Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Found on the back of a rather old envelope

Some thoughts on ‘dyslexia’, from 1997

I found the following fragment, hand-written on the back of a tattered A4 envelope. I had been intended as the start of a book review that was not in fact taken further. The date of the postmark on the envelope is too faint to read but inside was my subscription issue of 16mm Today for February 1997. I think that the book in question might have been Martin Turner’s Psychological Assessment of Dyslexia that was published in February of that year.

I had drafted an opening sentence –
A rare bird indeed, a British monograph on psycho-diagnostic, an apparently authoritative tome on one of the most contentious issues in assessment for special education.
Then I had jotted down
‘Science’ – the first recourse of the reductionist psychologist  
and
Whiff of political paranoia
 I suspect that I gave up reading further because, in Popeye’s words, I could ‘stands no more’ and it would have taken more than a can of spinach to keep me on task.

My notes drifted off task, into ‘dyslexia’ as a whole –
A child ‘cannot learn’ – or to be more honestly descriptive – a child doesn’t learn. What is the problem? First and foremost it is to discover what has to be done to ensure that learning does takes place. To achieve this the prime means of investigation has to be through pedagogy. It cannot be achieved through ‘psychology’ – at least not through school/educational psychology as she is still so often spoke, through psychometric measurement of what the child already knows and can do, and does not. Pedagogy, however – real pedagogy, that is – will set to and test out in practice what can be done to restart and ensure a cycle of success and learning. And this within wholehearted commitment to the fact that pedagogy involves motivation, affect, values, human social interaction, goals and intentions. It cannot be explained by simple ‘cognitive’ factors within learners.
Nobody can deny that there are very real problems in acquiring reading, writing and number, experienced by children who cannot be brushed aside as simply dull – but what are these? Does this book, by answering ‘dyslexic’, contribute to a solution of the problem or, by biologising a whole host of possible systemic explanations, interventions and outcomes, serve ultimately to obscure it – to constitute therefore a problem in its own right?
I suspect, by the way that the notes were written on a train. Here is the final fragment that I found –
Reading this book is like a visit to a preserved railway. It offers a nostalgic walk down memory lane to those who remember when fleets of shabby blue cardboard briefcases from the NFER, workaday Binets and WISCs, ferried generations of failing or awkward children to the nation’s ESN schools. Except like on the preserved rail line this ancient technology has now been bulled up with shining new standardisations and acronyms. Its old bread-and-butter function of shunting off the failing children of the poor is giving way to a new, more glamorous role within our pedagogically leisured education service, in the service of transporting less successful children of the more well-to-do to quite different realms of provision.
At the close of 2011 this tattered envelope has resurfaced, and ‘dyslexia’ – along with all sorts of other brain-based, anti-pedagogic nonsense – is now deeply embedded within our educational system and within wider society. Together they can be evoked to explain almost everything! If books such as whatever prompted these words some fourteen years ago have contributed to this sad reactionary Zeitgeist, then their authors bear a terrible responsibility. I trust – no, I hope – that future, more enlightened generations will hold them to account.

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