The Controversies of Learning Disabilities And A Flawed Schooling System: Are You Smart?

This article delves into the studies of learning disabilities (LD) as well as traditional schools’ effectiveness of teaching and preparing adolescents for future success. And to speak on my experience with this, I have a story about a moment that changed my life.

A specific learning disorder, according to IDEA, is defined as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, in which a disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.

Growing up, I was never a smart kid. And when I say smart I am referring to the standard definition that society has agreed upon. Today, to be smart means to hold vast knowledge which is measured through grades in traditional schooling.

On one hand, we do need an agreed-upon way of measuring intelligence because the world is a competitive place, and people are fighting for similar employment opportunities, leadership positions, and so on. We need a way to identify the most qualified to properly allocate human resources accordingly. However, are grades outdated?

With up to 10 percent of the population affected by specific learning disabilities, we are essentially hindering 10 percent of the population from reaching their full potential. Mathematically speaking, if 10 percent of people were taught to leverage their strengths, at least a handful of them would have invented products that could revolutionize society, and raise the standard of living. Some could have been a modern-day Pablo Picasso or Steven Spielberg but were not supported by our school system, so they couldn’t harness their potential.

An individual’s adolescent years are arguably the most vital years of their life. It is when they build confidence, self-esteem, and learn skills that are vital to future success and well-being. Adolescence also represents a vital time window of neural plasticity when parts of the brain are still maturing. This preliminary neurodevelopment shapes an individual’s cognitive ability which can greatly affect their ability to learn down the road.

If an individual grows up believing that they are not smart because of a single criterion of measurement it endangers their potential. There is a common ideology that everyone is born with the potential to be intelligent at something which is supplementary to their learning styles, physiology, and innate interests.

Einstein’s quote reminds us to think twice before measuring ourselves (and others) against inappropriate standards.

In a parallel universe where the standard criteria of intelligence are based on one’s creativity and artistic ability, those succeeding would be opposites to the ‘smart’ people in our society. Even Einstein, who is notorious for being one of the smartest humans said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” The reality is that the founders of every company in the Fortune 500 would not have succeeded without creativity — which is an under-appreciated asset within the school community, and yet extremely valued in the workforce.

The school-intelligence correlated society has strongly contributed to the uprise in controversies such as the over-diagnosis of ADHD, traditional school systems discouraging creativity, the correlation between dyslexia and intelligence, the extrovert-centered schooling system, and others. In fact, many successful entrepreneurs including Virgin founder, Richard Branson credits his ADHD to his success in business.

Business magnate Elon Musk leveraged his creativity and unique learning ability into creating Paypal, SpaceX, Tesla, the Boring Company, and Neuralink amongst others. He has publicly spoken out against traditional schooling, saying that in hiring he emphasizes ability and knowledge over institutional credentials.

Growing up Elon Musk bared little attention in class, just enough to pass. He learned the subjects taught in school very well, but spent little time preparing for tests. He preferred spending his time learning through books, and he continues this habit today.

When he founded PayPal, he knew nothing about banking, so he read books on the subject and surrounded himself with experts in the field — from professors to experienced bankers. When he started SpaceX, he had no idea how to build a rocket, so he studied a soviet rocket manual along with books on rocket propulsion elements, and the fundamentals of astrodynamics. He even moved to California to surround himself with the smartest people in the industry. Elon then hired people smarter than him and would quiz them on their space and rocket science knowledge until he understood 90% of their expertise. He was able to teach himself rocket science and today is the chief designer for one of the largest private space exploration companies in the world.

In a 2015 interview, Elon said “regular schools weren’t doing the things that I thought should be done” so he decided to build a better educational program for his own children after being dissatisfied with the elite private schools they were attending.

The American Developmental Psychologist, Howard Gardener described NINE (yes, nine) types of intelligence in 1983:

  1. Verbal-linguistic intelligence well-developed verbal skills and sensitivity to the sounds, meanings and rhythms of words.
  2. Logical-mathematical intelligence ability to think conceptually and abstractly, and capacity to discern logical and numerical patterns.
  3. Spatial-visual intelligence capacity to think in images and pictures, to visualize accurately and abstractly.
  4. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence ability to control one’s body movements and to handle objects skillfully.
  5. Musical intelligences ability to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch and timber.
  6. Interpersonal intelligence capacity to detect and respond appropriately to the moods, motivations and desires of others.
  7. Intrapersonal intelligence capacity to be self-aware and in tune with inner feelings, values, beliefs and thinking processes.
  8. Naturalist intelligence ability to recognize and categorize plants, animals and other objects in nature.
  9. Existential intelligence sensitivity and capacity to tackle deep questions about human existence such as, “What is the meaning of life? Why do we die? How did we get here?”

Gerald Coles, an educational psychologist had an article published in the American Medical Association in reference to his book, The Learning Mystique: A Critical Look at “Learning
Disabilities” where he lambastes the entire LD field. He goes on to say that our schooling system has a “linguisto-centric” view of thinking. “Our present verbally oriented schools should not prevent geniuses with visual or other forms of thinking from achieving their full potential. Indeed, the total thinking power of even an average person can also be expanded”. They go on to mention that dyslexia among other so-called disabilities may actually be unrecognized assets.

The whole premise is that the school system does not attend to all learning styles and personalities, hence failing to nurture a significant portion of our society.

This was my learning disability-an inability to make sense of a representational world, a world in which an object as named was more important than the object itself.

Patricia A. Dunn, Utica College of Syracuse University

My Experience

I can’t remember a time in my life where I exceeded in school. My grades have always been average or below, and I have never been taught to harness the strengths I have and to be aware of my weaknesses. So my bad grades congruent with reinforcement from my peers, teachers, and family instilled in me a limitation to my potential and led me to believe my whole life that I was utterly unintelligent.

My last year of high school and into my first two years of university is when I began immensely self-educating. While I was predominantly studying business, I found myself gaining interest in things I never had before. While I was in school, classes such as math, history, and sciences were a burden to my life. In these subjects, my confidence has always been low and I struggled to grasp certain concepts.

As of today, I have spent countless hours on free educational websites and books learning about these topics with enthusiasm when I never thought I would. I became so interested in learning that for the first time in my life, I began seeing myself as cultivated, to the point where I knew things about business that my professor did not. While I do not consider myself a genius, I am recognizing the potential of my unique abilities and intelligence with a newfound confidence to learn.

A profound moment happened to me recently while I was at work. My boss would often come to me when he wanted a task completed. I would always follow his instructions attentively, but if I saw a more efficient way of solving something, I would take initiative and do it my way. So one day after completing a task for my boss, who is relatively strict and is not known for his compliments, he asked me why I was working this job. He then told me that he thought I was a smart kid and that he thought highly of me.

I cannot express how baffled I was to hear that, especially when my coworker is a successful engineer who has a master’s and has worked for Snapchat, and two other Fortune 500 companies yet had not received the same praise from our boss.

I had never received such a sincere compliment about being smart and it was extra special coming from him, being the type of person he is. His compliment gave me a huge confidence boost and reinforced my newly developed perception of my own intelligence and learning ability. It was external confirmation that my new learning systems are working for me.

The reason I am sharing this story with you is because I know there are many people like me who have never met societal intelligence standards, but you can and should find what works for you and leverage that.

With my new learning techniques, I have gone back to learn topics I never fully grasped in high school as well as teaching myself tertiary material. Only this time… I‘m learning it my way.

Here’s More:

Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy revolutionized education as we know it. Khan created the largest free online education program with the subjects of math, art, computer programming, economics, physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, finance, history, and more.


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Technical University of Munich (TUM). “Harnessing ADHD for business success: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) promotes entrepreneurial skills.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 9 March 2017. <>.

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2020). Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from

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Coles, Gerald. “Learning Disabilities: The Controversy .” The WAC Clearinghouse, 1991,

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