My name is Matt and I have two amazing children, Liam and Declan. They are both very different to me and each other in many ways however our significantly different educations have highlighted something we all have in common that is immensely impactful and the reason for this article.
Same old, same old
I was in the very first year group that took GCSEs in England back in 1996 and, although they have evolved since then, the basic format remains consistent. At the end of a 1 or 2 year period of study the student sits in a silent room for several hours answering questions deemed adequate to assess their level of understanding.
Confidence is the habitual voyeur
I enjoyed school at first because I really enjoyed learning. I grew up feeling confident in my abilities and always felt I could keep up with most people at most things which continued through primary and secondary school. However, when I moved to a grammar school things began to change and by the time I took my GCSE exams aged 16 I had lost much of that confidence. I felt that I had underachieved and my results duly confirmed this.
In the years that followed I avoided A levels in favour of a B/TEC that was less examination biased and I didn’t even consider a degree such was my lack of confidence. I “stumbled” into software development and supplemented my self-taught skills with night school and then on-the-job training. I went on to take several professional qualifications and have been fairly successful. Until recently.
A few years ago I felt it was once again time to refresh the “evidence” of my skills by taking new exams relating to the technologies I was using. I found myself in a silent room in front of a computer sitting an exam that was estimated to take 3 hours. I started brightly but after an hour I began to lose concentration feeling increasingly agitated and impatient. The questions were not difficult but why were they so long and why so many? I was losing the ability to focus and I was struggling to hold scenarios in my mind whilst considering the options. I started to skim read the questions and select my answers based on analysis of key points and I finished in just over 2 hours with almost an hour to spare. I skim checked my answers but just wanted to get the result which I would have immediately I hit submit. I failed by 2%. A few months later I took the same exam again, I had the same experience but this time the margin of failure was greater at 5%. The last time I tried I failed by 7% and my confidence hit rock bottom.
I missed all the signs that my eldest son was suffering a similar fate to me as he sailed through primary school and transitioned to grammar school. In fact, it wasn’t until after my wife and I had been through the trauma of formally withdrawing him from the education system that it all really started to dawn.
We were always aware that Liam was a gifted child and were very proud, though not shocked, when he was invited to join Mensa UK with a score on the Cattell III B test in the top 1 percentile. More of a shock was when he was “diagnosed” with high functioning autism and subsequently assessed as “dual or multiple exceptionality”. These assessments drew focus on his processing skills that had been highlighted years earlier by his primary school. I remember a meeting we had with the special educational needs (SEN) team and trying to explain to my wife my experiences taking exams but I didn’t quite make the full connection.
Our youngest son Declan also struggles to process instructions, especially when he has to read them. Interestingly, all three of us are good at reading and spelling but none of us likes to read.
What I do like are Pixar movies and The Incredibles is a particular favourite (and not just because I find Elastigirl strangely attractive). The reason I mention this is that I recently had an epiphany; I was once again trying to articulate how it feels for me when taking long exams and I realised that a scene in the movie captures it perfectly.
In it, Mr Incredible is trying to escape from Syndrome’s lair. He sets off quickly but the further he runs the more he’s slowed down until he eventually can’t move any further. Watch the clip, it characterises exactly how I feel when an exam or a book looses my focus. I believe this also demonstrates why both my children are considered to have special educational needs yet are both very capable. Go figure!
The D word
So it turns out that my children and I have reading challenges. If someone sent me a link to an article as long as this one I would likely struggle to make it all the way through yet I’m capable of writing it. I refuse to even consider that this as a disability rather than simply an indication that our brains are optimised to consume information in different formats to the way in which schools chose to deliver it. If anything, the ‘D’ word is actually discrimination.
Imagine a games lesson at school where the children are being taught how to field, catching and throwing balls. If, after several lessons, a child was still not able to throw a ball 5 yards it would not be considered a disability, that would be ridiculous. So why are schools so ready to apply the disability label to children who don’t take to reading? We’re not talking about children who cannot read, we’re talking about those who just aren’t interested and/or find reading a chore.
Our education systems are supposed to be preparing children for the world they are growing up in and yet the fundamental format is still predominantly based on reading and writing. Does that reflect the modern world? How business is done? How news and media is consumed? I’m not sure if Harry S Truman’s famous quote “…leaders are readers” ever really held water but it is certainly wrong in the 21st century. We only have to glance the profiles of leaders in the tech startup space and the growing communities of entrepreneurs.
So the answer is incredibly simple. Stop discriminating against the majority of children whose brains are not optimised for reading and make information available in multiple formats to cater for the many different ways in which children learn best.