently with a very bright incoming student who took serious issue with the term “learning disability”.
“I learn just fine,” she insisted, “if people would only teach in the way that I learn”.
She went on to suggest that “maybe the problem is that society has a teaching disability”, and it was her contention that she’d always had to struggle in a system that insisted on teaching her and assessing her in the same way as everybody else, disregarding the unique strengths that she brought to the table. Admittedly, it’s a system that works for anyone fortunate enough to have a brain that’s wired to be good at The Three Rs, but not so much for the smart people whose learning strengths may lie in other domains.
So whether we call it a learning disability, or learning difference, or even if we choose not to label it at all, the reality is that there are smart kids with specific processing deficits who are getting left behind because their unique learning styles and strengths are often misunderstood or unacknowledged. If they don’t learn what we’re teaching in the way that we insist upon teaching it, they are often labelled as “slow learners”.
Albert Einstein was one of those kids, initially thought by his parents and his teachers to be “slow” or “dim”. A brilliant visual thinker and problem solver, he disliked most aspects of school and, and despite being (by most accounts) a moderately successful student, he dropped out when he was 15. Everybody knows about the brilliant career that followed, but Einstein’s early experiences as a student gave him some unique insights about education and learning. He had this to say: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
So…what’s in a name? Much more than we think, because if a smart kid grows up receiving the message that she is somehow broken, or less than, or less valued, simply because she doesn’t learn in quite the same way as everybody else, we all pay a price for that. We will eventually have produced an under-achieving adult whose significant gifts were allowed to wither on the vine. What amazing contributions might these people have made to society with the right support and encouragement? We’ll never know, because those gifts will have been lost.
This is the time of year when I meet with lots of new students with learning disabilities, ready and eager to embark upon their university careers. Many of them will thrive here because they were resourceful and resilient enough to figure out a way to climb the tree despite their labels (almost always with the dedicated support of a few key people along the way, usually parents and teachers). But for every new student with a learning disability who transitions successfully to university, how many are out there convinced that it’s not possible simply because they couldn’t “climb the tree” in quite the right way?
So to go back to Einstein’s analogy, we need to celebrate and nurture the fish, and not devalue them just because they don’t climb our trees in the conventional way. We need to acknowledge that there may be creative ways the fish has found to climb the tree that the rest of us haven’t yet thought of. We need to understand that there may even be ways to get to our destination that don’t need to involve trees at all. All of which is to say that we all need to be the change in a world where smart people never, ever become convinced that they are stupid.
Got 5 more minutes? Check out the short video “Animal School”, which challenges us to value all learning styles.
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