I’ve been reading a lot about the brain recently (Susan Greenfield’s controversial book ‘Mind Change’) and it has got me thinking…
Most years there will be at least one student in each of my classes who has been diagnosed with dyslexia. When I get their exam script, it is accompanied by a document advising me on how I should mark the script while taking account of the student’s ‘condition’. In a nutshell, we are advised to mark ‘holistically’, to read the student’s work quickly to get a sense of the overall meaning and intention of the student rather than agonising over every single sentence.
Although I ask predominantly mathematical questions, I do also like to ask questions that require the student to write a page or less of text to explain a particular phenomenon. Students find these questions hard. But for many, their answers tend to be superficially incoherent and riddled with grammatical errors and meaningless sentences. At least, that’s the case if you read in a formal line-by-line way.
Part of the reason for the poor answers is that students have not prepared properly. Research by Daniel Willingham and others has shown clearly that the best way to study is to regularly self-test. In other words, students should test their understanding of a topic by challenging themselves to write answers to hypothetical questions on their chosen topic. If they adopt this practice-intensive approach to study they will not only understand the material better but they will get better at constructing coherent arguments.
However, even though we can be pretty sure that students are not studying optimally, the level of incoherence that I see is really difficult to explain. It is important to note that I see this in continuous assessment as well as exams. So it’s not a simple consequence of the pressures of the exam. To me, many students seem to suffer from a form of word blindness – they do not see what I see.
And so I’ve started to mark all my scripts as if the student has been diagnosed with dyslexia. Seriously. I read quickly and ‘holistically’ and get a sense of what the student is saying (or trying to say) rather than getting bogged down in analysing the meaning of every sentence. More often than not I sense that the student actually seems to understand the phenomenon being examined but does not have the ability to communicate in the conventional sense. I feel confident that if I brought him/her up to the whiteboard they would explain the phenomenon quite clearly with a bit of prompting. I don’t really like that I’m doing this but I suspect there are very strong cultural forces at work here.
It is interesting that dyslexia is closely linked with poor attention span and even attention-deficit disorders. I wonder (and I know I’m being highly speculative here and influenced by Greenfield’s book) if in an age where paying attention and concentrating for extended periods is becoming unusual, do many young people who have grown up in the digital age – the so-called Google generation - suffer from a form of ‘word blindness’ as a result, a kind of acquired dyslexia? Do they think and perceive in a way that makes them see, quite clearly, the intended meaning of a statement while those of us of an older generation are bogged down in the ‘correctness’ of it?