Review: Misunderstood Minds and an overview of learning differences

Having decided to write an article about different learning styles and then having realized I knew nothing about the topic, I conceded that a little bit of background reading would be more than helpful.  Lost on a discursive path of search results and suggested reading links, I ended up on a PBS-hosted website entitled Misunderstood Minds, a site devoted to the topic of children with learning differences. While I had admittedly become sidetracked from my original topic of visual vs spatial vs aural vs oral learners, I thought there would be some merit in perusing this site and immersing myself in new knowledge.

Misunderstood Minds certainly does immerse: visitors have access to a solid array of diverse content ranging from personal accounts and interactive demonstrations to more scientific, didactic essays and recommendations.  The site does succeed at providing  both basic overviews and specific information on cognitive function and possible treatment options, yet visitors may find that the Misunderstood Minds website focuses too much on the clinical and the educational and not enough on the social or the long-term, two topics which would have given a more holistic understanding of learning differences and those whom they affect.

The Misunderstood Minds website is a supplement to an eponymously-titled 2002 PBS documentary that tracks the lives of five young students and their families who grapple with learning differences.  The website provides detailed overviews of each family’s story – including students’ symptoms, courses of treatment, and subsequent results – and creates very textured, vivid portraits of life with a learning difference.  The human subjects are wrought with dichotomies: outgoing yet lonely, apt yet disorganized, eloquent speakers yet below-average test takers.  These details provide a complex, well-rounded view of the actual human beings confronting these conditions.

Excerpts from the documentary actually showing these human beings are surprisingly absent from the website, yet the blurbs on the website are powerful enough to stand alone.  Nathan’s difficulty in mapping letters to sounds highlighted the perils of choosing between assimilation in a standard program and isolation in a specialized program, between a lack of resources and an entire system of support.  Adam’s behavioral issues highlight the plight of isolated “resource rooms” where administrators confuse learning differences with mental illnesses and the repercussions of not seeking treatment at an earlier age.  That said, it is interesting to note how the website provides no indication about how the documentary’s subjects have fared since 2002, especially when it writes that “neurodevelopmental problems don’t go away, but they do not mean that a student (or an adult) cannot learn or progress in school and life.”  As such, the subjects remain frozen in time, and questions about the transition from children with learning differences to adults with learning differences are largely left unanswered (the website does describe Adam’s run-ins with the law and his failure to keep steady employment, but this speaks more to the perils of untreated learning differences than to how adults cope with their differences).  Moreover, the website fails to detail socio-economic barriers to treatment, such as limited access to care due to availability or cost.   Resultantly, the visitor receives a partial picture, at best, of the options that are – and, more importantly, are not – available for those whose lives are impacted by learning differences.

Besides these students’ tales, the website boasts thorough portals on conditions influencing attention-span and performance in reading, writing, and mathematics.  Namely, these sections highlight the underlying cognitive dimensions behind these conditions; break them down into component parts and isolate where problems may lie; and offer advice to educators and parents on boosting performance and morale. I was pleased to see how the website presented the viewers an entire set of categories and subcategories to describe learning differences; among those conditions that effect reading, for instance, some are centered on decoding, while others influence comprehension, while others still impact retention and/or information production.  These numerous differentiations may confuse someone seeking only the most basic information about learning differences, but I found them particularly useful in creating a nuanced picture of learning differences that refuses to treat them as generalized, homogeneous entities.

The plethora of activities on the website underscores the diverse nature of learning differences as visitors are invited to tackle math problems, read texts aloud, and follow listening queues in programs that mimic the experience for those affected. One might protest that these activities trivialize such experiences by quite literally transforming sources of frustration into fun and games, but what is much more important for visitors to retain, in my opinion, is the diverse nature of learning differences that these activities illustrate.  Even then, the website’s recommendations were somewhat disappointing in that they seemed to cater solely to parents and teachers of elementary-school aged children. What about specific pointers for adolescents’ families and educators?  Wouldn’t their needs be markedly different than those of a family with a third-grade girl with learning differences? Similarly, where is there advise on such non-academic issues as how do parents and teachers explain learning differences to siblings and peers? After all, children with learning differences do not exist in a vacuum.  What’s most glaring, though, was the lack of any advise (social, educational, or otherwise) for actual students with learning differences when – surrounded by taunting peers and ignorant teachers – they very well may have the biggest burdens of all to bear.  The website definitely does portray the nature of learning differences in a diverse light, which makes its narrowsightedness in recommendations all the more baffling.

In the end, Misunderstood Minds does give the non-initiated reader a solid footing in basic brain functions with learning differences and in various (medical, pedagogical, and situational) avenues for mitigating resultant difficulties. Even if such topics as socialization, healthy adulthood, student-targeted dialogue, and access to care may not receive the attention they duly warrant, Misunderstood Minds does do the ultimate service of destygmatizing learning differences for all those who visit.  Its simultaneous focus on the personal and the neurological unravel what is to many a great mystery, and by doing so, I would argue it restores dignity to those who have wrongfully been labeled as stupid, lazy, or uninspired all because of something beyond the reach of their control.


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