The Advantage of Disadvantage


A new book by one of my favorite non-fiction authors is out and I am absorbed in it! This is not a children’s book, but it’s nice to stir things up a bit.

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell is proving to be just as good as his previous books. And as usual, the content makes me re-evaluate all my preconceived notions about my students and the way we educate them. 

Think of the students you teach. You know them well enough to know the specific things they grapple with: learning disabilities, loss of a parent, dyslexia, etc. What if those things are their greatest asset? What if some of those students can become better BECAUSE OF the difficulty, not in spite of it?

I am a huge advocate of reading. Read often. Read early, Read well. I read to my students everyday, and stretch out reading time for as many minutes as possible. But. As much as I believe in the power of reading, I also know exactly which kids will deeply struggle with it for a long time. What about them? What about carving out room for the skills that come easily to them?

“Most of us gravitate toward the areas in which we excel. The child who picks up reading easily goes on to read even more, becomes even better at it, and ends up in a field that requires a lot of reading . . . and on and on in a virtuous circle.”

Student who are not good readers are developing OTHER skills, just as powerful.

“Desirable difficulties have the opposite logic …”

That opposite logic is that a child with dyslexia is forced every day to compensate. They have no choice but to find OTHER ways of doing what needs to be done. They survive the school system without being able to read fluently, but they become devastatingly good at listening and talking and remembering. They know how to think around a situation and make it work for them. Could a teacher or a parent give a kid that kind of intense motivation. I don’t think so.

“What is learned in necessity is inevitably more powerful than that which comes easily.

As parents and educators, of course we want our kids to learn the art of persuasion or to think outside the box.

“But a normal, well-adjusted child has no need to take these lessons seriously.”

Think about it. The very skills we work so hard to teach are learned instinctively and with great effort by children who grapple with things like dyslexia.

“If you get A’s in school, you never need to figure out how to negotiate your way to a passing grade, or to look around the room as a nine year old and start strategizing about how to make it through the next hour.”

Disadvantages are the perfect preparation.

Re-think. Take another look. We are always seeking out our students’ strengths—it could be that their struggles fit in that category as well.