Now that schools are reopening, I wonder what awaits the students and which “R” they’re filled with: relief, regret, or rejection.
The education system has long been unfavorable to a large proportion of students and despite good intentions, our interventions have yet to make a substantial impact. Technology is causing a shift in how we approach learning, and it allows us to make education more inclusive to a greater diversity of learners. We can make important changes right now, but a little background first.
Society changes from one generation to the next and that creates a gap between teachers and students. While our education system stayed mostly unchanged, entertainment went from programmed to on-demand, books became audiobooks, talk shows were replaced by podcasts, smartphones became widespread, and personal assistants became digital. In the absence of systematic advances, we haven't managed to modernize the learning environment, and it doesn't reflect the possibilities new technologies allow us. Considerable effort has been made, but we've yet again fallen into the trap of computerizing something outdated, as opposed to reimagining it with new technology.
The lack of societal changes in education, such as on-demand content and new technologies, makes students feel out of place, but none more than those with learning disorders, as they suffer the most in the status-quo, and have the most to gain from innovation.
Dyslexia is a biological condition that affects language processing and reading. Along with Dysgraphia (writing), and Dyscalculia (math), it’s among the prevalent learning disorders. Dyslexia frequently overlaps with behavioral disorders such as Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which adds to the complexity of finding the appropriate assistance. Specific learning disabilities affect a third of students and Dyslexia alone is believed to affect 10% of the population, a number that's likely to rise as diagnosing methods become more sophisticated. But diagnosed or not, while we base the learning environment on reading textbooks and being stationary at a desk for prolonged periods, we'll be maintaining a system that only suits the lowest common denominator of students, the largest minority if you will, and everyone else is labelled "special."
These “special” students may have a hard time reading in front of the class or following along during instruction. Some rarely sit still and are easily distracted. Some are moved to special groups where they’re done the questionable service of learning at a slower pace. Perhaps they really are inept, or perhaps they’re just in a system that caters to students with one predominant skill, namely reading. Perhaps they don’t understand the subjects, as they’re guarded by insurmountable walls of reading material, causing them to drop out of school and go through early adulthood with a severely damaged self-image, believing that they're not good enough. I’m sure not everyone who drops out wants a formal education, but perhaps some of them do!
“… if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Formal education requires hard work but should struggling to the point of suffering be the default setting for individuals that were born with specific biological conditions, that instead seem to correlate with above average intelligence, creativity, and comprehension of complex systems? In a study by Julie Logan, a third of entrepreneurs claimed to be Dyslexic, and Tulip Financial Research found an overrepresentation of Dyslexics among self-made millionaires. If that inspires awe, then consider Dyslexia.com’s list of Dyslexic Achievers which includes Henry Ford, Richard Branson, George Washington, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Agatha Christie, Steven Spielberg, Hans Christian Andersen, Mohammad Ali, and Leonardo da Vinci (later deduced from his writing.) But, then again, 53% of Chelmsford Prison’s inmates and 49% of California’s homeless are Dyslexic, which is much higher than the 10% general prevalence.
So, something doesn't quite add up.
I'm in constant awe of the students that make it through our education system despite these obstacles, and their parents because the burden is no less theirs to bear. I also have immense respect for the special education counselors and teachers and the phenomenal job they do each day. I consider myself truly fortunate to live in a society where students with a diagnosed learning disorder are given learning aids and additional support such as more time on exams. But that only scratches the surface as learning disorders can vary greatly from one individual to the next, making the whole challenge just so much greater, a fact that's usually not reflected in the amount of funding allocated to solving it.
We must not accept this arrangement where some of us are normal and the rest is “special.” We must not cater only to the needs of the largest minority and ignore the horrible reality of many bright young people living unfulfilled lives. I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do know that we can make some important changes to supplement more traditional teaching methods.
We can increase the use of audio and base learning on more than just reading. Technology has come far enough for us to make every book, article, assignment, question, and answer, available as audio for those who prefer that.
We can learn more through conversations and storytelling with Conversational Artificial Intelligences, as exemplified by Alexa and Siri.
We can build more solutions for smart devices and allow students the freedom to learn wherever they want and not just while sitting.
When I founded Atlas Primer to reinvent the learning environment, my intention was not to reduce or change special education as it is today, but instead, to create new ways for people to learn. We could then add them to the existing structure to make the education more inclusive, so that every student can be normal, and we can stop labelling people as “special,” just because they don't fit into a broken system.
Why would we maintain a system that inherently excludes a large portion of the population, only to spend immense resources on including them? Shouldn’t we instead just make it more inclusive, so it allows more people to reach their full potential in life, to the benefit of society as a whole?
My favorite analogy in this respect is the passenger elevator; at first it benefitted an underserved minority, then it increased the convenience for everyone else, but ultimately, it allowed us to build higher than ever before and reach heights we previously couldn't imagine.
I’m convinced that soon enough we’ll all be enjoying digital private tutors while learning, but we can make meaningful changes already today, that make education more inclusive. We owe it to ourselves but more importantly, we owe it to those who are so severely neglected.
This article was first published by the Vísir news outlet in Icelandic: