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Page Two of Learning Differently


Along with the need to make the sounds in the correct order, there’s the difficulty that some children have with the concept of left and right. They are accustomed to a world where there are verities like the fact that the sun always rises in the east and sets in the west. These are external parameters that remain fixed, no matter which way one is facing. The self is like an eye roving around in this fixed reality. For many children, it is not easy to understand that left and right are not the same sort of constants. The concept of left and right makes the human body, not the external world, the fixed point of reference. That’s why “left” and “right” change when you turn around. Both concepts of the world seem valid, but there’s no question that our educational system prefers to keep things neatly on the side of the body as fixed eye, with the rest of the environment labeled, changeably, as to its left or right.

Not only does reading depend on one’s ability to grasp left/right: mathematical equations cannot be written without it.

I think of children who have difficulty with directional concepts like left/right or letter reversals as children on whom gravity sits lightly. Most of us are like an audience that sits and watches a parade march by in sequence, enjoying the patterns and images. However, there are those among us whose minds are like little boys who cannot sit still, who must jump up and run along in and out and through the parade, looking up at the tubas, following behind the drum major, running across the street to see the clown from the other side.

The minds of divergent learners seem not to be tied down to a static center. Their perception of the world is different in the same way a holograph is different from a photograph.

Children whose intelligence is perfectly marvelous are often labeled “slow” and dropped from academic expectations because their brains are wired differently from the norm. We need to explore more ways to teach these children on whom gravity sits lightly. We need to value their intelligence. Some of the great, creative minds of history have been divergent learners and thinkers.

Our schools are simply not set up for them. Some students with learning differences are bright enough to get along, earning poor grades and driving their teachers crazy, but being promoted anyway. Some simply give up and march lockstep, memorizing facts and hiding their differences. Einstein didn’t perform particularly well in school. His genius became evident only when he was out on his own.

How can we change our educational system to accommodate these children? We need to learn how to reward their creativity, and harness their insights, and bolster their self-images in a world that’s not quite in step with them. Who knows what wonderful minds might come forth, given the right kind of encouragement?

I think about Leonardo da Vinci, whose mirror writing is well-known. Somehow, I doubt that whoever taught him to write said to him: “You are writing backward, stupid boy! Do it like this!” It’s quite possible that that teacher said something like: “Wow! That mirror writing is amazing! Show me how you do it.” What a foxy teacher that would have been! In helping young Leonardo to understand why others would have difficulty reading the backwards writing, he would lead the child to discover what needed to be changed so that others could read it. (Lest we grow too fond of my little fantasy, I should note that I believe that Leonardo was left handed, in which case he may have been writing from right to left simply so that his hand wouldn’t smear the ink, and cover what he’d just written. We’ll never know.)

It seems to me that there is a need for alternative curricula and/or individualized programs for children with learning differences. But first, we need to identify those children. We can begin by finding non-punitive, non-dismissive, non-excluding methods to do so. We can stop implying that these children are somehow defective, when they simply learn differently from the way our educational system considers normal.

There are many published tests used by preschools and elementary schools and psychologists, but my experience with very young children has led me to look for certain simple signs, among which are:

  • A child who seems clumsy (cannot kick a rolling ball, for instance) but who performs differently (seems well coordinated) in space off the ground, for example in water, or climbing trees
  • A child whose drawings are unusual in perspective or point-of-view
  • A child whose learning differences drive him/her to communicate what he/she knows in unusual, non-traditional ways (especially through art, music, drama, dance, sports, inventing)
  • A child who seems to know much more than the school’s reports indicate (and is therefore labeled an “underachiever”)
  • A child the teachers label as dreamy or lazy
  • A child who ignores the way everyone else is doing something, and simply forges ahead in his own way
  • A child who inverts letters (upside down letters). Reversing letters isn’t nearly as significant. Most young children reverse letters occasionally, but by the age of 9 or 10, the problem should correct itself. Upside down letters, however, seem to be significant even early-on
  • A child who can figure out the right answer, but can’t articulate the process which led to it
  • The child who displays poor organizational skills in some areas (“Assignment? What assignment? I didn’t have any assignment!”) but on his or her own pursues knowledge with great zest and his or her own kind of organization
  • The child who cannot sit still, and seems not to be listening, but who suddenly turns around and makes an on-the-nose observation, or gives an unusual but pertinent answer to the subject under discussion


These signs taken alone do not mean that a child will have trouble in school. She or he may do just fine, particularly if there is a lot of support from home. The world is full of divergent thinkers who endured school and who may even have liked school. It is the ones who suffer in school that I worry about. They are the ones who wake up each morning with a stomach ache, or claim to be too sick to go to school. They are the ones who duck their heads down and say “I’m stupid!” They are the ones who go to great lengths to cover up what they perceive as their inabilities. Surely with all the possibilities for individualized education in this modern age, we can do better by children who learn differently.

Page One of Learning Differently<<

Editor's Note: This is one of a series of articles that Julia has written titled Still Learning. Find them on her author's page.


Julia Sneden is a writer, friend, wife, mother, Grandmother, care-giver and Senior Women Web's Resident Observer.  Her career has included editorial work for Sunset Magazine, 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios as well as teaching. Julia is a passionate opponent of this country’s educational system, which she feels is floundering. She lives in North Carolina. jbsneden can be reached by email (at)



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