Friday, September 17, 2010

Educational Dyslexia

I attended Grade 1 with my Sunday school friend I'll name Kevin.  Since both of us lived out in the country, and I presume because we were strangers of an alien religion, the other boys promptly took to beating us up at recess on a fairly dependable schedule.  It never occurred to me to complain, although it did affect our movements.

In class, Kevin would pass his notebook to me during English and Mathematics, and I would fill out his work after completing my own.  It did not occur to me that my helping him was not helping him, or that it was cheating.  I do not remember the teacher telling us not to help others, although I presume she did.

That summer, my family moved to another town.  Kevin promptly failed grade 2.  We kept in touch through our parents partly because I was so shy that I had few other friends.

Kevin went on to fail grade 5 and 8.  After struggling for so many years, educators finally placed him in a 2 year program where he took shop classes.  He was a whiz on the lathe and before graduation he had started up a 1 man shop in one of the utility sheds on his parents' farm.  He made specialized parts for local farmers and manufacturers.

Just for fun, he and an older brother tore down one of their old Cockshutt tractors and replaced the engine with a large block Buick along with transmission, which they connected to the original transmission for gearing to the large back tires.  They used it for years.  Drivers are always surprised to see a tractor pulling a hay wagon down the road at 50 miles an hour.

Kevin now has a thriving business that employs 12.  His primary customers are manufacturers across the country that require unique solutions in their production process.  He even gets calls from Europe, although he has never advertised in his life.  Just for fun, he also makes stylistic mailboxes and welcome signs out of scrap metals and chains.  They're unique and sturdy and I find them beautiful.

It seems his talent is in picturing not only how a thing might work, but how it might be made.  He has a draftsman who draws up his ideas for the rest of his team.  His understanding of metals is also superb although he's never taken a class on metallurgy or engineering.  The last time I visited him, he showed me the addition he put on his house, complete with a solar accented sky light and a hot tub that recedes under the floor when not in use.  There is no doubt in my mind that he would become a first class builder if he wished.  The quality of his work is amazing.

He also invented a solution to a problem that he ran as a business before selling it a few years ago.  In the spring, farmers must wait until the fields dry.  Tractors not only get stuck in the mud, the tires leave huge ruts and ruin the topsoil nutrient mixture when it is so wet.  So Kevin built a self-propelled tank based manure spreader with huge balloon tires.  The manure is spread out the side of the tank using 42" chains tied to a central shaft driven by the engine.  It absolutely looks strange on the road with those huge, fat tires as high as a man and half as wide as a car.

One day I tried to apologize to him for his failing grade 2.  I hadn't at the time realized what harm I was doing to him.  He told me that after he had failed for the third time, educators tested him and found he had a form of dyslexia.   He had been telling them for years that he had trouble seeing words correctly.  He told me that it really didn't matter that I had cheated for him; he would have had trouble anyway.

My neighbor reminds me of Kevin.  He has his own plumbing business.  He also fixes old cars, built two additions on his house, and just built a capture system for rainwater to both negate spring flooding and provide irrigation in the summer.  The excess runs into the storm water system.  He's also dyslexic.  Words on the page go right to left for him.

Unlike Kevin, he didn't struggle at school so long.  He just quit, and his parents helped him fight the objections of the school system.  By the time he was 12 he was putting together HVAC systems with his Grandfather.  He can see a thing in three dimensions, and how to build it.  I believe that is also Kevin's strength.

I view both Kevin and my neighbor as a kind of genius, although they'd fail in almost any school and were treated as such by the other children.  I know doctors and lawyers and published professors and very talented business people.  But other than my favorite professor (who has an eidetic memory), those 2 guys are the only people whose opinion I solicit on every topic, including politics or the economy.  They tend to see to the heart of things.  I'm not being maudlin or romantic when I say that; just realistic.

Two years ago my neighbor's bonded book keeper stole all his money to feed her coke habit.  He ran her down for the police but she skipped bail and they've lost her.  The lawyers found a way not to pay him for his business loss.  He had 2 crews of 8 working for him which he had to lay off since he no longer had any money.

He views the whole unfortunate incident as the price of being an entrepreneur in a free market.  He just thinks a lot of the white collar professions are broken.  They've developed such intricate laws and regulations there's no way to trust anyone anymore.  He also can't believe the government bailed out the banks; it destroys faith in the market for people who work 60 hours a week their whole lives depending on their good name to make a living.

He also thinks that upper management, as proxies for the owners, should have their net worth on the line just like him.  It might not fix anything, but at least the market would be consistent.  He believes that's been screwed up since the 1800's when the barons started lobbying the government and partnerships formed.  I agree with him.  He loves free markets, and has a strong sense of fiduciary duty.  It pains him to see people like Ken Lay on the stand pleading ignorance as a defense while he makes over $10M a year to guard the nest.

It is also interesting to me that Kevin and my neighbor not only share dyslexia, but their personalities are so much alike.  They are both self-assured without being talkative, and they are grounded and undistracted.  Their approach to life is similar, and both of them feel that in their experience, they can distinguish between truth and lies better than others.  They have also both told me that they see a correlation between education and lying; the more you have of one, the more you do the other (Thankfully, they tell me I'm an outlier in that regard).

There is no doubt in my mind that education has failed them miserably, just as surely as it has failed so many ballerinas and dancers and artists who now work in food service or a factory because there was no one to identify and nurture their strengths.  They are round pegs in a square hole.  Kevin tells me he considers himself extremely lucky; he had parents who supported him and a farm where he could put a lathe.  He's sure there are many other fellows out there struggling who will never realize they have a talent, much less a chance to explore it.

Malcolm Gladwell, the populist writer, wrote a book called Outliers: The Story of Success in which he explores the various reasons some people do so well, and others do not.  I believe there is one over riding reason that is true for athletes, scholars, builders, and artists; coaching and nurturing.

I believe the untapped potential of human talent never discovered, never cultured or nurtured, never coached, and never realized is a travesty.  If it weren't for strong mentors who loved them, I shudder to think where Kevin and my neighbor would be.  We can build a computer to your specification and ship it within 3 days at ever decreasing cost, but we can not do the same with human talent, our most prized possession.

The statistical relation between rising test scores and educational dollars per student decoupled decades ago.  We have sunk billions of dollars into educational research with very educated people.  But we still have monopolies that subsidize both supply and demand of education.  Then we wonder why costs and the years required for an education are rising at alarming rates, even while we insist that we need more money untethered to a practical internship and the accompanying emotional maturity that goes with it.

1 out of 4 people is working in a job they have had for less than a year.   Today's students will get a job that does not yet exist using technology that has not been invented.

How can our monopolistic education system hope to deal with that?

In a future post, I'll describe a polytechnic that has a 95% graduation rate with 96% employment within 3 months of graduation.  A third of their students are recent college graduates who for some reason found they needed to go back to school.

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

“My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.” — Margaret Mead

“My schooling not only failed to teach me what it professed to be teaching, but prevented me from being educated to an extent which infuriates me when I think of all I might have learned at home by myself.” — George Bernard Shaw

Quotations from the Futility Closet

An educational graph.   Like the stimulus, we just haven't paid enough yet.

1 comment:

  1. You might find these articles I wrote on education of interest:
    School Can't Be All About Academics

    Teaching Teachers Not to Teach

    My brother, coincidentally, is dyslexic. However, he has a M.A. in the humanities and a M.F.A. in visual art.

    I have Ph.D. in the humanities, a M.A. in English, a B.A. in recombinant gene technology, and I publish on spontaneous order theory -- and I am a hotel night auditor. I'm sure I'm misallocated human capital. I just need to find someone to allocate me properly. :-)