John McNamara, Ph.D., Brock University
Recently, researchers and educators have explored an interesting idea – that there may be distinct advantages to having learning disabilities. Within the field of business, the arts, entrepreneurship, and many other areas, there are numerous examples of individuals with learning disabilities who have reached tremendous levels of success. For instance, Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group of companies, considers his learning disability “his greatest strength.” At an early age Branson learned about the mechanics of his learning disability and adapted. He attributes his success in business to the skills he was forced to develop because of his learning disabilities.
“If anyone ever puts you down for having dyslexia, don’t believe them. Being dyslexic can actually be a big advantage, and it has certainly helped me.” – Sir Richard Branson
Branson describes his early school experiences as ones where he needed to fine tune “other skills” because he was so challenged with reading. Instead of focusing on reading he strengthened his skills in listening, keeping messages clear, and his leadership and delegation skills – all skills that helped him build his business empire.
David Bois, another example, is considered to be one of the prominent criminal lawyers in the United States. Bois was diagnosed with learning disabilities at a very early age and attributes his success as a legal negotiator to his early experience of having to rely on his listening and talking skills instead of his poor reading abilities. Individuals such as these are examples of individuals with learning disabilities who attribute their success to having learning disabilities. It is interesting to note that almost all of these individuals have succeeded in fields that rely on innovation, creativity, and ‘outside-the-box’ thinking. The success of these individuals is thought to be associated with the notion that they are using a type of neurological processing that may be unique to individuals with learning disabilities.
This idea above is based on important research evidence suggesting that individuals with learning disabilities, a presumed left-side neurological processing problem, tend to process information with the right side of the brain – even with tasks that should be processed with the left side (e.g. language). For decades it has been well understood that one of the primary areas of challenge for individuals with learning disabilities is phonological processing – a brain-based process associated with reading. From a neurological perspective, it has been hypothesized that phonological processing difficulties are associated with functional deficits in the left hemisphere of the central nervous system (Shaywitz, Lyon, & Shaywitz, 2006). In other words, when reading, children with reading-based learning disabilities have less active left-brain processing compared to children without learning disabilities.
However, what has also been understood through fMRI brain scan technology is that when reading, individuals with reading-based learning disabilities have overly active right-brain processing. That is, their right brain is more active when reading compared to individuals without learning disabilities. It may be that during a reading task, individuals with reading disabilities are unconsciously over-compensating with their right-brains. Their right brains may be active because of their left-brain under activation. This is problematic in that right hemispheric processing is not overly effective for reading tasks. However, there may be another way of looking at this.
Individuals with learning disabilities, because of this left-hemispheric processing problem, tend to overuse their right hemispheric processing during reading tasks. In fact, Shaywitz et al. (2006) noted that the poorer the reader, the greater the activation in the right hemispheric region. And understanding that our brains work somewhat like muscles, in over-using their right hemisphere it may be that individuals with learning disabilities have strong well-developed right hemispheres. The finding around overcompensation in the right hemisphere in children with reading disabilities is not often attended to in either research or practice. However, more recently, the field has begun to ask important questions about this over activation (Eide & Eide, 2011). Specifically, researchers have begun to recognize the link between right hemispheric processing and creativity.
Research has begun to explore the neurophysiological underpinnings of creativity. Brain imaging studies have noted that the right regions of the central nervous system are consistently activated during tasks that require creative thinking (Beaty, 2015; Gonen-Yaacovi et al., 2013). Specifically, in tasks that engage creative thinking, the regions of the brain that are activated include the right inferior frontal gyrus, right posterior medial cortex, the right superior parietal lobule, the right dorsolateral frontal cortex, and the right frontopolar cortex (Abraham, et al., 2012; Binder, Desai, Graves, & Conant, 2009; Cappa, 2008; Fiebach, Friederici, Smith, & Swinney, 2007). Bridging these neurological findings with the field of learning disabilities, an important idea emerges. That is, individuals with reading disabilities, because of their neurological profile, might have access to creative problem-solving skills even more so than their typically achieving peers. This idea comes from two important concepts: first, that individuals with reading disabilities show a distinct right brain processing pattern when working with information, and second, that creative problem solving calls on right-hemispheric processing to be effective. The result of bringing together these two ideas is a notion that individuals with reading disabilities may have distinct advantages afforded to them around creativity by virtue of the overcompensation of their right-hemisphere while reading. In other words, children with reading disabilities may be neurologically endowed to succeed with creative problem-solving tasks because of their reading disability. This is not simply a play-on-words. Rather, this way of thinking represents an important shift. If children with reading disabilities are primed for creativity, it is important that all concerned stakeholders consider the strengths associated with having a reading disability.
To explore this idea further, the current study begins to explore creative problem solving in a small sample of children at-risk for reading disabilities. This study explores these ideas and the possibility that children with reading disabilities may have specific strengths associated with creativity and creative thinking. This study adopted a cross-sectional design measuring phonological awareness and creativity in a sample of children with reading difficulties. Participating children were assessed in their phonological awareness and creative problem solving.
Measures used in the study
The Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing (CTOPP) was developed by Wagner, Torgesen and Rashotte (1999) and provides assessment in phonological processing abilities in individuals 5 to 24 years of age. The CTOPP is an individually administered norm-referenced test designed to identify people who would benefit from instructional support in phonological processing. This study focuses on the two phonological subtests that comprise the CTOPP Phonological Awareness composite: Elision and Blending Words.
Elision is a 20-item subtest where the examinee listens to an orally presented word, says the word, listens to an orally presented sound in that word, removes that sound from the word, and says the resulting word. For instance, The CTOPP Elision subtest involves deleting a sound from a word (e.g., “Say drive without the /r/” = dive).
Blending Words is a 20-item subtest assessing the ability to combine sounds to form words. The examinee listens to orally presented individual sounds in a word, combines those sounds, and says the resulting word. For example, Blending Words involves identifying a word from its parts (e.g., “What word do these sounds make: /t/ /a/ /n/?” = tan).
Torrence Test of Creative Thinking
Measuring creative thinking has proved to be elusive for research within psychological frameworks. In other words, research has asked whether it is possible to assess one’s ability to think in ways that result in products or ideas that are novel and effective. One of the most widely used assessments for creative problem-solving is the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT) (Torrence 1974 as described in Fink, Benedek, Staudt & Neubauer, 2007). Specifically, the TTCT measures a set of narrowly defined creative thinking capacities. The TTCT creative thinking assessment calls for participants to solve ill-structured problems for which a variety of possible solutions can be found. In this study, the Figural subtest of the TTCT was administered to all participants. The TTCT-Figural consists of three activities: Picture construction, picture completion, and repeated figures of lines or circles. The tests were administered using the standard directions described by Torrance. Ten minutes of working time was provided for each subtest.
Data from the TTCT assessments was scored at the Scholastic Testing Service (STS). This is a standard scoring process associated with the TTCT. For each of the five figural subtests of the TTCT the STS provides information on raw scores, standard scores, grade-related norms, age-related norms, national and local percentile rank scores (US), and a checklist of creative strengths. As a first step to understanding creativity and phonological processing, means and standard deviations were calculated and are presented in Table 1.
|CTOPP PA Index||
Table 1. Means and Standard Deviations for the CTOPP and TTCT
In order to compare participants across age and grade, raw scores were computed as standard scores using the technical data from both the CTOPP and TTCT. The Elision and Blending raw scores were computed into a Phonological Awareness (PA) Index standard composite score. Comparisons were drawn using the PA Index composite score and the TTCT Average standard score along with all TTCT subtest standard scores. To visually demonstrate the differences between phonological awareness and creative thinking, Figure 1 illustrates children’s CTOPP PA Index score (orange) against their TTCT Creativity Index score and the corresponding TTCT subtests scores (blue).
Figure 1: CTOPP average compared to all TTCT scores.
In addition to the general analyses, it was important to consider examples of individual children in their phonological awareness and creativity. Exploring individual examples of particularly creative children with learning disabilities speaks to the idea that children with learning disabilities may have creative strengths that are in advance of typically achieving children. This idea holds important implications for all stakeholders.
Within the study’s sample, there were several children who had below average phonological awareness scores and creativity scores that were in average limits. For example, Participant A’s phonological awareness and creativity profiles are illustrated in Figure 2. Participant A is an example of a child who demonstrated lower phonological awareness scores and average creativity scores.
|Achievement Profile||TTCT Drawing|
|CTOPP PA Index 76
Elision (raw) 8
Blending (raw) 6
TTCT Average 96
Figure 2. Participant A profile
Participant A’s CTOPP standard scores equated to percentile rank scores of 12 (PA Index), 16 (Elision) and 9 (Blending). Participant A’s creativity percentile rank scores were significantly different from the CTOPP scores and often well above average, 37 (Average), 5 (Fluency), 18 (Originality), 74 (Titles), 92 (Elaboration), and 27 (Resistance). Of particular note are Participant A’s exceptionally high scores in Titles and Elaboration.
However, in addition to participants with average creativity profiles, there were also children who had lower phonological profiles with creativity profiles that were above average. Two examples of such profiles are illustrated below.
Participant B is an example of a child with low phonological awareness and exceptionally high creativity. Participant B’s phonological awareness and creativity profiles are illustrated in Figure 3. Along with the profile is one of Participant B’s creativity drawings.
|Achievement Profile||TTCT Drawing|
|CTOPP PA Index 76
Elision (raw) 5
Blending (raw) 13
TTCT Average 108
Figure 3. Participant B profile
Participant B’s CTOPP standard scores equated to percentile rank scores of 5 (PA Index), 1 (Elision), and 25 (Blending). Participant B’s creativity percentile rank scores were significantly discrepant from the CTOPP scores and often well above average, 70 (Average), 41 (Fluency), 32 (Originality), 90 (Titles), 95 (Elaboration), and 37 (Resistance). Of particular note are Participant B’s exceptionally high scores in Titles and Elaboration.
|Achievement Profile:||TTCT Drawing|
|CTOPP PA Index 68
Elision (raw) 3
Blending (raw) 8
TTCT Average 108
Figure 4. Participant C profile
Participant C’s CTOPP standard scores equated to percentile rank scores of 8 (PA Index), 9 (Elision), and 16 (Blending). Participant C’s creativity percentile rank scores were significantly discrepant from the CTOPP scores and often well above average, 70 (Average), 46 (Fluency), 70 (Originality), 85 (Titles), 77 (Elaboration), and 49 (Resistance). Like Participant B, it is important to note the particularly high scores in Titles and Elaboration.
Growing up Creative: Implications for children with learning disabilities
The purpose of this study was to explore the creative thinking skills of children with learning disabilities. In general, the results support the idea that many children with learning disabilities have creativity profiles that are discrepant from their phonological awareness profiles. The sample of children in this study often demonstrated significantly below average phonological awareness skills and creativity skills that were within average limits. In several cases, participants had creativity skills that were well above average.
The individual analyses were meant to explore specific examples of children at-risk for reading disabilities in their creative thinking skills related to their phonological awareness skills. The examples provide important implications for all stakeholders concerned with supporting children at-risk for reading disabilities. Participant A demonstrated lower phonological awareness skills and commensurately was a struggling reader (noted anecdotally). However, Participant A demonstrated creative thinking skills that were within average limits. Participants B and C also demonstrated below average phonological awareness skills in the low range, but creative thinking skills that were in the high-average range. It is important to note that within the sample there were children whose creative thinking and phonological awareness profiles that were not as discrepant as Participants A, B or C, however in general this pattern was evident for most of the children in the sample.
The results of this study hold important implications. Children at-risk for reading disabilities tend to overuse their right hemispheric processing during reading tasks, holding to the theory of neural-sculpting, it follows that their right hemispheres should be well developed. As such, children at-risk for reading disabilities, with their distinct neurological profiles, may be particularly primed to engage effectively in creative problem-solving tasks. The results of this study lend support to the idea that children with learning disabilities may indeed be indicating academic profiles that align with their neurological tendencies of right hemispheric strength.
The results of studies like this lend support to the idea that children with learning disabilities may have intellectual strengths that fall outside traditional pathways. As indicated early in this article, Edie and Edie (2011) suggest that there may be distinct advantages to having learning disabilities. They cite numerous examples of individuals with dyslexia who have reached tremendous levels of success. The success of these individuals is thought to be associated with the notion that they are using a type of neurological processing that is not otherwise used in academic tasks. Individuals such as these are examples of individuals with learning disabilities who attribute their success to actually having learning disabilities.
Another important implication of this study centers on the idea that children today should be prepared to consider jobs and careers that extend beyond traditional learning pathways. “Sixty-five percent of today’s preschoolers will grow up to work in jobs or pursue careers that don’t yet exist” (Kielberger, 2017, Huffington Post). To meet the demands of jobs that do not yet exist, educational systems need to think forward. Traditionally, education curriculum models have traditionally been designed to teach basic skills focused around literacy, mathematics, science, and traditional arts and music and have not focused enough on promoting skills around creativity and creative problem solving. However, it may be hypothesized that our current educational models are becoming unaligned with current social and economic outlooks. Following this, in order to succeed in future job markets, children will require skills and techniques that extend beyond traditional learning pathways. This extension may include providing children with creative thinking skills. Children with learning disabilities, because of their distinct neurological profiles, may be primed to succeed in such environments. By allowing children, particularly those with learning disabilities, to develop and build their creative problem solving skills, we will be setting them up to succeed in a creative society. There are several specific and concrete tactics and strategies that can be incorporated into a classroom environment that promote creativity and creative problem solving. Although a thorough implementation strategy for these tactics is beyond the scope of this thesis, it is important that educators continue to provide children with learning disabilities with creative thinking tactics, such as differentiated instruction, creative leadership, and outside-the-box thinking. Growing up creative is an important idea and the results of this thesis lend support to the notion that children with learning disabilities may be particularly adept at creative thinking.
“Today educators consider it the highest expressions of learning. Psychologists consider it the highest form of self-actualization. Business executives consider it the most critical characteristics of leadership in the 21st Century. While creativity may once have been considered a pleasant novelty, today creative problem solving is a 21st century survival skill. As technology takes over routine jobs, our professional and personal success depends on it” (Mandate from the Buffalo State International Centre for Studies in Creativity).
As we move further into the twenty-first century, our society is becoming increasingly aware of the importance of creative thinking. Several new and innovative postsecondary programs such as Buffalo State’s program in creativity are acknowledging the critical importance of preparing students to succeed in a creative world. Policy around supporting and promoting creativity and creative thinking is beginning to emerge. Internationally, several countries have begun to develop provincial and national policy around supporting creativity and creative thinking in schools and the workplace. For instance, in the United Kingdom, the Department of Education partnered with the National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education to develop and publish a report called All Our Futures: Creativity Culture and Education (2006). The report emphasizes that all children and young people can benefit from developing their creative abilities and that curriculum around creativity should be seen as a general function of education. The report also recommends that creativity could be developed in all areas of the school curriculum. The results of the current study support these types of policy initiatives. Growing up creative in today’s society can be an important and useful skill. This study aimed to promote the idea that children with learning disabilities may be inherently advantaged in creativity and creative thinking. It is important that all stakeholders concerned about supporting children with learning disabilities work to recognize their inherent strengths and provide opportunities for these children to thrive.
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