Are some of the qualities society most values classic dyslexic traits?
There has been much talk in recent years of “character” and “resilience”– the importance of it and even that it can be taught. The Centre Forum and the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Social Mobility published the Character and Resilience Manifesto in February 2013, arguing that “personal resilience and emotional wellbeing are the missing link in the chain [of social mobility]”. This, in turn, raised a key challenge to policy makers: to “recognise that social and emotional ‘skills’ underpin academic and other success –and can be taught”. They found the evidence base for this work is still “developing” but is sufficient enough to “not be ignored”. However, other research is less promising, with a report from the US Department of Education arguing that of the programmes evaluated there was, on average, “no improvement to students’ social and emotional competence, behaviour, and academic achievement”.
I first came across these concepts about three years ago when Anthony Seldon, Headmaster of Wellington College, referred to an article in the New York Times. In that article it discussed “resilience” in a child as encompassing the following characteristics: they are interesting, show curiosity, learn to overcome their inability to succeed in a “standard” way and often prove to be entrepreneurial. I have seen in the media and in a recent Government announcement that character based education additionally referred to characteristics of grit, spirit, perseverance and drive.
My very first reaction was to put pen to paper and inform Anthony that the qualities he was referring to defined every dyslexic I had ever met, both as adults and children. They possess positive qualities that deserve to be embraced. Not only are they curious about the world but they often look at it, and the problems in it, in a different way.
Driven to succeed
This fact is borne out by the high proportion of dyslexics who are successful entrepreneurs. We constantly refer to famous dyslexics such as Richard Branson and Jamie Oliver but the statistics suggest things go further than this.
In 2001, research at the University of Bristol reported that one in five of the UK entrepreneurs surveyed were dyslexic (Entrepreneurial Success, Logan, 2001). This rate is almost double the ten per cent estimated incidence of dyslexia in the general UK population, according to the British Dyslexia Association. This equates to at least 300,000 dyslexic entrepreneurs working in the UK. In 2009, the same researcher, Professor Julie Logan, on behalf of Cass Business School, reported 35 per cent of entrepreneurs in a sample from the USA showed characteristics of dyslexia –more than double the general population rate of 15 per cent.
What really defines for me the resilience in a dyslexic, or for that matter any child who may have SEN, is how they learn to overcome their inability to succeed in a “standard way”. For dyslexics, this may well be by learning to spell words using mnemonic devices (such as big-elephants-can’t-always-use-small-exits for “because”), having extra time for exams, learning the difficult art of using a reader and a scribe, or simply becoming adept at getting others to help them.
Support, not shackles
As I thought about this article it occurred to me that many of the traits I have talked about may come from the struggles dyslexics face on a daily basis at school. By taking a whole school approach, training teachers to understand and recognise dyslexia, screening all children in Year 1 and putting in place targeted interventions, do we risk quelling the very characteristics that so often ultimately enable a dyslexic to succeed?
The answer has to be a resounding “no”. You do not grow out of dyslexia; it is a genetic condition that dyslexics learn to live with throughout their life. Whilst for many, early help in the classroom ensures that their sense of isolation and struggle is minimised, there are those, like my son Archie, who will always find it hard to read and write. No child deserves to feel inadequate and stupid. As Jennifer Aniston recently said about her dyslexia, before being diagnosed, “I thought I wasn’t smart. I just couldn’t retain anything.”
Which takes us to some of the other character traits I have seen so often with dyslexics: tolerance, community spirit, kindness and respect. Most dyslexics have known what it is like not to succeed and often they can display these characteristics to others who struggle. They show empathy –the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes and be sensitive to their needs and views.
So, should we be teaching character as part of our education curriculum? In my view, character and resilience develops in a variety of ways, as much through adversity as anything else I’ve discussed. Children need to be given the opportunity to explore their interests and develop as a more rounded person, rather than racing towards the highest possible GCSE results –important as they are. The Warwick Commission’s 2015 report, Enriching Britain, stated that creativity and the arts are being “squeezed out” of schools, with pupils from low-income families being hardest hit. By encouraging children to engage with the arts, sports and all manner of societies and community based projects we can, and are already, developing character. What children really need is the space and time to explore other aspects of themselves, diversify their interests and feel able to express themselves both within and outside the classroom.
Sarah Driver is the founder of the dyslexia charity the Driver Youth Trust:
Sarah would like to acknowledge the input into this article of the Trust’s Director Chris Rossiter.
The Driver Youth Trust runs a teacher-friendly resource site, Drive for Literacy, which also highlights some of the ways in which dyslexics overcome their difficulties: