Saturday, August 16, 2014

Link between dyslexia and holistic, contextual vs analytical thinking

Dyslexia isn't something that you have, says Dr. Ross Cooper, a dyslexia researcher who is dyslexic himself (he embraces the term the way gay folks have embraced the word "queer.") It's something that you are. And it's something, he emphasizes, that has value as part of the spectrum of human diversity. Cooper hypothesizes that the common feature of many "specific learning disabilities" is a preference for processing information visually and holistically rather than verbally and analytically. Rather than narrowly focusing on things in a linear sequential way, the child with this tendency absorbs visual input and meaning and context in a "big picture" way (blurry colors lighting up in the right hemisphere of the brain), a process which may slow down decoding but which also deepens and enriches it, leading to lateral thinking, intuition, imagination and creativity. These children's brains are organizing themselves differently, and it should go without saying that their developmental arc may therefore be different. When we interfere in the process of this organization, when we stigmatize it and test it and remediate it prematurely -– when we try to teach dyslexics to think like other children by aggressively drilling them in phonics –– Cooper says we are robbing these children of the opportunity to build organically on their many strengths rather than being treated as something broken that needs fixing. 

Interestingly, children from traditional indigenous cultures often process information holistically and contextually rather than analytically as well. If you ask people from urban non-native cultures to divide a list of plants and animals into groups, they will tend do it taxonomically, separating them into the categories of mammals, birds, fish, plants. If you ask a Native person, they may do it ecologically, with a turtle, willow, heron, and beaver all in the same group because they all live in a wetland.  The test may register this as a "wrong" answer, because schools tend to emphasize taxonomic, analytic thinking. But the second answer reflects a form of holistic systems thinking that rural Native children may be fluent in at a younger age than their urban, non-native peers. 

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