The world's greatest underachiever?

The actor Henry Winkler (famous for his role as 'The Fonz' in the 1970s American TV series Happy Days) says he felt like a failure at school because of his dyslexia. He is quite critical of the traditional school system. 'It's easier to herd children than to treat them as individuals' he says, and recalled that he himself had felt as though he was a failure when he was told he 'would never achieve'. Labelling is an awful thing, but he is positive, saying that 'school does not define who you are.'

In his busy schedule, Winkler can still find time to work supporting children with dyslexia. Together with his partner Lin Oliver, he has even written a book series about his own alter-ego - a school boy with dyslexia called Hank Zipzer. 12 year-old Henry 'Hank' Zipzer is 'the world's greatest underachiever' and has many hilarious experiences at school. The series is funny, fantastic and fast moving and captures what it's like to live inside the head of a student with dyslexia. It also portrays exactly what is wrong - and right - about schooling. Hank is easily distracted but has a vivid imagination. He just experiences a blockages between his mind and the page. As he says - 'I have a lot of ideas, it's just difficult getting them down onto the page.' The irony is clear to see in the books and the TV series that now shows on BBC's children's channel CBeebies.

The school system is biased toward assessment that relies on students writing. Hank's dyslexia makes it difficult for him to complete his essay on what he did on his summer holidays, and he becomes very anxious even thinking about writing and reading. In the summer, he and his family visited Niagara Falls, so he creates a scale working model of his holiday instead, including a fully functioning waterfall. Needless to say, it all goes disastrously wrong, and as a punishment he has to read his essay out in front of the entire school. He triumphed when he gains his confidence, showing that he really can communicate - just not in the conventional way the school is expecting. The story is funny, but the message is clear -  learning can be expressed in many forms, so why can't school systems be more flexible and allow a variety of different methods of assessment?

Here's the first episode, introducing Henry and his school chums.  I bet you'll really enjoy it.

Photo by BBC Television

Creative Commons License
The world's greatest underachiever? by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Michele Ricci said…
I guess that most of the systems are not flexible as the mass of teachers might not have the skills or interst or motivation or ideas to invent new assessments.....
Steve Wheeler said…
I think that's part of the problem Michele, but even when teachers do attempt to innovate and introduce new methods of assessment, they often meet a brick wall of opposition - 'that's not the way we do it around here', or 'that will not be accepted by the examination board...'
Steve Turnbull said…
When I was a lecturer in media and journalism I introduced 'fill in the gap' concept maps as an alternative mode of assessment and it was commended by the external. I've since moved into apps development so I don't know if this kind of approach has been adopted elsewhere?

Popular Posts