Interview with Matthew Schneps, dyslexic scientist, Director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning
Please tell us a bit about the Laboratory for Visual Learning?
The lab was established about 15 years ago to investigate how differences in people’s neurology effects how they learn – mostly with regards to science and maths. Dyslexia is a type of neurological difference that we explore. We’ve also looked at people who are blind or have hearing problems. When we say visual learning we’re talking about learning that occurs without the use of words.
Why is visual learning is so important for inclusivity in education?
It’s critical for many reasons. Education puts much too much emphasis on words, we have to learn the names of the states, the capitals, the names of everything. It’s important, you need them - but to understand the concept you don’t really need the names. You can go to online maps and see where everything is in seconds. You need a way to visualise it in your mind. For instance, my visual memory of a room is much richer than the words I could use to describe it - the words run out and you can’t express everything. But visually, everything is expressed. Schools are tying kids arms behind their backs, saying you can’t use this visual processing. Which is denying the ability of what the brain can do. Everybody should be encouraged to think visually. Before books we functioned very well in the world without having written words. Thus visual thinking is part of us naturally, but the schools just focus on the books and how to order your thoughts in very predefined, less instinctive ways.
How can we challenge short-sighted views of dyslexia in society?
I’ve been thinking about that but haven’t got a good answer yet. The answer I usually give is education - educate people so that they understand what it is. It’s a complex neurological condition. Blame is often place on the child – people say they’re lazy, they’re not trying hard enough. This can be combated through education, to help teachers, parents, and the public better understand dyslexia. How do you deal with people who are different? How do you work with them in a way that makes the most of who they are and how they think? It relates to gender, race, sexuality. It’s about respecting that the ‘other’ person has something of value. How do we shift old perceptions? I’ve been working in this field for a long time. When I was in school there was no dyslexic community. When I started to investigate dyslexia in scientists, I thought I was the only one. Then I found many and realised that 10 – 15% of scientists are dyslexic! Now people like you are beginning to change things, by building communities and raising awareness.
However, one of the problems is that we (dyslexics) don’t organise very well. The people with autism did a fantastic job of organising around their issues – many people with autism are good at this kind of organisational thinking. Dyslexics are not skilled at organisation. So, how do we do it, how do we mobilise?
What are the main cognitive strengths of dyslexia?
Well, this is a very difficult question, it’s something that’s not clearly established by all the studies that have been done. There are strengths in holistic processing: a strength for perceiving the whole as opposed to the small details. It’s not clear whether that’s a strength or it’s something people develop as a strength because of problems they have processing details. People can develop strengths. For example, anybody who has any kind of impairment develops resilience – the ability to get back up if you’ve been slammed down. In a sad way school helps people develop resilience. School is the wrong environment for children with dyslexia. Going through school you’re constantly being tested on things that are difficult for people with dyslexia and failing at this makes you feel very bad about yourself. However, it means you learn to come back from what others would be crushed by. That’s a strength. It’s not unique to dyslexia. Many impairments lead to this resilient strength.
What have been your personal experiences of dyslexia?
I’m of an age where children were not routinely diagnosed, I didn’t know I had it until I was an adult and into my career. All I knew is I had lot of problems. Reading was hard, it was scary, certain arithmetic operations were difficult too. There was a host of things. Yet I was very articulate and seemed so bright. Why, if I was so bright, did have so many problems? They would ask at parents’ evenings. My teachers and parents didn’t understand it when I was growing up. But I was always interested in science and wanted to be a scientist. But the places that train scientists require standardised testing to get in. At 12/13 years old you have a choice – you can go to the next level, or stay behind. I wanted to go to a school of science, but I performed very poorly on the test. I had the door slammed in my face, I couldn’t get in. Then the same happened at college, then graduate school. This series of incidents impacted my career as a student, they really tested me and kept me from going where I wanted to attend. It was hard, but then I was lucky. There was a special program in New York that let me into college without taking the tests. They took me in and mentored me and treated me well. And I rewarded this by performing well. Once I was in college I had no problems, it was just getting in that was hard. For graduate school I went to MIT. I went there because MIT allowed me in without the exam. So I only made it by bypassing the hurdles. Today it’s worse - most schools don’t let people in without the exams. It remains a problem for all with dyslexia.
Would you agree that dyslexics are 'picture thinkers'?
I definitely feel that way. I don’t have a study that proves this, but I know from my experiences working with people with dyslexia, especially scientists. They tend to think in pictures, words don’t do the job in science - you’re actually encouraged to think in pictures in science. It goes with the territory. There’s one dyslexic scientist I know who can’t use a standard calendar, it doesn’t work for him at all. But he can interact in terms of visions of block of time – that’s how he gets through the day, and it’s also how I get through the day. Thinking in pictures, we can think without using words.
Do you think that dyslexic thinkers experience time differently?
Yes I do. Time is about memory. Essentially we’re using memory to keep time from eroding ideas we are holding in our heads. Memory is a way of fighting time. Dyslexics have issues with memory related to time – trying to remember things over a short period. I’m convinced you could look at dyslexia as a temporal processing deficiency. What’s this to do with reading? When you read, your eye movements process text in a temporal order - you’re processing information over time. So a deficit in temporal processing can also lead to a deficit for reading. The flip side of this is that can lead to some advantages. While non-dyslexic people are often stuck on a railroad track, going from point A to point B in fixed order, people with dyslexia can travel all over the place in any direction and get on and off wherever we want – we’re not stuck in time.
How can technology become more compassionate?
People complain about how intrusive technology is in our lives, that it’s taking over the world. Nevertheless, if you think of tech as a tool – like a spoon, or a pencil – you realise that it’s necessary. Then if you look at computers as a tool. Computers can do things we as dyslexics can’t do. Technology is there to help us deal with things that are difficult. Part of being compassionate in tech is to allow people to use it. Schools are not utilising it properly – teachers think it’s cheating to use tech – to listen to audiobooks, to use speech to text. But it’s not cheating. It allows people to work with ideas, and isn’t that what’s important in life? Tech allows students to think and work with ideas, not just learn how to regurgitate answers. I wish children would be allowed to use tech more fully. The key to compassion is not to be afraid of it and let them use it!
Please tell us a bit about the Laboratory for Visual Learning?The lab was established about 15 years ago to investigate how differences in people’s neurology effects how they learn – mostly with...