Young, gifted and dyslexic

14th June 1996 at 01:00
Once labelled slow and lazy, a 23-year-old multimedia designer has a brilliant career ahead of him. His boss Peter Fowler explains why. Iain Arnison is a brilliant but profoundly dyslexic multimedia designer. He has mastered the tools of new technology and now looks forward to a glittering career. Once labelled slow and lazy, he is working on multimedia packages to help others like him. But none of this would have been possible without the help of local education authority support services.

The Learning Methods Unit - where Iain works and which I have run for five years at the Liverpool John Moores University - has focused on developing and producing multimedia learning materials. This has been so successful that the university has set up a commercial company, Amaze, to take this work more effectively forward.

Taken together, there are now about 30 multimedia designers and producers working either in the company or in the unit. Sometimes I catch myself staring at them as they work and think how the world is opening up for them - creating Web pages, working with cutting-edge authoring programs, producing CD-Rom titles - skills in tune with the needs of the times. At other times I sit in the coffee room with the only other person there remotely in my age group and think about how we have selected this particular group of peopleto work with us. What is it about them that makes them right for the new information age?

I want to focus on Iain, 23, because not only is he exceptional, but many of his skills are typical of the young, multimedia designer.

He has been with us for just a year. When he came to interview, he still hadn't quite finished his degree (he was to get what his tutor described as a "very high first" in his BA in design) but the computer animation and graphics work he showed made him the outstanding candidate. But, however good this work was, what had interested me was the theme of both his degree dissertation and his best piece of visual work - dyslexia. It became quickly apparent that Iain's dyslexia was profound; and that his struggles with this had been overwhelmingly important in his life.

During his time with us, Iain has worked mainly on a maths number package for slow learners in their last couple of years in secondary schools. In this, he has created a planet that he calls Number, in which the user plots a way through a maze of buildings (all constructed out of numbers) by solving mathematical problems all linked to the competences of key stage 4.

When Iain demonstrates the package, (he has created it with Roger Marsh, head of the maths department in Liverpool's Speke Comprehensive School, as part of a Department of Trade and Industry-funded project), the audience is always stunned by the graphic quality of the piece. Iain has a rare talent as a 3D visualiser.

I've often found myself talking to him about his schooling; and I'm always struck by the way in which a brilliant career (which I'm certain he'll have) has been made possible by a combination of parental backing, the inspiration of one particular support teacher and - importantly - luck.

He began failing at school predictably early, falling behind with his reading and writing, and having problems with computational maths. He was helped at home, especially by his mother; and at junior school he had a sympathetic headteacher who noticed that this supposedly slow learner was fast at sorting out puzzles that required lateral thinking. She brought in a succession of three support teachers to help him, the first of whom concluded that Iain was a slow learner probably bound for special school.

But, in his third year, he was helped by Joan Davies, at that time a senior remedial teacher attached to Cheshire local education authority's peripatetic reading service. Joan realised Iain was bright; and tried, in her phrase, "every conceivable approach" to help this clever 10-year-old who had a reading age of six.

Iain latched on most to a multi-sensory approach to reading, but Joan reckoned his sheer motivation to learn was the important factor. Iain remembers it differently: "Mrs Davies gave me time and treated me like a human being, " he said, "and she abandoned completely the re-inforcement and drill and practice techniques that I'd always been given before. With these, I was just being given things I'd already failed in - and, because it was more of the same, I just failed more and more. So they just thought I was thick."

Joan's perseverance helped Iain's reading age to leap three years in his last year at junior school - and helped him obtain a place at Neston Comprehensive as a mainstream pupil. She also put off her retirement by a year to make sure she could continue to support Iain through his first year there, going into the school weekly for a couple of intensive half hours with him, and making sure the subject teachers understood the nature of his dyslexia.

Luck also played its part. The first maths work in Iain's secondary career was space and shape, an area someone so gifted in spatial concepts found easy. In this subject, Iain obtained 95 per cent and came in the top five of the whole school year: Joan's assessment of Iain was proving triumphantly right.

Indeed, at about the same time, Iain scored 136 and 50 on different types of IQ tests. A sharp intelligence was at work. It just didn't happen to be working in the linear sequential areas on which most of our education system is based.

Iain ended up taking A-levels, passing design easily, but just failing on maths, where his inability to read the questions properly (not being allowed, at A-level, any reading assistance) was more important as the final performance indicator than his actual ability at the subject.

With his one A-level, he entered, as a special case, an art foundation course where he flourished. "It was wonderful," he said. "I didn't have to read a book the whole year. In fact, the only book I've ever read all the way through was the BBC Basic Manual which I worked through, page by page, when I did computer studies at O-level".

He has ended up in multimedia, and chose his degree course, at Staffordshire University, because he'd seen, on a visit there, a couple of Macintosh suites. Iain's gifts are ideally suited to computer graphics, because he combines high visual flair with an equal ability in systems thinking. In our unit, he is the acknowledged expert on Lingo, the language underpinning the multimedia authoring program Director.

"Multimedia is perfect for me because it's non-linear, it's visual and it's logical. It plays completely to my strengths," Iain said. My only worry in telling this story is that Iain will, at some time or other, be head-hunted. His skills are bound to lead to success. But, the story needs telling for other reasons.

Iain might be exceptional in our unit because of his dyslexia, but it is undeniably the case that many of those working alongside him have the same combination of great visualisation techniques and relatively poor traditional academic skills. Yet, each of them, and Iain in particular, is eminently equipped for vocational success well into the next century.

The question is obvious and rhetorical. When we are again talking about basic skills, are we actually thinking of the skills for the future - or are we locked into a framework of skills that was seen as necessary for the last, and not the next, generation of learners?

When I watch Iain working through the maths package he is creating, he naturally turns to the calculator every time he needs to work through those simple areas of computation that still confuse him. Similarly, every time he writes he uses the spell checker. Iain is liberated by the new technologies - in that they allow him to get by (and with ease) in some of the areas that have troubled him.

But - and this is the paradox - would he, with his contemporary skills, have made it through in the present generation? After all, Joan Davies is not only now retired - the unit in which she worked has been shelved.

I'll leave almost the last word to Joan. She told me that when she received from Iain, a year ago, the picture of him on his graduation day, she was tempted to send it on to those old teacher colleagues who had categorised the young pupil as slow and lazy. "Look," she wanted to say, "this is your stupid boy!"

I will only add one point. The next century is in great need of many Iains, lots of young people with visualisation skills who could find countless outlets for their talents in a world crying out for them.

But, in the years to come, who on earth is going to notice them? Who's going to want them in their school at all, as they remorselessly let down the institution in league tables? Who's going to be interested in their creative skills - that are, remember, one of the key engines of the new technological age - when their spelling and their sums are so poor?

Maybe I should finish this piece with a scream. But, fortunately perhaps, I don't have the time because I'm off to Iain's wedding reception where I shall have a drink with him, his wife, his mother and father; and, if I have the chance, I'll propose a toast.

"To Joan Davies and the LEA support services. They were always needed and always will be."

Peter Fowler heads the Learning Methods Unit at Liverpool John Moores University

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