I was inspired to make this podcast when I heard the experiences of a lady called Sinead on Twitter, who faced much more pressure, it seemed, to conform and learn in the traditional way taught in her school.
Here is my journey, from how I learned my times tables and spelling and on through secondary school then an art degree before heading out into the world of work. My story shows how Dyspraxia, which was detected when I was 35, influenced my choices and thinking, which led to me seek out innovative ideas to improve quality of life through collaboration and interaction.
My earliest experiences of school were of not fitting in. I had bounds of energy and didn’t want to sleep after lunch. I was born with hearing loss, which meant I didn’t hear the break bell go and an early disempowering experience was the teacher appointing a classmate Fiona to be my nanny.
After the disaster of me struggling to tie a shoe-lace in front of class, I questioned how we were being taught and allowed to learn. At this point, school friends were being diagnosed with Dyslexia and the detooling of their education begun. They were told they couldn’t do this or would find that hard. I have friends now who were told they would never be able to ride a bicycle.
Chanting times tables didn’t work for me, so I worked out how to remember them for myself. I also learned how to spell by understanding why something was so and then I could remember it. Ronald Davies’ book The Gift of Learning shows how learning is creation and if I reached the objective of reciting a times table, it didn’t matter how I got there.
I was the last person in my class to be allowed to use an ink pen and before that all important day, I was made to do handwriting exercises. I would be kept in at breaktime to do a row of e’s. OK, that sounds wrong in today’s context. I would do rows of letters, but this did not save me from bad A’level grades from illegible handwriting. I must add, here, that my grandfather, who qualified as a doctor in 1931 and marked hundreds of exam. papers had barely legible handwriting.
One area of dyspraxia is hand-to-eye co-ordination but I made it into the sports teams and played rounders, tennis, netball, basketball and lacrosse but constant practice and confidence helped enormously as I would be picked in games for teams until I changed schools. I realised from then on that my confidence had worn off over the winter and I didn’t perform to a new, fresh audience. I would also win little children’s golf competitions on holiday in Kent. Perhaps hand-eye co-ordination didn’t come naturally to me but was learnt with application and practice.
Not fitting in at primary school seemed to translate into not getting votes for positions of responsibility. It’s my opinion that greater confidence in landing jobs as an adult could be formed through equal distribution of authority at primary school instead of popularity or conformity contests.
Recently, I read that self-acceptance stems from our first eight years of life for children who spend time with grandparents. Having raised their own children, grandparents can be our greatest cheerleaders, saying Oh come on, she’s such a sweet little thing, let her have a go when our parents are learning on the job and giving us a hard time. In fact, the Spanish have a saying: Los Niños con abluelos son mas seguros, meaning children with grandparents are more secure.
Another person suggested that children with Dyspraxia, who can wear their clothes in an uneven or dishevelled way, may not be sending regular signals from their skin, when they were held by their parents. This could result in a restless child or one, who feels unloved or neglected.
At primary school, I was enthusiastic and engaged in every activity whether I was good at it or not. I would shoot my hand up to read out in class but I don’t think it was easy to follow what I was saying as the fashion was to put a lot of expression and inflection in the voice, but I wouldn’t have processed what I was reading that quickly to make sense.
I’m jumping now to choosing O’levels at secondary school, as my science teachers were all saying: do this subject and find a cure for the common cold. I didn’t do biology because I was squeamish and would get myself sent out of the room during dissections. Chemistry wasn’t suitable as I was clumsy and my memory didn’t serve to remember all the elements, let alone which letters represented them. I had a continual runny nose all the way through school, which turned out to be a casein intolerance.
I disagreed with the way O’level choices would clash and my choice of physics, art and Latin was impossible. However, these were three subjects that allowed me to problem solve and work out the answers. If someone had said to me at primary school that learning by rote would be important for structuring essays, I might have applied myself but still I remember through pictures, sound or smell, not words. During History of Art, however, I could remember a timeline of paintings by date, artist and title, but this information didn’t stick around for long.
With hindsight, I realise I learned immersively, which meant it took me at least 20 minutes to stop thinking about one class subject, such as maths, and start focusing on history. I loved history but didn’t want to regurgitate the teachers’ interpretations of events and dates onto an exam paper, but to write my own response to the set question. In addition to having illegible handwriting, I got an E for history twice. The same happened with History of Art A’level.
Therefore, I went through school and subsequent degrees avoiding any suggestion I may have dyslexia because I thought it was a label used to disempower creative people. As Ronald Davies shows in the Gift of Dyslexia, learning difficulties are actually teaching difficulties. Academics do not tend to allow neurodiversity and a visual cognitive style is framed as a problem, but not one they wanted to solve.
Ronald Davies’ books led me to Thomas Hartmann, an educational psychologist who wrote a book originally titled The Edison Gene, A Hunter Child in a Farmer’s World. This showed how the modern education system was created to feed the industrial revolution. In order to work on a factory assembly line, a person needed to be able to not think. In his book, Hartmann mentions Robert Woolf, who went to meet the Sn’goi tribe of Malaysia, whose community only died out in the 1980s. Subsequently, I read the incredible book by Woolf called Original Wisdom, An Ancient Way of Knowing.
Like when a friend phones you when you were just thinking about them, Woolf’s book documents all the instinctive ways the Sn’goi would know things, without being told what to think. The ancient way of knowing came from community, not just one person. For example, the single members of the tribe would sleep with their heads in the centre of their homes and share their dreams in the morning. That way, a visitor, bad weather or a flower coming out in the forest would be sensed. The Sn’goi also warned against monoculture farming, saying that the rainforests weren’t lush because of the rain, but all the different plants growing, exchanging minerals with the soil.
I found out I had dyspraxia in 2006, when I was working on a careers magazine for graduates with disabilities. I had a test at the London Dyslexia Teaching Centre, which took 4 hours and was set by a lady called Sandie. One test required me to copy a 3-dimensional picture with red and white diamonds, which I did just outside the time. Sandie explained how every student at London’s top art, film, music, dance, fashion and photography colleges would have a similar educational profile, flying ahead at primary school and difficulty kicking in before GCSEs when moving attention between subjects, requirements for structure and memorising rote learning such as history dates were required.
After this test, I found a Icelandic man called Axel, who taught Ronald Davies technique a short walk from where I lived and my brother agreed to pay for the course. I learned that in Iceland, 20% of children are gifted and 5% in remedial classes, the complete opposite of in England. In conventional teaching, only one of the 5 ways to learn is used: visual: auditory, written, kinesthetic and multimodal. Education is all done through written learning.
I think academia has diverged away from nature and in fact now rejects it. Inquisitive explorers such as Graham Hancock or Dr Martin Sweatman are discredited by mainstream historians or archeologists. Traditional medicine, which is based on inoculation rather than attacking symptoms is damned by official bodies.
We seem to be taught there is only one answer and that comes from consensus not evidence. There doesn’t seem to be the burden of proof on accepted doctrine. In my mind, this is more like religion than science, when we are told what to think, not how to think.
At my secondary school, careers talks were always about secretarial. We were told we could get to the top of any company by becoming an executive’s personal assistant. I learned how to type but was the slowest and took the longest. It was just practice, trial and error and building muscle memory. I learn by doing and watching. I failed my driving test mock then passed first time after I watched my instructor drive around. I went through the most competitive journalist college in the country without a hearing aid or knowing I had Dyspraxia.
Did you know that 99% of young offenders in institutions have undiagnosed dyslexia? This was announced at the Ministry of Peace, which I attended in 2005. This is because of disorientation, when the understanding of a visual mind would be more literal than a verbal one. If someone tells me to call them at 3pm and when I do they are unavailable, I would get angry, anxious and become confused. Until I heard about disorientation – the disconnect between verbal and visual processing – I lived in dread of a dark part of my personality raising its head. I learned to recognise the feeling, which feels to me like a swirl, and would say “I am disorientated”. This experience ought to be a protected characteristic as I find jobsworths on helplines can target this cognitive dissonance to wind me up with their red tape and bureaucracy.
One of the greatest things I learned from Ronal Davies was about order and disorder. Learning this confirmed that things needed a place and so I went home and sorted my whole flat out, buying cupboards to put things in and giving everything a place. Before this I lived in chaos as the only way to find anything is for it picture where I put it.
After seeing a play about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I formed the idea that many of us have this type of disorientating experience. Imagine cleaning your teeth. Can you remember when you last did this? If you do it first and last thing each day, it is likely this is a habit. Rituals carried out by people with OCD seem like habit. Before I leave the house, I have to work through a checklist of actions, otherwise I will constantly worry I’ll return to a burned house or leave a tap running. If I am distracted during this process, something will happen such as forgetting important overnight stuff and end up swallowing my contact lenses, which I left soaking in the hotel tooth mug.
I learn things when I have built up a complete picture and understand why they are a particular way. In other words, I internalise information and it becomes second nature, otherwise I forget it. I don’t store trivial in my mind and archive information, which requires a prompt to recall. I enjoy being able to work things out.
To conclude, I think I am lucky that I didn’t discover I had Dyspraxia until I was 35 and had had a chance to explore things for myself. I don’t believe the education system supports or caters for visual thinkers, even though industry now needs this type of cognitive thinking. We need to solve problems. We need diversity. The wisdom of crowds requires a broad range of experiences and viewpoints. Today’s politicians seem to mostly come through King’s College Oxford reading Politics Philosophy and Economics. We need diversity.
I’m glad I didn’t fit in as an outsider’s perspective on life can be a big bonus. It is very hard to see things objectively when you are stuck in the middle. I think Dyspraxia is just a way of describing a natural human being who has not conformed and what a wonderful world it would be if we celebrated the rich colour, tapestry and variety of life.