Understanding Profiles of Students with Learning Disabilities: Puzzles or Mysteries?

Photo by Evgeni Dinev


In his book “What the Dog Saw,” based on a collection of his essays and New Yorker articles, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about the notion of Puzzles and Mysteries. Gladwell encouraged us to discern whether a problem or challenge to be solved was a puzzle or a mystery.

What about kids with learning disabilities?  Is understanding a student’s learning profile, stemming from an evaluation of information processing, cognitive skills, and achievement strengths and weaknesses, a puzzle or a mystery?

A puzzle, according to Gladwell’s and national-security expert Gregory Treverton’s definition, is something that is solved when there’s enough clear information. The key to solving a puzzle comes through the reporter and the reporting of the information. Given enough data, a puzzle gets solved. Determining Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts was a puzzle, and once enough information was given, puzzle solved. How Iraq would evolve after the fall of Saddam Hussein was anyones’s guess, and still a mystery. With mysteries, too much information can cloud understanding. With the fall of Enron, the giant energy company, the information was there ahead of time. That company released thousand of pages of financial information that should have but didn’t, alert the authorities, even though it was right in front of their faces. In fact there was so much information it hid the truth.

What about Learning Profiles? We’ve become better at giving tests and evaluations that help us understand the nuances of information processing. We’re becoming experts on categorizing the data that comes from these evaluations and with ever increasing precision, describing the profile as Dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADD, and the like.

Understanding how individual children and teenagers will cope with and respond to their individual circumstances is much more difficult to understand. Which kids with learning disabilities will turn to drugs and alcohol? Who will turn their anger inward? Who will turn their adverse circumstances and challenges into food for success and then thrive?

I know we can, and most likely will, apply more information to these questions, and we might be tempted to think that as a result, we automatically get better at providing the right interventions and predicting outcomes.  But it’s not always that simple. You might suppose for example, that a child from a wealthy family will stand a better chance to succeed in school, or that providing Orton-Gillingham training or another best practice to a child or teenager with reading difficulties will definitely give that kid a leg up. With enough intervention hours and enough improvement, will self-esteem issues disappear?

It doesn’t always work out that way.

One of the keys to making headway in providing holistic interventions and support, as well as predicting trajectories, may be in recognizing  that these questions are both a puzzle and a mystery.

Mysteries are understood and dependent upon more than logic and more than sequential reasoning.

Mysteries are dependent on stripping away some of the excess “information” to find essence. Steve Jobs and Jon Ive of Apple understood on a design and product level, that simplicity can mean deep understanding and expression of the essence of excellence for a particular machine. In terms of kids with LD, this doesn’t mean discarding or dumbing down our understanding of IQ scores, achievement levels, or processing weaknesses; it may mean adding what’s thought of as right brain processing, intuition, and deep listening (both verbally and non-verbally). It means opening up to the mystery and diversity of cognitive processing, and our gut about what makes a particular child tick, their essence, and the psychological forces that impact both the observed and the observer.

Puzzle or mystery?

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
This entry was posted in Books and Videos, Education Issues and Ideas, Learning Disabilities and Mental Health. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Understanding Profiles of Students with Learning Disabilities: Puzzles or Mysteries?

  1. educator says:

    As a tutor, I find that there are several conditions that are often misdiagnosed as learning disabilities. It happens a lot with children who are hands on learners, and with children who suffer from Sotopic Syndrome.

  2. Airplane simulator games says:

    Does this site have a page on Facebook?

  3. Lila Gedye says:

    Awesome writing style!

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