Passive and Sedentary Activities: Misnomers that Perpetuate Anti-Tech Bias and Punish Dyxlexic Learners

If something is passive or sedentary can it be an activity? I’ll let you parse that one. It’s probably better to call it a pastime. 

I think one of the main fears people have in acknowledging the reality of dyslexia is then having to cope with the possibility that reading will never be an enjoyable activity for those who have it. And, as everyone, from Stephen R. Covey to President Truman, have noted, reading is one of the greatest keys to success. Well, if dyslexics can’t read, then they can’t become successful…right? Wrong!

That kind of illogical leap is what philosophers call a syllogism. It assumes success is only possible if reading is present, but the truth is folks with dyslexia can be successful without ever having read a book. 

“But won’t they have to rely on those nasty alternatives: music and videos?”

Jeez.

Even though we pay lip service to a well-rounded education, the messages we send with testing, curriculum, and other adult-created media is that reading well and testing well are the true measures of success. In other words, most gates to greater opportunity, are barred by some kind of written exam. 

In the meantime, there are national campaigns to promote reading. I see it on billboards, in commercials, and in public programming like Reading Rainbow, as if this will somehow fix the problem that millions of school-age children with dyslexia are performing way below grade-level. 

After years of hearing this stuff, it’s not too hard to imagine why people with dyslexia get the wrong idea about success and whether their contribution is valued. Given their difficulty in language processing, many turn to the arts or recreational endeavors as outlets for their intelligence, and in the U.S. we don’t place a particularly high level of praise on those pursuits as areas of personal and professional achievement. If you say you’re an artist people look at you like “Oh, you must be broke.” My husband is an outdoor educator, and when I tell people that, I get a blank stare. 

We’ve basically been told our entire lives that reading is an active pastime that stimulates the imagination, while other forms of media, or sources of information, are passive and sedentary and, therefore, not good. This is ridiculous to me, because I love to read, and if I gave free reign to my gluttonous reading habit, I’d never leave the house. How sedentary and passive is that?! 

On the other hand, my husband learns best by watching someone do something, and then trying to do it himself. He can’t simply read about it and then do it. I can’t even read about it and do it. I suck at a lot of stuff that he’s just naturally good at. But, if he can watch a YouTube video on how to fix an engine, he can go out into the garage and do it in real life…and he does. That doesn’t seem passive or sedentary. Maybe he’s had more time to develop the skills because he wasn’t reading and filled the gap with other stuff. Maybe he is gifted because his brain left out reading and made more space for other talents. I don’t know. 

“Well, isn’t he missing the rich emotional, intellectual, and spiritual landscape of literature?” 

I’m not so sure. I had to read books to understand basic things about compassion, equity, human nature, and other stuff literature is supposed to help us understand. Curtis already gets all that, because he’s out having relationships with people and the environment. He doesn’t need to read about it, because he’s experiencing it. He takes in so much more from his environment than I do. I get so stuck in the sequence of things and tune everything else out. 

This comes in handy when I need to focus in order to accomplish something, but it’s a real liability in a high-stakes setting where you have to be aware of a big stage with lots of players…you know…like in a marriage. I quickly get into hot water because I get too deeply focused on one detail. This is in spite of my being able to read well, a skill that supposedly makes me ‘smart’ and ‘successful’.

“Well, what if he changes his mind and wants to become a doctor, attorney, or engineer?”

No problem. With audiobooks, speech-to-text, FaceTime, and other technologies, he has enough support that his language processing deficit is manageable. 

In essence, what I’m saying is that all there is to experience in life is accessible to people with dyslexia so long as they have the proper accommodation. I think a good film adaptation is just as valid an experience as reading the book itself, and we needn’t privilege one over the other. Both can be active and imaginative endeavors, and are a small part of a well-balanced learning lifestyle that usually (at least in the U.S.) lacks far more in physical and creative activity such as people with dyslexia are capable of, and excel at. 

Here’s what I really don’t want to see happen: Parents and teachers abandoning helpful technologies because they’re afraid of the technology shaming of judgy moms and teachers who don’t understand that reading is so difficult it can’t be enjoyable for most people with profound dyslexia. My husband wishes desperately that he could read with ease and watches with envy when I plop down with a book and read for hours, but as much as he wants to read, reading is never enjoyable. It’s hard, hard work, a taxing neurological exercise that exhausts him by the end of the day even if he only had to respond to one email. 

I don’t worry about him using other aides to learning besides books. I don’t worry about anyone using alternatives, so long as they’re balanced.  Books and YouTube are both in the sedentary category, but if they’re balanced well with real-life activity, they can be an active part of learning.

So, before you toss your LeapPad or get rid of your Netflix subscription or put YouTube on the restricted website list, ask yourself these questions:

1) Are the media (books, videos, music,etc.) in direct conflict with our values?

2) Does he/she use these media to the exclusion of other healthy types of learning (like play, social interaction, and exercise)?

If you answered “yes”, the real problem here is content and quantity, not necessarily the media in and of themselves. 

In other words, don’t throw the baby out with the technological bath water. You’d be doing yourself the disservice of avoiding critical thinking and punishing students who learn differently. 

When the administration and the moms and the pseudoscience come at you with technology iconoclasm in their eyes, stand fast. Your students will thank you. And…in the meantime, foster a classroom culture of media balance, where reading and watching don’t come to have more value than getting out and actually doing stuff. 

Get out and do stuff! Our reading and watching are in vain if we never get up and apply what we learned.

If this post reaches even one person who’s struggling to make a decision about how or if to use screen technology in the teacher/student relationship, I’ll count my day successful. SO! Please share.

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